Ash Wednesday

Neither sin nor divine wrath have the final word

dust in hands

Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

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Blow the shophar.

The blowing of the shophar, or ram’s horn (NRSV: trumpet), was a signal for a number of things in ancient Israel, including: 

  • military movement (for example Judges 3:27; 6:34; 2 Samuel 2:28) 
  • to announce victory in battle (1 Samuel 13:3) or
  • to acknowledge the anointing of a king (2 Samuel 15:10; 1 Kings 1:34; 2 Kings 9:13). 

The day of the LORD

In Joel 2:1, the shophar introduces a battle scene, much of which is cut from the assigned reading on Ash Wednesday (verses 3-11). The battle is described as the “Day of the LORD,” an apocalyptic vision of divine vengeance in which all that runs counter to God will be destroyed (as in Joel 1:15, 2:1, 11; 3:4; 4:14; Isaiah 13:6, 9; Ezekiel 13:5; Amos 5:18-20; Obadiah 15; Zechariah 1:7, 14-16). While this event was sometimes envisioned as one enacted upon Israel’s enemies, here the people of Judah receive the warning themselves. The shophar is blown not in enemy territory but in Zion, on the LORD’s own holy mountain. 

The text does not say what led to the announcement of the coming Day of the LORD. Unlike the majority of prophets who prophesy about injustice, idolatry, political affairs, or a mixture of all these and more, Joel is largely silent concerning the reasons for his prophecy. Likewise, the exact social setting of the book of Joel is unknown, though the content is broadly familiar. Judah’s experiences, whether a locust invasion as described in chapter one or a military incursion as described in chapter two, are associated with Judah’s own action. Thus, Joel calls for repentance. With the particulars lost to the dustbin, the stylistic remains of Joel’s call to repentance may actually speak more clearly to a contemporary audience. Much like confessing “things done and left undone” as in one version of corporate confession of sin, the non-specificity of Joel’s prophecy allows one to contemplate one’s own proclivity to turn away from God—and likewise one’s own need for repentance.

Yet even now…

Regardless of the occasion for Joel’s prophecy, it is neither sin nor divine wrath that have the final word. “Yet even now,” as it says in verse 12, even in the face of destruction, there is the possibility of a very different future. The people need only return—with fasting, weeping, mourning, and broken hearts. Their God is, as the confession states, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (see also Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Psalms 86:5, 15; 103:8; 145:8; John 4:2). Their God is not, by nature, one who punishes or delights in distress. 

In verse 3, one of the verses not read, the opposing army tore up the metaphoric garden of Eden, leaving behind a land devoid of life and creative possibility. The vision held out in verses 12-17 renews the possibility of such a garden, of a place where God and people will live in peace and joy. Perhaps God will give them this future.

A day of repentance

When the shophar blows again in verse 15, it announces a different type of gathering. Instead of a battle, the horn calls for a fast. Instead of mustering the troops, the sound gathers together the whole community, young and old alike. 

While everyone in a community would have experienced the horrors of a battle such as is described in verses 1-11, not everyone in the community would have been called up to military service, such being the domain, primarily, of able-bodied men. Rather, those listed in verse 16 would have been exempt from such service. The elders (NRSV: aged) and the children certainly would not have been conscripted. According to Deuteronomy 24:5, the bridegroom, too, would have had a year’s exemption from military service. All are included in this gathering, however. The sound of this shophar calls even the nursing child and the bride to fast in repentance. All are part of this assembly. One might call to mind the action of marking an infant with an ashen cross during the Ash Wednesday liturgy, knowing that the child has done nothing specific to warrant either repentance or redemption but is so marked by virtue of being part of the human community.

Worship

Verse 17 includes a portion of the rubric for the priests as they intercede between the people and their God. The words call on God to be faithful to divine promises, to act in accordance with God’s own character. There is an inheritance to consider, a heritage (verse 17). Some translations read “possession” here or even “property.” The priests remind God—and also, by extension, the people—that the land where they stand is but a gracious gift, an undeserved inheritance. More than that, the people themselves are God’s own possession, God’s own people. Will God give that up? Not a God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The words of the priests further suggest to God that the divine reputation is at stake. In language reminiscent of some of the psalms (Psalms 79:10; 115:2; see also Deuteronomy 9:26-28), the priests ask what the others will think if God’s own people are destroyed. Merciful action is touted as not only consistent with God’s character but as an opportunity to display divine mercy and power to the nations.

As I write this in December 2020, worship gatherings such as the fast described in this passage seem almost impossible to imagine. Many congregations continue to refrain from communal gatherings in response to the Coronavirus, and this Ash Wednesday likely looks quite different than in the past. This could be a year when the auditory nature of this text is helpful. An instrumental sound—like the sound of the shophar—might make use of a sense other than touch as the community again examines themes of repentance, mercy, and redemption.