This week, we are studying a section of the prophet Joel, Joel 2:21-27, that describes divine restoration after devastation. The destruction itself is presented as a terrible “act of God” – “the day of the LORD” or “the day of the HOLY ONE.” The restoration is as complete as the devastation. Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The prophet Joel is one of “the twelve,” or “the minor prophets” – a label that refers to the length of the books, not the quality of their work. We are uncertain about when, in history, Joel writes. Commentators keep suggesting the period of the exile or the post-exilic period. That’s a fairly wide window. There seems to be a temple, or at least an altar, and priests, so that might incline us to think after people have returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia, and begun to re-establish that worship form.
We know he writes during, or maybe just before, an epic natural disaster.
The short book begins with the announcement of one disaster: a devastating invasion of locusts (Joel 1:4). Apparently, this follows on the heels of an already devastating drought. The descriptions of disaster in chapter 1 all have to do with dryness and crop failure. The priests don’t even have anything to offer as ritual offerings, the best they can do is put on sackcloth (Joel 1:13).
But then, at the opening of chapter 2, we are back to the terrifying prospect of the locusts. The prophet describes the invasion in frightening detail, invoking the people’s terror at the darkness of the unendurable “day of the HOLY ONE.” (Joel 2:1, 11)
[I have never seen locusts. They are still potentially devastating pests, most recently in 2020 in Africa. National Geographic has photos and diagrams of the locust life-cycle along with its description. NPR reports on the 2020 plague, plus some background on the insects. World Atlas answers 10 questions about locusts, especially contemporary ones, here. Michael Chan discusses the locusts in Joel – who may even be metaphorical, but are still terrifying.]
The voice of God calls the people to return and throw themselves on God’s mercy (Joel 2:12-17), with a final appeal to God’s honor, or perhaps to the relationship of the people’s honor to God’s: “Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (Joel 2:17).
The rest of chapter 2 – including our text – describes God’s restoration. As a restoration of the land, its crops, and water, it is really a restoration of life itself.
[Something to be aware of: Christian Bibles treat chapter 2 as having 32 verses. The Tanakh separates verses 28-32 as a separate chapter 3, with the final chapter being chapter 4. This probably does have a subtle effect on how we read the text. It certainly has a not-so-subtle effect on how we read commentaries on the text.]
Joel 2:21-27 is read on Thanksgiving, year B. Verses 23-32 are read in the season after Pentecost year C. We could have heard these verses in church, maybe even more than once. Our class studied some of these verses several years ago, too.
CLOSER READING: The turn towards restoration comes in verse 18, presented as God’s direct response to “the people.” This is presumably the urgent communal prayer and the priestly intercession of verses 12-17. We might notice that there are three components to the restoration: the removal of the locusts, the restoration of the produce of the land, and the removal of “mockery” (v19) or “shame” (vv26, 27). The shame seems to derive from the way it looks to others, “the nations,” like God has abandoned the people.
We pick up the thread in v21. The prophet announces good news to the soil, and to the beasts of the field. The devastation has been comprehensive – affecting the whole earth and all that dwells therein. Then also to the children of Zion, who are to be glad and rejoice (v23), in a precise echo of what the soil does in v21.
In v25, God’s “I will repay you” translates the root shalom – so, we might feel the repayment constitutes a making whole, a restoration of complete well-being.
The four different terms for the locusts in that verse seem to be noteworthy – everyone points them out. No one seems to know precisely what they mean. Maybe different stages in the locust life cycle. Here’s what we know: they completely destroyed everything. And God sent them.
Verses 26 and 27 create a parallelism. Eating in plenty, being satisfied, praising God are positioned in parallel with knowing that the HOLY ONE is in the midst of Israel and the HOLY ONE is God. The restoration is also, effectively, demonstration. Or rather – the restoration, after the devastation, is the demonstration.
The shame comes from God’s manifest absence. [We might want to think about the internal conflict in the notion of “manifest absence.”] The “never again” of putting to shame comes from God’s palpable presence.
Image: An image of a mural at the Ferapontov monastery, showing (from left) prophets Jacob, Zechariah, Malachi, and Joel in medieval icon style, via Wikimedia Commons, an image in the public domain; “Joel,” James Tissot (1836-1902), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons