Introducing the Book of Joel

We know nothing about Joel, not who, when, or where; and nothing about him can be deduced with certainty from the book (see compare prophetic headings). Older suggestions for the setting of Joel’s ministry and preaching—which vary widely—often were based on the dates of one or another known locust plagues in the ancient near east. In my reading the “locust” usually seems like poetic imagery of military judgment. Yet, in contexts like chapter 2 it looks like the “army” imagery could refer to armies of locust. The poetical nature of the oracles could be read either way.

The General Structure of the Book of Joel[1]

Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation” (1:2b, 3).

Prologue (1:1-3)

I           The Day of Doom (1:4-2:27 [1-2])

A         A call to mourn (1:4-20)

Locust swarms are a reoccurring image of judgment in the book of Joel. The initial occurrence runs parallel to the narrative of the locust plague in the book of Exodus (also see note on darkness below).

What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten (Joel 1:4).

For if you refuse to let my people go, tomorrow I will bring locusts into your country. They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land. They shall devour the last remnant left you after the hail, and they shall devour every tree of yours that grows in the field (Exod 10:4-5). 

The locust plague is poetically described as an invading army (see 1:6-7; 2:4-9; cf. Judg 6:4-6); consuming fire (1:19; 2:3, 5); lions (1:6); thieves (2:9); and even as dark clouds (2:2, 10). Though the metaphorical imagery of the locust may be depicting an invading army, the style of the simile in 2:4-9 may indicate that the army imagery is used to describe locust.

Note the inscription of Sargon II (722-705 bce) which shows effects of an invading army on a land: “The city of Ushkaia … [a]s if destroyed by a flood, I made its fields, like heaps, I made (lit. poured out) their settlements. The city of Aniashtania ... together with 17 cities of its neighborhood, I destroyed, I leveled to the ground; the large timbers of their roots I set on fire, their crops [and] their stubble I burned, their filled-up granaries I opened and let my army devour the unmeasured grain. Like swarming locusts I turned the beasts of my camps into its meadows, and they tore up the vegetation on which it (the city) depended; they devastated its plain.”[2]

B         The day of Yahweh’s judgment is near (2:1-11)

The day of Yahweh is significant in the book of Joel (1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14), and a leading theme in the book of the Twelve (as well as the other writing prophets). The day of Yahweh—often called “the day,” “that day,” and so forth—is the near intervention of God into the human realm. The day of Yahweh is the day of judgment and doom for the wicked. It is the day of salvation for which the faithful long.[3]

Darkness and gloom, and the darkness covering the sun and moon, is a reoccurring image through the book of Joel—“day of darkness and gloom” (2:2); “the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (2:10); “the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood” (2:31); “The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (3:15). The darkness is, like the locust plague, reminiscent of the terrors of God against the Egyptians to deliver his people. The difference with the wrath of God in the book of Joel is that it is coming against the rebellious people of God.

C         A call to repentance (2:12-17)

D         May Yahweh listen—the hope for a great reversal (2:18-27)[4]

2:19, 24    new wine and oil, 1:10

2:19           mockery of Judah removed, 2:17

2:20           invaders who brought desolation are driven into desolate lands2:2b-3

2:21           celebration replaces mourning, 1:8

2:22           the cattle will graze in green pastures, 1:18-20

2:22           orchards will bear fruit, 1:12

2:25           restoration of what the locust consumed, 1:4

2:26-27      praise of Yahweh displaces weeping and wailing, 1:5, 8, 11, 13

II         The Day of Deliverance (2:28-3:21 [3-4])

A         “Then afterward” (2:28-32)

B         “Then in those days, at that time” (3)

[1] Based on my own reading, and Theodore Hiebert, “Joel, Book of,” ABD, 3: 873-880; Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 385-94.
[2] D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia (University of Chicago Press, 1926-1927), 2: 85. Chisholm’s introduction explains the overlap between locust and military imagery, see “Joel,” BKC (Chisholm also cites part of the passage from Luckenbill).
[3] See Richard H. Hiers, “Day of the Lord,” ABD, 2: 82-82.
[4] List of connection between 2:18-27 and preceding context adapted from Hiebert, 3: 875.

Also see introduction to the prophets, and see bibliography on the prophets.

Copyright 2011