Commentary on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
“Who knows? God may turn and change their mind, and leave behind a blessing….” (Joel 2:14a; translation mine)
For the past two(ish) years, churches have been faced with uncertainties on many fronts—uncertainty of whether to be open in-person or to be online due to continued effects of COVID-19; uncertainty about how the many social and political shifts in the world should be addressed in the pulpit; uncertainty about war, famine, and natural disaster. This and so much more has us asking: How should we remain faithful to God and community in such a tumultuous and uncertain world?
This Ash Wednesday, Joel offers us a reflection on living life in uncertain times.
The specific date for the composition of the book is difficult to discern, but recent scholarship sets it primarily in the Persian period, circa 400 BCE. For one thing, Joel’s use of inner-biblical exegesis (in other words, interpretation of scripture, within scripture) indicates a later date. Like many other postexilic writers, Joel makes use of the Exodus and wilderness narratives, but also refers to other prophetic material.1 This implicit theological work marks Joel as particularly unique in the prophetic corpus. In fact, Joel differs from other prophetic material in a number of ways that are relevant to the notion of living with uncertainty.
As with the date for the book, the historical context or specific circumstances are unclear. Chapters 1 and 2 both describe incursions of locusts, and scholarship has debated whether or not these should be read literally (in other words, pestilence) or figuratively (in other words, as an invading foreign enemy or even an eschatological army), and whether or not they are the same or separate events. An eschatological tone in Joel doesn’t really take hold until the 2:28, and the use of comparison 2:5 (“like a powerful army drawn up for battle”) suggests that there is not presently a military threat. Indeed, a biological threat in a largely agrarian economy could prove to be just as dangerous as an invading army—the imagery in the verses not read in this lectionary selection (2:3–11) make clear just how devastating such a threat can be.
In any case, what is notable about the descriptions of the event(s) is that Joel does not seek to accuse anyone, either God or the people. The references to the “Day of YHWH” (2:1; 11) do not carry the eschatological fervor that is seen in other prophets; here, it indicates a time or occasion in which God will intervene in history. There is no blame named for the calamity, no mention of the people’s sins. Other prophets like Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel attempted to make sense of community traumas (for example, destruction and exile) by justifying the events as divine punishments for idolatry or social injustice. These issues of theodicy are of no concern for Joel. The devastation is not attributed to divine punishment, and Joel does not seem concerned with questions of “why?”
Instead, Joel focuses attention on the “so what?”—What do we do when our community faces threats? To whom do we “turn”? The pivot from internal discernment to external action is seen in other postexilic biblical material, such as Ruth, Esther, and Daniel—the focus here is on living, on forward momentum, even in uncertain times.
It is God first who speaks in 2:12–13a, calling the people to “turn” or “return,” followed by the prophet’s own call for “return” in verse 13b. In these instances, the Hebrew term shub does not speak to repentance from sin since no particular transgression has been mentioned. God and Joel call the people to turn to God in supplication, and to stand together in lament.
The completeness of this “return” is made evident in the reference to the “heart,” which in Hebrew is not so much the seat of emotion as the place of thought and reflection. The “return” therefore is a conscious choice and action that humans take. Moreover, the invocation of the whole community speaks to the solemnity with which our “turning” should occur. Joel uses merisms to signify: elder and infant, bridegroom and bride, layperson and priest (verses 16–17a). This inclusivity is notable in light of other postexilic literature that favors certain groups over others, and this totality serves as a balance to the totality of the devastation itself. Finally, the call for fasting and prayer was believed to be a way in which humans could potentially influence the Deity through performance and petition (see also Jonah 3:5; Esther 4:1–3, 16; Judith 4:9–11).2
This call and these instructions imply that Joel is certain that human action matters, that humans can connect directly with God. Indeed, the recitation of divine characteristics in verse 13b adds to this suggestion. As a direct allusion to Exodus 34:6–7, this statement recurs throughout biblical material, notably in other postexilic texts (see also Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; 145:8; Lamentations 3:22, 32; Nahum 1:3; Jonah 4:2), indicating that it had achieved some sort of authority as a creedal text.
Yet even now, couched within these certainties, Joel leaves us with a burning question: “who knows?” The calls to return, to fast, to pray, are shaded by this uncertainty. This question is asked in other postexilic material as well (Jonah 3:9; Esther 4:14), and highlights the tumult and dynamism present in the ancient world. Such questions and theological reflections were occurring then, even as they are today. That in itself can be a comfort for modern readers, struggling with living faithful lives when doubts and questions arise.
For Joel, though, the uncertainty isn’t the end of the story. The call for fasting, for gathering in lament comes in spite of any uncertainty. And yet, the question remains. This Ash Wednesday, may we enter into a space that allows for life amidst uncertainty, a space that doesn’t seek to explain or justify but simply gives the community a chance to gather, to lament, to turn, and to be with God.
- In the lectionary passage, the following inner-biblical allusions have been detected: Joel 2:2/Zephaniah 1:14–15; Joel 2:3/Isaiah 51:3/Ezekiel 36:35; Joel 2:13/Exodus 34:6/Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:14/Jonah 3:9/Esther 4:14; Joel 2:17/Psalm 79:10.
- On fasting as “performance” in prophetic material, see David Lambert, How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity & The Interpretation of Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).