Ash Wednesday

The few occasions that Joel appears in the lectionary it seems to support material that frames the interests of Christian festivals.

February 22, 2012

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

The few occasions that Joel appears in the lectionary it seems to support material that frames the interests of Christian festivals.

Used in the Pentecost lection because of its citation in Acts 2 and at the start of the Lenten season presumably for its call to repentance, Joel gets read through the eyes of these events. Admittedly a difficult book to understand, it offers, though, unique insights that could enhance these Christian observances. Reading this passage not as a call to repentance for sin but a call to turn to God in lamentation for the earth forces new insight for Lenten observances.

The presumption that human beings form the center of God’s concerns frames most readings of the Bible. Therefore, the urgency of the crisis in Joel, the summons to the people, and the pathos of lamentation suggest disaster as punishment for human sin. As the book details the disaster in chapter 1 the earth bears the punishment and the derivative consequences for human beings can only be implied. Joel’s call to lamentation, however, may well be a summons to humans to advocate on behalf of the earth.

The danger of separating chapter 2 from chapter 1 lies in disconnecting the vivid images of earth’s pain in chapter 1 from the summons in chapter 2. The invading locusts of chapter 1 while not named in chapter 2, presumably, continue as the invading army of 2:2 since the locusts have been metaphorized as an army in chapter 1.

Further, the difference in tenses between the two chapters notwithstanding, the events can be taken as a continuity between the past and the near future. The call to lamentation (1:13-14 and 2:12), the imminent Day of the LORD (1:15 and 2:1), and confidence that widespread supplication can restrain divine action (1:14 and 2:13-14)1 mark both chapters. Restoring chapter 1 and 2:3-11 to the consciousness of the lection focuses attention on earth as the subject of the lamentations.

The descriptions of the plight of the earth stand out in Joel and appear more striking when human subjects are called to pay attention to earth’s suffering. Human subjects are awakened to earth’s suffering but not as it affects them directly. Priests mourn the devastation of fields (1:9-10), farmers weep for the ruined crop (1:11), and ministers of God lament the lack of grain (1:13). Equally, animals groan over the desolation of the fields (1:18).

Joel provides vivid details of the destruction of earth and only infers the implications for living creatures. The summons to lamentation therefore appears motivated not by human interests but primarily by the fate of earth. The divine wrath assuaged, elements of earth rejoice or benefit from the reprieve — the soil can rejoice (2:21), animals can breathe easier (2:22), and mountains rain down wine (3:18).

Joel summons humans to lamentations in the interests of the earth precisely because humans have the capacity to cry to God. Since God appears to be the source of destruction, fasting and other penitential practices are needed to appease God. Joel presents the invading army as a theophany in 2:10. Building out the descriptive language of the appearance of God,2 he connects these elements with the invading army, naming God as the source of earth’s distress.

The Day of the LORD motif used in both chapters (1:15 and 2:1) also indicates that the invading army stands not as an enemy but rather as an instrument of God (2:11). The voiceless earth relies upon human beings and practices of penitence to advocate on its behalf. The repetition of the call of the trumpet, the sanctification of a fast, the gathering of the assembly, acts of penitence like mourning, and the activity of the priests all indicate the urgency to use the full array of human contact with God (1:13-14 and 2:12-14).

Reading Joel in this way requires engaging the translation of sûb as “return” in verses 12-13. Since the word “return” tends to imply “repent” the obvious question remains “repent from what.” Joel supplies no catalogue of offenses that motivates the divine action. In fact, punishment for sin is implied simply because the sin-punishment-repentance-deliverance schema remains the normative biblical narrative. This scheme restricts divine action to reaction to human sin being the primary causation. The reader need not fill in human sin as the causation for the suffering earth, presuming as usual an exclusive divine concern with humans.

Reading “turn” instead of “return” in this context offers new conceptions of human relationship with God, and with the earth. Joel encourages acts of penitence aimed at appeasing God in the interest of the earth. These actions do not inherently indicate human guilt. John Barton argues that fasting in this context could be a “pious custom” that accompanies prayer without any implication of repentance.3 The call to turn to God in supplication for the earth and not necessarily for one’s needs, be it forgiveness of sin or survival in a threatened ecology, reconfigures the relationship with God.

Joel’s emphasis on the global nature of the turn to God, transcending age and breaching the normal marital exemptions (2:16 cf Deuteronomy 20:7), commends God as the single source of help in the midst of earth’s crisis. The turn to God implies a call to avoid other sources of help. Supplicating God on behalf of earth constructs a relationship where humans serve the interests of the earth. Engaging in spiritual practices for the sake of earth reflects a broader conception of God’s economy as well as the purposes of acts of penitence.

The focus on earth in this reading of Joel offers another Lenten narrative that avoids the narcissistic indulgence with human sin and forgiveness. Concern for earth as God’s creation and for God’s saving relationship with the earth reflects a sober position for humanity within the created order. While much of the language of science pays attention to human action as the source of earth’s pain, the lack of blame in Joel’s discourse remains relevant here since it places an onus upon humans to respond to earth whether or not human action causes earth pain. Embracing spiritual exercises motivated by other than self-interest presents exciting possibility as Lenten observances.

1Part of the confidence is based upon the responsive nature of God to human supplication. This idea emerges in several other instances such as Exodus 34:6; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 86:15.
2Joel uses the images associated with God in other theophanies such as Judges 5:4 and Psalm 18:8; 68:9;77:19.
3John Barton, Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 79.