In both the Hebrew and the Greek canons of the Bible, the book of Joel appears in proximity to that of the eighth‐century BCE prophet Amos, a circumstance that is easily explained by the close correspondence between Joel 3.16–18 and Amos 1.2; 9.13. There can hardly be any doubt that this correspondence is the result of the dependence of the text of Joel on that of Amos; from internal evidence it seems clear that the book of Joel is the work of a late postexilic prophet who was indebted for his images and metaphors to the much older prophetic traditions to which he laid claim and in which he presumed to participate.

The Author and His Times.

We know nothing about the person of Joel (whose name means “Yahweh is God”) other than that he is identified as the son of an equally unknown Pethuel. All the knowledge that we can derive about him and his times comes from the examination of his prophecy. He is, on the one hand, much concerned with the proprieties of the Temple worship (1.9, 13–14; 2.14–16; etc.), a trait that connects him very closely with the anonymous prophet Malachi, who was possibly one of the very last to appear in the Judahite prophetic tradition. This trait, however, was by no means characteristic of preexilic prophecy of either Israel or Judah. Joel presupposes, therefore, the existence of a Temple—presumably the Second Temple of Zerubbabel, which came to be in the aftermath of the initial return from exile following the liberating decree of Cyrus the Persian after his defeat of the Babylonian empire in 539 BCE (Ezra 1.1–4). Furthermore, contrary to the picture drawn in the preexilic Deuteronomic history of Israel and Judah, so much concerned with kings and politics, and even contrary to that of the Chronicler's depiction of the period of Ezra and Nehemiah (ca. 458–443 BCE), when Judah and Jerusalem, still under the domination of the Persian empire, were regaining a relative political autonomy with a secular (although concomitantly religious) leadership of native governors (like Nehemiah), Joel's text seems to presuppose a polity not unlike that presupposed by Sirach (Sir. 50.1–24) or the book of Judith, where it is taken for granted that the political leadership of the Jews has, by default, devolved upon the high priesthood. Since there is no hint of a disruption in Joel of this peaceful coexistence between religion and alien domination, we are probably not far off the mark when we assign this work to the latter stage of the Persian period of Palestine, which was disrupted only by the conquests of Alexander the Great beginning in 333 BCE. These considerations would date Joel about 400 BCE.

Outline.

The book of Joel consists of two sharply distinguished parts. There is, first of all, the graphic and highly descriptive depiction of a locust plague and a drought (the Hebrew vocabulary for “locusts” is virtually exhausted in 1.4) that descends on Judah and Jerusalem, demanding of everyone, class by class, profession by profession, repentance and prayer as the price of the Lord's continual toleration of a recalcitrant people (1.2–2.27). In the second part (2.28–3.21 [3.1–4.21 in the Hebrew Bible]), the Day of the Lord is announced in apocalyptic language. There is a series of salvation prophecies: Judah and Jerusalem will be restored, Israel will triumph over her enemies, and the gentiles will be requited for their misdeeds.

Interpretation.

Is Joel a prophet of judgment (against Israel) or of salvation (of Israel in the face of its gentile enemies)? It is really difficult to say. Was the locust plague of the first verses an attempt to describe a real happening, as in Amos 7.1–3, or is it merely a literary device borrowed from the text of a prophetic predecessor? Is this plague a cloak for physical invasion of Israel or simply a symbol of national disintegration? Is the lifting of the plague potential or real? How much and to what extent is the repeated “Day of the Lord” intended to apply to Israel's future destiny and its relation to the gentile world? And by no means let us forget the outpouring of the spirit foretold by this prophet (2.28–32a) and the fulfillment that was discerned by New Testament writers seeking religious continuity (Acts 2.16–19). Whether Joel is to be considered a “cult” or “nationalist” prophet, a prophet of “judgment” or of “salvation,” are questions that truly indicate that we have not yet fully comprehended the phenomenon of Israelite prophecy.

Bruce Vawter, C. M.