Examining Biblical Literature: Joel

If our god is the Creator then why does his people suffer? What happens to those who have made us suffer so much? How will God overcome all this evil in us and the world?

One of the earliest written texts in the Bible is the book of Joel. The text of Joel seems to have taken on its final form sometime in the 7th century BCE. The contents of Joel are reflecting on the Assyrian captivity that took place in the Mid 8th century BCE, ca. 740. This text is a beautiful example of Jewish prophetic literature. If it is the oldest prophetic text it lays down a number of key metaphorical themes and linguistic phrases picked up by later writers.

Joel dedicates a large amount of time to representing Israel in the land as the Garden of Eden. The invading nation is depicted as laying “the vine” to waist, stripping and splintering “the fig tree”.[1] The unfruitfulness of Israel affects all humanity.[2] As the foreign nation destroys Israel the horror of the event can only be compared to a shift from the land of Eden to a wasteland.[3] Joel employs apocalyptic language, one of Jewish literatures earliest usages, to reveal how the Creator himself has changed the structure of creation and none (in Israel) are able to endure it.[4] Dependent on the repentance of Israel, God the Creator promises to bring Israel home to the land. The land is promised that at the coming of the Israel it will become an Eden again.[5] This end of exile and renewal of land and people into a restored Eden culminates in, or better is expressed as, the coming of the Creator’s Spirit onto everyone in Israel. This reverse of the exile in the coming of the Spirit results in events depicted in apocalyptic language.[6]

This second use of apocalyptic language signals a shift in Joel from judgment on Israel to judgment on the nations. These nations are those who either helped Assyria enslave Israel or did not come to their aid, thereby benefiting from the dividing of the land.[7] The use of apocalyptic language in Joel represents 1) political upheaval and change, 2) God’s employment of military power, 3) God’s sovereignty as Creator to determine the way of life in his creation, and 4) the submission of creation to the Creator’s will. God calls the nations to come to war again against his people, but this time the presence of the Spirit in Israel empowers them. God’s favor is not with the foreign armies this time.[8] Apocalyptic language is again employed by Joel, indicating a military battle of cosmic importance, and suddenly Israel is fully restored in Edenic language. The nations are left to exist in a wasteland as recompense for their violence against God’s people.[9]

Joel’s seeks to help the people of God wrestle with how can the Creator who controls everything allow his people to suffer under the oppression of a foreign army and nation? And, what will he do to fix such suffering?

Joel’s answer is that God as Creator does have all the power to stop the destruction of Israel, his Edenic creation, but he is the one who has sent this army into the land as a judgment against Israel for neglecting to worship him.[10] Once Israel turns back to worshiping the Creator his Spirit will recreate the people of God, empowering them to return to the land and reestablish their Eden. God as Creator will overturn and judge the nations for their evils against his people, but only if his people learn the lesson to worship their God, the Creator. The coming of the Spirit into the people of God is then also the day of judgment against the nations. The Spirit is the Creator’s empowering presence in Israel to participate in a renewed Edenic land, a land the nations have no place living.

Observations:

  1. Israel’s struggle to understand their monotheistic faith in a completely sovereign Creator god demands a way of understanding how Yahweh’s people are suffering. The exile forces Israel to create a unique theodicy; God chooses to allow his people to suffer creating an opportunity for his people to learn a lesson.
  2. The pervasive use of creation language and metaphor as a depiction of Israel is interesting. Does this give any understanding the creation stories in Genesis?
  3. The parallel of the Spirit of the Creator so Israel can live in a renewed Eden in the land and judgment on the nations to live in a comparative wasteland.

 


[1] 1:7

[2] 1:11-12

[3] 2:3

[4] 2:10-11

[5] 2:21-25

[6] 2:28-32

[7] 3:1-8

[8] 3:9-12

[9] 3:13-21

[10] 1:13, 2:12-14, 25

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