Commentary on Joel 2:23-32
The prophet Joel writes in response to an ecological disaster, a plague of locusts that exceeded their regular breeding and feeding cycles.
His words are difficult to break into individual sermons. The internal markers in the Hebrew text dating from the time the Masoretic scholars added vowels and cantillation (musical marks), about 1008 CE, delineate a unit beginning in 2:15-27. Then a new chapter begins, whereas in (most) Christian English Bibles the next several verses are added onto the second chapter; 2:28-32 in the NRSV (and others) are 3:1-5 in Hebrew and in Jewish English bibles (such as the JPS Tanakh).
The larger unit, beginning in 2:15, is the prophet’s call for a community liturgical response to the catastrophe. The opening words, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly” are familiar to some from Ash Wednesday liturgies (in the Episcopal and other churches). The prophet calls everyone: all the people in general, then specifically the elderly, children, breast-feeding babies (and their nursing mothers carrying them), bride, bridegroom, and all the clergy.
The plague of locusts adversely affected the agricultural and economic well-being of God’s people; but they were not the only ones affected. The earth was denuded of vegetation and the animals were starving. Joel 1:11-12 describes the failure of grapevines, wheat, barley and palm, fig, apple and pomegranate trees. In verse 17, the community loses all of the seed for the next harvest. In verse 18, the starving animals wander about desperately seeking pasture that no longer exists.
All the people are called to fast and weep and beg God to reconsider their plight – and God’s reputation among the nations who worship other gods. Their intercession is transformative; in verses 18-20 God promised to evict the locusts and reseed the ground with olives for oil, grain for bread, and grapes for wine. That will show the other nations! They will no longer mock Israel or her God.
The prophet’s speech is far-reaching in its scope, but God reaches further still. The inclusivity of the prophet’s call is surpassed by God’s next words through him to the earth and her creatures: “Fear not!” These words are usually addressed to people, frequently people who have encountered God or God’s messengers.
Then come the opening words of our lesson:
Children of Zion, sing-and-dance-for-joy and rejoice in the HOLY ONE your God…(Gafney translation)
God has already begun to restore the earth, and with her the agricultural, economic, and nutritional being of God’s people. The promise of rain, bringing with it sprouts of new grain, grapes, and olives in abundance is most meaningful in the context of the locust infestation and subsequent agricultural and economic collapse.
And it is in response to the healing of the earth the words many associate with Pentecost are proclaimed:
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. (NRSV)
While these verses are marked as the beginning of a new unit in Hebrew, they are connected to the text about the locusts and restoration through the word “afterward.” After the natural disaster, and after the restoration, God will pour out God’s spirit on all people – just as all people were affected by the catastrophe.
In Acts 2, Peter uses these verses to describe pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the men and women (see Mary, the mother of Jesus and the “certain women” of Acts 1:14) who speak in all of the languages of the Jewish diaspora represented among the Shavuoth pilgrims. Peter is separating these verses from their ecological and agricultural context to account for the phenomena accompanying the birth of the Church.
As I write these words, we are just fifty days past the explosion of a deep drilling oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. This “pentecost” – pentecost means “fifty days” – invites a return to the original ecological of Joel’s prophecy. While the ecological disaster in Joel is a naturally occurring one and the oil spill in the Gulf is a human-fabricated disaster, the God of Joel (and of the earth and the animals) is limited by neither. In 3:1 (English; 4:1 in Hebrew) Joel proclaims God’s response to the fall of Jerusalem – restoration.
In both cases – the locust plague and the fall of Jerusalem – whether or natural or human engineered disasters, God restores and provides for God’s people and their animals. Can we ask the same when we have polluted the oceans? Will God hear and heal our waters, coasts, and their wildlife if we all – child and adult, strong and weak, male and female, clergy and lay, fast and pray?
The alternate reading for the Episcopal Church (Sirach 35:12-17) affirms that God hears prayer and does justice for those who cry out. The prayer of petition in Jeremiah (the alternate, alternate reading) includes a corporate confession of sin. The Gospel, Luke 18:9-14, emphasizes that God hears prayer, and is particularly responsive to the prayers of those who confess sin.
The liturgical elements: lament, prayer, fasting, and confession are both the strands that tie the readings together and a witness to the faithful response to natural and unnatural disasters. The beloved community is called to respond to the needs of the earth, her peoples, and creatures by turning to our God.
Lastly, the restoration of the agriculture and economic base in Joel 2 was accomplished by more than an act of God. The people cleared, planted, and harvested the fields, vineyards, and orchards. This is an important reminder lest we think that all we are called to do is to close ourselves up in our temples and pray. We must also work with God in and on the earth.