There are two patches in Joel’s prophetic quilt.1
Scholars do not agree on the editorial history of the book of Joel. Some argue for a ninth century date, while others suggest a Persian period (500-350 BCE). The call for repentance (2:12-13) and the eschatological expectation (2:28-30) function as complementary parts. The inability to date with confidence the book of Joel in general and this passage in particular speaks to the relevance of this message throughout the history of Judah. The book seems to be a patchwork of pieces sewn together into the quilt we have today. The lectionary unit Joel 2:12-13 and 2:28-29 are two patches in the quilt.
The First Patch: A Call to Repentance
The literary context of the book indicates a certain parallelism. The opening chapter that describes the locust plague contains a call to lamentation (1:5-12). The locust and the drought set the stage for the call for repentance. Further, our passage begins with a call to repentance that offsets the call to lamentation. The more immediate literary context of our passage is the day of God’s army (2:1-11) that further sets the stage for the call to repentance (2:12-13).
The language that opens verse 12 connects it strongly with what came before: “Yet even now” (NRSV) and is followed by the formula “says the LORD,” which appears only here in the book of Joel that introduces the verse that follows.
The imperative “return to me” only occurs here in Hebrew. While the language of repentance is fairly ubiquitous in prophetic literature, we find no precise parallel to the expression in Joel 2:12. The imperative in Joel 2:12 is more precisely defined through the uses of three instrumental “with” phrases. The first is “with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 11:13; 13:4; Joshua 22:5; 23:14; 1 Samuel 7:3; 12:20, 24; Jeremiah 29:13; Joel 2:12), which is a Deuteronomistic phrase to describe complete devotion of will. The other instrumental clauses refer to mourning rituals of fasting, weeping, and wailing. The way the poet/prophet fuses the imperative to return and the metaphors of mourning is provocative but not definitive. We can only speculate that repentance is a type of death and has with it accompanying mourning rituals.
The mourning ritual is taken into verse thirteen: “Rend your hearts and not your clothing” (2:13 NRSV). This mourning ritual is well attested (see Genesis 37:29, 34; Numbers 14:6; 2 Samuel 3:31; 1 Kings 21:27; Ezra 9:3). The tearing of the clothes makes an outer expression of mourning in the face of death and disaster. On the one hand, to transplant the rending of the clothes (an outward expression) with the rending of the heart (an inward expression) the public reality is privatized. On the other hand, the public expression is here construed as more superficial and replaced with a transformation of orientation carried in the metaphor of the heart as the seat of the will.
The poet/prophet repeats the imperative in a slightly different form: “Return to the LORD your God” (2:13b). This time the imperative is set off by a description of the nature of God. The “creedal” statement finds its fullest expression in Exodus 34:6-7 and abbreviated in other passages (Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3).
The first patch charges the hearers to return to the LORD because the time is now. Further, the nature of God as gracious and merciful opens up the possibility that the repentance will be recognized. Verse 14 accents that this is only a possibility. Joel 2:12-19 is one of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday which demonstrates the church’s tradition of reading this passage as a call for repentance.
Second Patch: The Age of the Spirit
Both patches begin with temporal clauses that frame the repentance and restoration. Joel 2:12-13 begins with the temporal clause “Yet even now”; likewise Joel 2:28-29 begins with a temporal clause, “then afterward.” When we put these two patches together, it gives the impression that the repentance in the earlier section might give rise to the gift of the spirit in the second patch.
The first patch used the repetition on “return” language to bind the unit together. This patch uses the promise “I will pour out my spirit.” The verb “pour” most often refers to water (Exodus 4:9), blood (Genesis 9:6) and other items such as the heart (Psalm 22:15; 62:9; Lamentations 2:19) or soul (1 Samuel 1:15; Job 30:16; Psalm 42:5). These latter two metaphors seem to indicate the strength and will (heart) of commitment and dependence (soul).
The spirit of God occurs elsewhere as a gift of power in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 31:2-5; Judges 6:34; Micah 3:8; Haggai 1:14). The pouring out of the Spirit of God is located at the transition in the book of Ezekiel (39:29). The power of the pouring of the spirit provides access to divine information and revelation (1 Samuel 10:6, 10; 19:20; 2 Samuel 23:2; 2 Kings 2:9). The pouring of the God’s spirit provides open access to revelation.
The Age of Open Access
The empowering of divine spirit will occur “upon all flesh.” The poet then explains what “all flesh” includes with a series of noun word pairs and verb synonyms. The three verbs used (prophesy, dream, and envision) have a tradition of divine revelation. The noun word pairs draw the reader into a more egalitarian world.
First, the noun pairs refer to the family household: the heirs, sons and daughters, old and young men; in other words, every generation and every gender will have divine access to divine will usually reserved only for the specialists. The poet/prophet (and later Acts 2) extends the empowering work of God’s spirit beyond the heirs of the household. Even the slaves, both male and female, have divine access through the spirit.
The first patch demands repentance, mourning the transgression of the past. The second patch promises an age of popular access to divine will through the empowering of the spirit of God. When these two patches are connected, the reader moves from challenge to promise.
1 This commentary was first published on this site on Dec. 9, 2012.
Loving Lord,When we have strayed, you have called us to come home to you. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” With all our hearts we return to you, and gratefully accept your gentle love, for the sake of the one whose spirit lives in us, Jesus Christ our loving savior. Amen.
Lost in the night ELW 243O come, all ye faithful ELW 283, H82 83, UMH 234, NCH 135Spirit of gentleness ELW 396, NCH 286Spirit of mercy, truth, and love H82 229Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me UMH 393, NCH 283
Rejoice, rejoice believers, Adam Gumpeltzhaimer