Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel. All of September, we went through the book of Hosea but October is the month of Joel. Joel is a slim three-chapter book, but it still has plenty to unpack.
To begin each prophetic book, we need a little background on the author, the date of the composition, his relation to the other prophets, and his intended audience. For many prophets, writing their bio is a straightforward process. Six of the twelve make it easy by including a historical superscription: Hosea, Amos, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, and Zechariah. Others name kings who reigned during their ministry, linking them to the chronology known from 1 or 2 Kings. Prophets sometimes describe significant datable events. Amos and Zechariah both referenced a significant earthquake which shows up in the archaeological record from the eighth century BCE. These particulars in the text help fix the prophets in time. Joel does not work that way. In fact, Joel scholars often spend their careers trying to nail down the historical setting for the book’s composition.
Joel as a historical person is unknown. His name (“Yahweh is God”) was common, but no other books allude to him specifically, and he gives us scant biographical information. One theory is that Joel was so well-known in his own time as a holy man of Jerusalem that he did not have a need to justify his prophetic status. Or since those in his small community were the direct recipients of his prophecy, he did not need to provide a written historical setting. What we do know is that he was a prophet to the Kingdom of Judah. His discourse revolves around Jerusalem and the Temple so he lived somewhere in its environs. In fact, Joel had a high view of the Temple and the sacrificial system, knowing a good deal about the priestly ritual requirements. Scholars therefore speculate that he held the office of both prophet and priest, like Ezekiel.
Educated guesses on the book’s dating range from the ninth century BCE to the fourth century BCE. If one goes with the ninth century, Joel would be the first minor prophet and if one goes with the fourth century, Joel would be one of the last. Since any theory about Joel’s timestamp does not threaten the fundamentals of the gospel or the credibility of the Bible, I think it is a fun exercise to weigh the evidence to see what we think.
When the Judahites returned to Jerusalem from their seventy years of exile in Babylon, they were a small poor community with no king. We call this the postexilic period; it spanned 537 to 430 BCE. Several textual clues in Joel place him in this phase of Judah’s history. But they are only clues, and clues can be interpreted multiple ways.
Joel never mentions the Kingdom of Israel. This is a glaring omission. You will remember that the prophet Hosea’s message was directed at Israel, but he also would include warnings or blessings for Judah. That was the typical refrain for the early minor prophets. If Joel lived before the Assyrian attack, why does he not do the same, especially considering that Israel’s offenses were even worse than Judah?
Assyria decimated the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. As per their policy, Assyria killed or dispersed the captives throughout their empire. The beginning of Joel 3 talks about a coming day that God will judge the nations for their scattering of His people and the division of His land (Joel 3:1-3). The language tense alludes to a dispersion of the people that already happened, not a future dispersion. With that in mind, Joel likely dates sometime after the Northern Kingdom’s capture in 722 BCE.
Joel 3:5 is another critical text that takes the dating one step further. Joel writes, “For you have taken my silver and my gold and have carried my rich treasures into your temples.” That sounds like an allusion to 2 Kings 25’s description of the Babylonian’s destruction of the First Temple and their raiding of the Temple treasury. If so, the book of Joel can be pushed back even further until after 586 BCE.
There is no king named in Joel, which is unusual for a prophetic text written before the Assyrian or Babylonian attacks. Since there is no king mentioned, then perhaps there was no monarchy at the time of his writing. That would have been the case when the captives returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. Without a king, priests and elders took on leadership responsibilities. Joel alludes to this kind of communal organization in his first chapter when he calls for the elders to assemble and then all the people. If “all the inhabitants of the land” were able to convene at the Temple, it also seems like Joel was part of a small community. That also reflects the situation in the postexilic period when small waves of Jews returned to rebuild Jerusalem.
Another contributing argument to the postexilic date is that Joel does not refer to idol worship or the blending of Yahweh worship with pagan ritual. In the generations preceding both the Assyrian attack on the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonian assault on Jerusalem, idolatry was one of the primary concerns of the prophets. The descendants of Abraham defaulted on their covenant with Yahweh by going after the gods of their neighbors. Hosea had prophesied a time after the exile that they would return to the land and no longer even speak the name Ba’al (Hos. 2:17). Such was the case in the postexilic period. Certainly, the people had their problems, but Baal worship had faded and the people had revived their commitment to monotheism. Joel did not need to call out idolatry, because it may not have been the primary failing anymore.
Joel was intent on reviving the daily Temple offerings, and from the text the Temple was operational in Joel’s day (Joel 1:9, 13-16; 2:15-17). With this being the case, the exile period is out as a candidate for Joel’s timing. There was no Temple after the Babylonians destroyed it in 586 BCE until the returnees rebuilt a Temple around 516 BCE.
The last indication of a postexilic dating is Joel 3:4 and 3:19, the listing of Judah’s enemies. Joel, pointing to a future day that Judah would be exalted and her oppressors defeated, lists Judah’s enemies as Tyre, Sidon, Philistia, Egypt, and Edom. These were Judah’s traditional enemies over generations, so the allusion does not help us nail down a date. Assyria or Babylon, however, receive no mention, not even a passing nod. In the centuries leading up to the Assyrian and Babylonian attacks, the prophets regularly referred to Assyria and Babylon as God’s instruments of judgement. Two interpretations are available. Joel wrote before Assyria was a problematic neighbor to Israel. Or Joel wrote after Babylon’s fall in 539 BCE.
I lean towards a postexilic date for Joel, but I admit that the evidence is based on an argument from silence. Joel omits any mention of a king, does not name the kingdom of Israel, does not include Assyria or Babylon in the list of enemies, and does not call out the people for idol worship. So, we pin a postexilic date to the prophet more for what he leaves out than what he writes. However, in a three-chapter book, it seems easier to make an argument from silence than substance. Other than that, it is the allusions to the dispersion of the Israelites by Assyria in 3:2 and the destruction of the First Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 3:5 that serve as the crucial textual arguments for a postexilic date.
Now, that I have you thoroughly confused, remember the transcript is available for reference with the podcast and posted on our website’s blog at www.thejerusalemconnection.us
Hopefully, you have already read Joel 1. Otherwise, it will come as a surprise to you that Joel’s central motif is locusts. And I don’t mean a metaphor about locusts or a spiritual allegory about the lifecycle of locusts; we are talking an actual swarm of invasive insects. Joel 1 was written in the aftermath of an unprecedented natural disaster. Locusts swarms ravaged Judah’s farmlands, trees, vines, and produce. The skeletal fruit trees and total lack of vegetation caused a lowering of the water table which prompted a drought. The drought dried the riverbeds and dehydrated the ground, resulting in wildfires. Even the animals suffered with no lands to graze or water to drink. Joel 1:18 says, “How the cattle moan!” and in 1:20 even the wild animals “pant” for God. Joel’s tender language about the heavenly directed moans and cries of the animals reminds the reader that all creation is dependent on God for sustenance. Joel uses the same Hebrew verb for “pant” that is known to us all from the worship hymn based on Psalms 42:1: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.”
Joel calls the people of Judah to repentance. By his interpretation, this disaster is of divine import and a return to Yahweh is the only way to find meaning in the suffering. In the first chapter, we see the prophet summoning all to assemble: the elders, all the inhabitants of the land, the drunkards, the farmers, the vinedressers, and the priests. Each community experienced unique consequences from the devastation. The elders were responsible for rebuilding the impoverished nation. The alcoholics were deprived of new wine. Without wine, grain and oil, the priests lacked the ingredients for daily offerings at the Temple. The farmers and vinedressers lost their livelihoods. Joel says, “the storehouses are in ruins, the granaries have been broken down” (1:17). Apparently, there are no food reserves. All seem to be on the brink of starvation.
The people are clearly shaken. How is it that God used one of the same plagues that he sent on Egypt to also punish his people? In Joel 1:3, the prophet highlights the disparity of their situation. He asks, “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors?” He calls on them to continue teaching about this unprecedented plight to their children and grandchildren, not as an object lesson of providential deliverance but of his judgement. Interestingly, after God rescues the Hebrews from Egypt he tells them to celebrate the Passover each year and retell the story of their rescue to their children and grandchildren. That rescue operation was successful partially because of the onslaught of plagues which included a locust swarm.
Joel wants the whole community to analyze their lives and ask themselves what they may have done to solicit God’s wrath. Joel 1:14 says, “Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.”
Joel is especially disturbed by the cessation of Temple sacrifices. According to the laws of Leviticus, the priests were required to offer flour, wine, and oil as offerings in the Temple in the morning and in the evening. Without a harvest, there could be no first fruit festivals. And without the grain offerings at the Temple, the priests have no share of a food offering (Lev. 6:14–18). Priests, on normal occasions, wore beautiful vestments for their sanctuary services. Joel tells the priests, instead, to come to the temple in black sackcloth, like a virgin lamenting for the lost husband of her youth (1:8). When 1 Samuel and Hosea preach God’s preference for obedience over sacrifice (Hos. 6:6; 1 Sam. 15:22), the message resonates well with our modern Protestant ears. Joel is different. He wants the people to obey, but he also is eager to return to full Temple worship. Joel still sees the sacrificial system as the best way for the people to convey their commitment to Yahweh.
The suffering in Joel is unlike the other prophetic books. Amos and Hosea rail against the dangers of affluence leading to spiritual lethargy and idolatry. Even though Hosea gave Israel the exact words they needed to say in repentance, his words went unheeded. Joel is not encountering a people with full stomachs. They are desperate, wrecked, and listening. In the second chapter, of Joel, which we will read next week, the people repent and pray for God’s mercy. It is one of the few examples of constructive responses on the part of the people in the prophetic books (Joel 2:12-17).
Maybe the lack of historical setting for Joel is part of its appeal and continued relevance. The example of repentance by the people after a tragedy offers us a timeless liturgy of lamentation. We would be wise to return to it in our next moment of personal or national crisis. My grandfather was a preacher for almost seventy years. He made no secret of the fact that he saw in every crisis an opportunity to lead people back to God. He was there for the revival on September 12, 2001. He was there for the revival when the whole nation went into quarantine in 2020. And he was there for the revival of many people in his community during personal moments of tragedy or trauma. We have modern-day Joels living among us in that way. I am thankful for those with biblical truths ready at their lips to help the desperate and broken hearted as they awaken to their need for God when shaken by events on this earth.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. Send me a message. I’ll respond. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.