Ash Wednesday

The assignment of this text to Ash Wednesday, while dependent on a long tradition, is problematic. It is unlikely that this text is concerned with the repentance of sin.

Ash to Ash
"Ash to Ash" by Gerg1967 licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

March 5, 2014

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

The assignment of this text to Ash Wednesday, while dependent on a long tradition, is problematic. It is unlikely that this text is concerned with the repentance of sin.

Joel 1 and 2 are probably parallel chapters, referring to the same locust plague. Joel 2 may reflect a fuller experience of the plague; the urgency of the call is intensified and an alarm is sounded (see a similar description of a locust plague in Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, 341-352). God calls the community to be on the alert.

God created a world with a potential for natural disasters. In that sense, God “sent” the plague (2:25). The plague is a sign of the coming day of the Lord, a central theme of which God speaks (see 2:1-2, 10-11). The language that the day “is coming, is near” suggests that, if the present severity of the plague continues, it would mean catastrophe (= day of the Lord).  

The sounding of the alarm refers to sentinels on the city walls watching for the approach of the enemy; when sighted, they would blow the ram’s horn (shofar) to alert the city. The sounding of the trumpet could at the same time be a call to worship (1:14; 2:15-16). The one who “sent” the plague warns those who would experience its disastrous effects!  

The imagery for the plague is a day of clouds and thick darkness. This image refers to the effect of swarms of locusts that cover the sky. The scale and density of the plague is likened to a marauding “army” (2:2, 5). The army image for the locusts is continued throughout 2:4-11, ending with a reference to God as the head of the army. Indeed, the locust plague is referred to as God’s army. The locusts leave the land a wilderness, contrasted with Eden (2:3). This lament is not prayed to prevent the plague from happening, but to rescue the community that is suffering through the disaster “as we speak” (see 2:1).

This text is commonly identified as a call to repentance (see especially 2:12-14). But is this correct? When repentance is the point, the explicitness of the sin is usually made clear. But Joel names no sin of which the people should repent and does not cite the reference to forgiveness in the quotation from Exodus 34:6-7 (2:13). Rather, the people are called to focus on God with all their heart and soul and plead for God to act on their behalf (typical of laments, see Psalm 44). They are called to “turn” to God in prayer to save them from the destructive effects of the plague and to restore the situation to normal. 

Such a communal act in a time of crisis would traditionally have been accompanied by “fasting, weeping, mourning, rending of hearts.” The tearing of garments is a sign of mourning (2 Samuel 3:31). The action requested of God’s is relief from the crisis (note the detail of 2:18-27) not forgiveness of sin. The common use of this text in Christian liturgies at the beginning of the Lenten season does consider these words to be such a call, but the absence of reference to sin in the text makes this interpretation unlikely.

The people are invited by God to direct their appeal to a certain kind of God: merciful, gracious, slow to anger, steadfast in love, and ready to relent from doing harm (the NRSV’s “punish,” is not a helpful translation). This well-known passage, rooted in God’s self-identification to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7a (but not 34:7b!), is most fully paralleled in Jonah 4:2, with partial uses elsewhere (Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Nahum 1:3). The use of this creed in varying Old Testament contexts witnesses to its ongoing helpfulness for God’s people in various seasons of life.

“Who knows” how God will respond to this lament (2:14; see Jeremiah 26:2-3). Not even God’s own prophet is certain what the future holds! The “Who knows?” seems to express a tentative confidence. God does not (micro)manage the activities of natural forces. At such times one is simply called to trust in God to be active on behalf of the well-being of the community. 

The plague has occurred because it is part of the way in which the world works and God is the one who enables or mediates such an event. The text does not assume that the people must have sinned to deserve this disaster (see Job 1-2). The prayer is for God to “leave a blessing behind him,” namely, “a grain offering and a drink offering” (2:14); that is, crops from the fields would once again become available for temple offerings (see 1:13, 16). Notably, the offerings are for God’s sake; a reversal of the plague will benefit God! 

The call of 1:14 is essentially repeated in 2:15-16, only with greater specification of the participants. The inclusivity of the invitation matches the range of concern and the issues at stake. The call places emphasis upon turning to God and taking specific liturgical actions. Note the detail: the persons, the place, the behavior of the priests, and the prayer to be spoken. The call is to “sanctify” a fast as well as the congregation. That is, the people are to solemnly prepare for the occasion by abstaining from eating and work and to humble themselves before God. The text does not say whether the people respond.   

The priests are then called to assemble the community and to lead them in the lament (2:17, as in 1:14-20). The language is typical of the laments of the innocent sufferer in the Psalter (see, e.g., Psalm 79:4-10). The issue voiced is God’s reputation among the nations of the world (see Exodus 32:11). If the future of God’s people is threatened, it will become common among the nations to say (= a byword) that this God does not care for God’s own and hence they will be put to shame (see Jeremiah 24:9; Ezekiel 36:20-21). No God “worth his salt” would allow such a thing to happen to his chosen people and come off badly to outsiders. Indeed, 2:17 gives reasons to God to deliver the people because of what the nations might think of Israel’s God.