Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Joel Ben Pethuel

Rend your heart and not your garments - statue in Yad Shmona
Another post related to the recent Sunday School lesson I taught, this time from the Prophet Joel. This is a very different book from Amos and made for a great compare and contrast during my lesson. Unlike Amos, Joel is not fixed in time and space. While there are explicit references that the story is taking place at the Jerusalem temple, it seems possible these may have been added later as the story could really be applied to any temple or any time. It is the story of a righteous community facing a natural disaster.



One of the key considerations for dating is the absense of any mention of Assyria or Babylon when discussing the enemies of Israel. Some scholars conclude from this that the text does not date from 760-537 BCE when these two kingdoms dominated the political scene. There is also no clear reference to the Northern Kindom of Israel, nor is there reference to any king at all. It does mention Eygpt and Edom, but this is not overly helpful as these perineal enemies of Israel can apply to almost any time. This means that modern scholars spend most of their time debating if the book was written before or after the exhile with a significant portion of them deciding that the only fair answer is that half was written before and half after the exile. Probably there is not a better book, except perhaps Job, that defies normal scholarly dating tools to the extent that Joel does. For any time period you can think of you can find respected adherents who have placed the book in that era. Famous classical Jewish commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki or "Rashi" as he is commonly called said he lived during the seven years of famine of Elisha about 860 BCE, Rashi also noted that some suggested he was the son of Samuel the prophet placing him substantially earlier. Because of the similarity of the name Joel and Elijah, the names are drawn from the same two root words with the order reversed, some traditions have tried to say they were the same person. Other traditions put him contemporary with Hosea and Amos, thus explaining the placement of his book between these two prophets. Some scholars suggest he lived during the minority of Josiah, thus explaining the absence of a king playing any role during a national disaster. Still more commonly, many modern scholars place him about 444 BCE after Ezra canonized the Bible. Classical Jewish scholar Kimchi and others divide the book into multiple time periods and authors. In conclusion, no one knows when this story takes place or what editing may have ensued after its composition. There are no textual sources that shed any light nor is there any real consensus based on higher or lower criticism.

In Joel the book opens in the midst of the disaster, an incredible plague of locusts has descended on the town. The sense of the book is one of a reasonably small comunity rather than a vast kingdom. The leadership throughout the book is provided by priesthood and elders with no mention of civil government. The locust are described by four different words in verse 1:4, palmerworm, locust, cankerworm, and caterpillar. These words have no reflection to any actual meaning of the Hebrew words they translate. The original roots mean something like cutter, swarmer, lapper, and ender. It's clear they are all words that mean locust but it is not clear if they denote different species, or different stages of the insects development, or if they are a poetical device using synonyms, or if they have symbolic meanings. Commentators would read into them meanings ranging from different armies that have invaded Judah, to different sins and vices that plague man. I don't see a justification for such things and believe the description is of literal locusts and the four names are a literary device emphasizing the completeness of their destruction.

Throughout the book the description of these bugs is striking and vivid suggesting a close familiarity with the actual phenomenon. Edward Pusey, an Anglican scholar contemporary with Joseph Smith quoted an Aribic saying describing the locusts that reflects well the language of Joel

"In the locust is the face of a horse, the eyes of an elephant, the neck of a bull, the horns of a deer, the chest of a lion, the belly of a scorpion, the wings of an eagle, the thighs of a camel, the feet of an ostrich, the tail of a serpent"
Joel will speak of them as a mighty army of horsemen. He notes the incredible sounds, the blotting out of the sun by their bodies. Their ability to overrun walls and enter windows. The colorful flash of their bodies as they catch the light. No weapons can stop them. Before them the land is as the "Garden of Eden" but is left a desolate waste behind them. The vines are destroyed as are the fig trees. The grain is lost and there is nothing left but skeletal white remains of the vegetation. Years of cultivation are lost in a moment as mature plants are consumed. It is mentioned the locusts have teeth like a lion and, indeed, locust are known to be able to devour wood and leather with ease.

The description of the locusts is not without problem however as the text calls them the army of the North. Locusts generally invade the area from the south east. Theories have been advanced suggesting the locusts are actually Assyrian armies' or the the direction is symbolic. It has also been theorized that under certain conditions locusts may come from the north.

Joel calls on the elders, or old men, to recall anything like it but they cannot. He calls on the younger generations to pass the story down. What occurs is to become part of their cultural history.

Joel notes the destruction of the food supplies but his focus is on the tragedy of the cessation of temple sacrifices due to the plague. Interestingly there is no mention of animal sacrifices in the entire book but instead the only references are to meal and wine sacrifices. These sacrifices are described in the Torah at Leviticus 2 and Numbers 28:7 and several other places. The loss of the crops have caused the temple work to cease and this described as the greater calamity than the pending starvation.

Joel never lays on the people any particular sin. Unlike Amos he never mentions the people as being unjust or oppressing the poor. From their obedient reaction they seem just the opposite, a faithful people caught in the wake of a terrible calamity. While there is no suggestion that the locusts has been sent as a punishment of sin, the remedy is still the same, sincere repentance and rededication to Yahweh. This is an important concept. Misfortune does not always come as a result of wickedness, but it always serves as a worthwhile opportunity for self evaluation and growth.

Striking is the connection between man and the crops. Throughout Joel emphasizes this strong connection that traces back to Adam and the soil he was to till. The loss of crops is compared to the bride who looses her husband in her youth. Joel bemoans the loss of the "asis" or newly pressed wine as well as the devastated fig trees that would represent years of loss. Starting in 1:11 Joel repeatedly uses the same verb to describe both the farmers and the crops. Unfortunately the effect is lost in translation as KJV readers the verb "ashamed" when speaking of people but "withered" when speaking of plants. The connection is powerful in the Hebrew however. Robert Horton described it well:

"is withered": no, "is ashamed"; and so at the end of the verse, twice. This frequent repetition of the word "ashamed" is the proper sounding of the bell which calls to repentance in verse 13. When joy itself is ashamed, the time for penitence has come.
Horton, Robert F. The Century Bible: The Minor prophets
Joel then outlines in 1:13-14 his plan for the disaster. He calls for a fast and a solemn assembly. He invokes the temple priesthood to lead it but is clear this needs to expand to include all people of the land. The elders and all the people are to gather to the temple.

The prophet then turns to the effect on the animals. While Joel never mentions animal sacrifice, he does make an interesting reference to sheep being "made desolate" in 1:18. Horton again describes it well:

made desolate: nay, 'bear the guilt.' It is the lamentable function of these poor creatures to bear the guilt of man, whether on the smoking altar, or in the withered fields. It is the word in Hos. v. 15 translated 'acknowledge their offence' (also Hos. x. 2, xiv. i). Nowack says ' the word is not suitable to flocks of sheep.' It is precisely the word which to poet and prophet, if not to commentator, would seem most suitable.
Horton, Robert F.The Century Bible: The Minor prophets
This undoubtedly is a reference as Horton describes to the proxy guilt carried by sheep to the altar.

The bleak opening chapter concludes with a scene of destruction and misery in 1:20 that brings to mind the idea of "hyenas in the pride land" from a different story.

Where the opening chapter painted a scene of despair, chapter 2 turns to action. There is something about a trumpet call that stirs the heart and a trumpet call from the temple itself calls to mind the angel that stands atop modern temples. We will see two trumpet calls in this chapter, first in verse 1 is a call of warning and alarm then in verse 15 it is a call to repentance and sanctification, powerful and timeless imagery that can just as easily be applied to Moroni today.

The chapter continues with some marvelous bug imagery. He compares the locust to well ordered troops, to fire, and to horses. In 2:3 he uses powerful imagery of their turning a paradisiacal Eden into a lone and dreary world. In doing so he joins the ranks of Isaiah and Ezekiel as one of only three prophets outside of the Torah to reference the famous Garden.

Beginning in 2:12 the theme changes. What follows is a description of true repentance. The powerful words to "rend your heart and not your garments" is the inspiration for the sculpture in the graphic with this post. The inclusiveness of Joel is notable. He describes the gathering and sanctifying of the people to include both men and women of all stations of society.

The end of the plague comes in 2:20-21 where the "northern" army is removed and destroyed. There is a powerful repetition in these verses that contrasts the locusts who "hath done great things" and the Lord who "will do great things". What follows is a listing of blessings that the Lord will perform. Included in these is a promise of the former and latter rains. These are specific events that correspond to April and October that were vital to the raising of crops. The former rain was called "Moreh" or teacher and it was to be given "moderately" or better "righteously". Jewish scholars Rashi and Ibn Ezra taught that this term refers to the Messiah. An alternate translation of verse 23 could be as follows, with a play on words between teacher and former rain:

For he hath given you the Teacher of Righteousness, and he will cause to come down for you the rain, the former rain, and the latter rain in the first month.
The messianic possibilities of this verse have been acknowledged widely, but I believe an argument can also be made for the two rains referring to the two comings of the Messiah. Certainly it is no coincidence that they roughly correspond with Passover and Yom Kippur. I also find it fascinating that it corresponds nicely with the modern church's General Conference schedule.

Well again I have underestimated how much I had to write on this subject. The fact is I have only covered the first two of the four chapters (only 3 in English). The rest of my thoughts will have to wait until a later post.

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