By Shelley Neese
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. Joel is our prophet for October.
A slim three-chapter book, you would think the book of Joel hardly makes it into a sermon. But in fact, the prophecies of Joel were critical to the teachings of the apostles, as they tried to make sense of their commission to spread the Good News to all the nations.
In Acts 2, Peter interpreted the unusual events of Pentecost as the fulfillment of Joel’s vision for the Day of the Lord. Paul went out into the world to preach the good news of the Gospel under the mantra of Joel 2:32: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” And when John the Apostle was banished to the island of Patmos, he described the apocalypse using Joel’s imagery of an enthroned Yahweh delivering judgement to the guilty nations like a sickle reaping a harvest (Rev. 14:15; Joel 3:13) or treading grapes in a winepress (Rev. 14:19; Joel 3:13).
For our reading challenge, I have been assigning chapters that complement the organization system of our modern Bibles. But as you know, these chapter divisions are arbitrary, especially with the prose of the prophets. Joel more naturally divides into two compositions: Joel 1:1 to 2:27 and Joel 2:28 to 3:21. While the first half speaks to the present wreckage left by a severe invasion of locusts. The second half transforms into eschatological prophecies about the future Day of the Lord. The two sections work as parallel poems.
In the first poem, Yahweh is the commander of an army of locusts set to destroy a disobedient Judah. Joel summons the people to Jerusalem to fast, pray, and repent of their sins. Yahweh is moved by the sincerity of their humbled hearts, and He reverses every curse that was visited upon them by the locust army. In the second poem, Yahweh is the judge of all the nations during a day of judgement that will far overshadow the trials of a locust plague. But the righteous of Judah will be saved, while Judah’s historic enemies will be punished.
Joel’s poetry fluidly goes from past to present to future. The locust plague is the judgement that got Judah’s attention. The Day of Yahweh will still use the forces of nature and cosmic disruptions to alert all the nations of Yahweh’s hand. Joel says that when the Day of the Lord nears, “the sun and the moon are darkened and the stars withdraw their shining” and “the heavens and the earth shake” (3:15).
The turning point in Joel from judgement to deliverance occurs in Joel 2:18. Yahweh heard the prayers of the people as they petitioned them with “their whole hearts” (2:12). The prayers moved Yahweh to compassion and He “became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” The Hebrew in Joel suddenly makes effective use of the first-person possessive pronoun “My.” The people, the land, the silver and the gold are all Yahweh’s and He will reclaim what belongs to Him. He brought them out of slavery and gave them the land of Canaan. It is not the prerogative of the nations to undo the works of God.
Judgement in Jehoshaphat Valley
Punishment is on the horizon for every nation that historically treated Judah violently. Babylon was the empire to destroy Jerusalem, but other nations took advantage of a weakened Judah to further scatter Yahweh’s people, divide up His land, and loot His Holy City. Yahweh will hold them accountable.
Just as Joel summoned the Judeans to the Temple for community-wide repentance, Yahweh is summoning the nations to the Valley of Jehoshaphat (vs. 2-12). But the summons is a divine trick. The nations believe they are going to the valley for a battle. But they are actually entering God’s courtroom of judgement where the evidence of crimes is presented and Yahweh’s verdict determined.
Valleys were often the prophetic backdrop for Yahweh’s judgement episodes (Ezek. 39:11, Zech. 12:11, and Isa. 22:1). Joel is the only biblical book to name the Valley of Jehoshaphat. No other passage in the Bible references the valley and no place in historical memory endured with that toponym. According to the Jewish Midrash, no Valley of Jehoshaphat existed. Jehoshaphat means “Yahweh Judges” so Joel may be giving the valley a generic name and pointing to a general valley in the vicinity of Jerusalem that would host a future judgement. Joel 3:14 drops the proper name and refers to the place as the “valley of verdict” or the “valley of decision,” giving further credence to the idea that he never meant to pinpoint a geographic spot. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions associate the Kidron Valley, the wadi between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives, as the site for the last judgement. For this reason, it has been a popular burial ground for centuries. Fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius connected the Kidron Valley to Joel’s Jehoshaphat Valley, and in large part that connection has held.
Joel’s reference to Jehoshaphat is also a historical throwback to 2 Chronicles 20 and the narrative of another time Yahweh saved His people by putting down her enemy nations on His own. During the reign of King Jehoshaphat, the people of Judah received word of an impending attack by a coalition of Moabites and Ammonites marching up from Ein Gedi. Jehoshaphat summoned the people to the Temple, and, like Joel, he asked for nationwide fasting and prayer while they waited on deliverance from the Lord. Yahweh heard their cries and spoke through Judah’s prophets, promising to deliver Judah, without Jehoshaphat’s army having to even enter the fray. The Moabites and Ammonites fought internally, slaying each other to the point that the people of Judah had no one to fight. The Day of the Lord as described by Joel and the prophets points forward, but it also points backward to other times Yahweh miraculously delivered His people on His own.
At the Valley of Jehoshaphat, Yahweh summons “all the nations” responsible for scattering His people and dividing His land (3:2). Yahweh lists their crimes against Judah. No longer is Yahweh the commander of a locust army, He is judge overall. If Joel dates to the postexilic period, the conqueror freshest in Judah’s memory was Babylon. Joel does not name Babylon but seems to point to the empire when he says, “For you have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried my rich treasures into your temples” (3:5). The book of Daniel pinpoints the Babylonians as the ones who stole the Jerusalem Temple’s gold and silver and put them in their own temples (Dan. 1:2). At the time of Joel’s writing, however, Babylon had already fallen at the hands of Cyrus the Great and his Persian army. Still, other nations with blood on their hands were in need of judgement.
Phoenicians, Philistines, Egyptians, and Edomites are all held accountable. When the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem, Judah’s traditional and closest enemies took advantage of Jerusalem’s fall for their own gain. Joel says, “What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia?” (3:4). Tyre and Sidon were Phoenician port cities, well-poised to traffic all that remained of Jerusalem’s booty and people after the Babylonian attack. The Philistines ran their own lucrative trade from Gaza, participating in slave trade with South Arabia. When the Jews were finally able to return to Jerusalem from Babylon, they were missing a contingent of exiles who had been sold into slavery from the ports of Tyre and Sidon and Gaza. If Joel was living in this postexilic period, the pain of never fully restoring the nation because of the crimes of the Philistines and Phoenicians was felt in full force. The temple treasures that were carted off to Babylon were eventually returned, but the people that were sold into slavery were lost forever.
Yahweh is set to repay Judah’s enemies for the atrocities they have committed. What they did to Judah will now be done to them. Joel 3:3 describes how Judah’s destitute were treated. Judah’s enemies regarded the lives of the Judean children as so little worth that they sold them for only enough money for a bottle of wine or a prostitute for the evening.
Yahweh warned, “I will turn your deeds back upon your heads” (3:7). Within two hundred years or so of Joel’s writing, the vengeance of Yahweh was delivered. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great laid siege to Tyre. Enraged by the cost of the prolonged Tyrian defensive, Alexander’s forces killed 8,000 Tyrians upon its capture and enslaved the other 30,000 survivors, mostly women and children. Alexander the Great marched on to the fortified city of Gaza. The Philistines put up a good fight against Alexander’s siege engines, even wounding Alexander in the process, but Gaza could not withstand the naval and land attack. The Greek army killed 10,000 Gazans and sold the women and children into slavery. The Phoenicians and Philistines disappeared from history.
Day of the Lord
The Day of the Lord was a common theme among the prophets. Zephaniah the prophet also wrote about a day that Yahweh would serve as both judge and witness in the courtroom trial of the wicked kingdoms (3:8). Ezekiel 38’s judgement on Gog and Magog gives a long description of Yahweh’s army defeating the enemies of Israel in a final battle.
Without getting too deep into eschatology, Bible readers wonder about the climatic Day of the Lord and its timing. Often, the prophecies in the Bible were fulfilled within a generation after their utterance. Other prophecies were fulfilled in stages that only become clear with the benefit of hindsight. For example, Peter saw Joel’s prophecy about the deliverance of the Holy Spirit as fulfilled on Pentecost. Paul saw the inclusion of gentiles into the Kingdom of God as further fulfillment of Joel’s vision (Rom. 10:13). Considering that the Phoenicians and Philistines have disappeared from history, one can assume that portion of Joel’s vision has been fulfilled as well.
But another portion of the Day of the Lord and the calling of the nations to the Valley of Jehoshaphat must still be in the future. John writing Revelation 6 and 8 still spoke of the day in the future when the cosmic disturbances and trembling earth would signal the arrival of the final Day of the Lord. John had lived through the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. He had seen the Second Temple destroyed and the Jews exiled to all ends of the empire, but yet he was still looking forward to a future punishment for Israel’s enemies. Only then can lasting peace follow. Only then will the swords be beaten into plowshares, as envisioned by Isaiah and Micah, rather than Joel’s reverse. Yahweh assures His people that as long as He dwells in Zion, “strangers shall never again pass through it” (3:17).
As a Christian Zionist, I can’t help but note here that Yahweh’s divine standard by which he judges the nations is measured by how the nations have mistreated Judah, both the land and the people. Even after long periods of exile and occupation, Yahweh’s original promise to Abraham stands true: “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you” (Gen. 12:3). In the midst of all the upturning of the Day of the Lord, Yahweh will still be a “refuge for His people, a stronghold for the people of Israel” (3:16).
Liturgy of Lament
Joel scholars have a difficult time dating the book for all the reasons I laid out in Episode #5. But one theory is that Joel was intentionally purged of context clues or dehistoricized. Perhaps there is no historical superscript in Joel, no king’s name given, and no specific sins listed because the book is designed as a timeless liturgy. The Psalms are mostly written in such a manner that they serve as a prayer and worship language unburdened by historical details separating the ancient from the present. Because Joel focuses on the gathering of worshipers at the Temple, there is a belief that the book was used at the Temple as a liturgy of lament. Using Joel’s eloquent prose as doctrine, the people could gather at the Temple for any kind of national disaster. The book guided them through the fast and prayers of repentance and gave them the language of the Torah to remind God of His past mercies on the people while they waited for an answer from the Lord.
In 2020, my hometown of Moss Bluff, Louisiana was nearly flattened by Hurricane Laura. Laura’s winds came in at 150 miles per hour, toppling pine trees, ripping off roofs, knocking out power grids, and flooding sugarcane crops. Losses were estimated at 19 billion dollars. It took several weeks for running water to return and six weeks before electrical lines were functioning again. Many parts of southeast Louisiana are still a sea of blue tarps on roofs that have yet to be replaced. In the long power outages that followed, people stayed in their homes, committed to doing the work to rebuild their lives. On the first Sunday after the storm, I was able to visit the church that I grew up in and my father had pastored for almost forty years. The church building was destroyed. Many of the members were without water or roofs, but the church members gathered under the building’s surviving awning to pray and worship. They were exhausted and dirty from all the labor of chain sawing trees and ripping off shingles. But they came to God with their miseries and prayers. They came to their beaten down house of worship because hurricanes are not an excuse to forsake the fellowship. That moment may be the closest parallel I have in my life to the post-locust revival in Joel’s day. And just as Joel was a proud witness to the revival of his people, I am a thankful witness to seeing a strength in a people that comes from God alone. It is not a stretch of the imagination to understand why the book of Joel contains one of the minor prophet’s very few repentant responses from the nation. Disasters may strip us from every small comfort that we know in this world, but they humble our hearts and open our ears to Yahweh’s call. Nothing can stop us from continually calling on the name of the Lord. Only He is our refuge and stronghold.
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. Next week we are starting to study the prophet Amos. You don’t want to miss Amos!