Saturday, September 02, 2023

Mining the Minors: Joel (3)

For reasons I addressed last week, my approach to Joel’s prophecy is going to be something of a road less traveled. I’m convinced beyond reasonable doubt that all three chapters of the book are concerned with the same future invasion of Israel (which I believe will take place during the great tribulation period), and with its aftermath in the millennial reign of the Lord Jesus Christ.

After all, the prophet ends with “YHWH dwells in Zion”. He says it twice, just to make sure we don’t miss it.

Without further ado, let’s plunge in. The remainder of the book of Joel divides naturally into seven discrete sections. First up: the invasion of locusts. Or is it?

1. The Invasion

Joel 1:2-3 — A Rhetorical Question

“Hear this, you elders; give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation.”

To be clear, I’m not entirely ruling out the possibility of an invasion of literal locusts at some later date than Joel’s prophecy prior to the end times which is intended to serve as a precursor to a later and greater invasion by human beings. However, we lack historical evidence of any such memorable event, and a literal locust invasion is not a critical part of the narrative.

Moving forward then, verses 2 and 3 help us assign a time period to the invasion of chapters 1 and 2. That this invasion is not taking place in the prophet’s day despite the use of the past tense in verse 4 is evident from Joel’s rhetorical query to not just the elders, but to “all inhabitants of the land”. He asks them, “Has such a thing happened in your days?” The answer is an implicit “Of course not.” Nobody alive has seen anything like this invasion. He goes on to instruct the inhabitants of Judah to prepare their distant descendants to watch out for this unprecedented and never-to-be-duplicated overrunning of the Promised Land by a “northerner” and his army. The words “another generation” signify distance in time. “Another” may legitimately be translated “strange”. What could be more distant and strange than offspring fifty or more generations downstream?

Still, Joel’s prophecy has survived all this time, both as part of the Jewish Torah and as its own book in the Christian Bible. That “strange generation” of Jews still to come will have no excuse for ignorance when they see the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy with their own eyes.

Joel 1:4 — Varieties of Locusts

“What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.”

I believe the locusts are a metaphor for the divisions of a future army. What the various types (cutting, swarming, hopping, destroying) signify is obscure, but the cumulative effect of their presence will be the comprehensive demolition of the landscape and vegetation. The army will leave nothing in its wake.

Food was a major problem for besieging armies in the Middle Ages. Often before retreating behind city walls, those under attack would burn the countryside behind them to make it more difficult for invading troops to find sustenance. Obviously, if an ancient army had traveled a great distance to stage an invasion, it could not possibly provide itself with all the necessary supplies that might be required over the course of a lengthy siege. In a future day, when “the northerner” invades Israel, modern technology and high calorie rations may help alleviate this problem, but the logistics of feeding an army of great size over a long period is still a significant factor to be overcome in any long term invasion strategy.

The havoc an invading army of great size could wreak on the Judean countryside in short order would be difficult to overestimate. The comparison to the devastation wrought by a horde of locusts is not mere hyperbole.

2. Lament for an Invaded Judah

Joel 1:5-7 — The One and Only Sin

“Awake, you drunkards, and weep, and wail, all you drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth. For a nation has come up against my land, powerful and beyond number; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. It has laid waste my vine and splintered my fig tree; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches are made white.”

Drunkenness is the only sin Joel mentions with respect to Judah, and he only mentions it in passing on his way to describing the ransacking of the nation’s vineyards.

There is no question that Joel makes copious use of figurative language. The only question is which aspects of his prophecy are literal and which metaphorical. In this case, I take the word “nation” literally, rather than as a metaphor for a swarm of locusts. The lion is associated with many nations, but most intimately with Assyria, history’s notorious wrecking ball of an empire. Laying waste vines and fig trees may be both literal and figurative. An invading army would devastate anything growing, but both the vine and the fig tree are also frequent symbols of Israel. The vine laid waste and the splintered fig tree may signify the imminent destruction of the nation, including the death of many of its people.

Joel 1:8-10 — An Unexpected Tragedy

“Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth. The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord. The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes.”

A wedding night tragedy is uniquely remarkable for its unexpectedness. I suspect Israel’s surprise may have something to do with the sudden and unanticipated breaking of a covenant on which the nation was relying. The “prince who shall come” in Daniel 9 is said to put an end to sacrifice and offering, which is exactly what Joel describes here: grain and drink offerings cut off from the house of the Lord. Daniel also calls this man a “desolator”, a title that certainly fits the description of Joel’s northerner. Note that it is the impact on the Lord’s house that is of greatest concern to the prophet.

Joel 1:11-12 — An End of Celebration

“Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished. The vine dries up; the fig tree languishes. Pomegranate, palm, and apple, all the trees of the field are dried up, and gladness dries up from the children of man.”

As in the wilderness Israel constantly needed water, so a huge army occupying the land over a long period (say, three and a half years, for example) would leave nothing for irrigation of crops.

Joel 1:13-14 — Cry Out to the Lord

“Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar. Go in, pass the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God! Because grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.”

In 2019, half of Israeli Jews identified as secular. The future occupation of Israel by a powerful foreigner is God’s way of turning the hearts of Israel’s remnant back to him. Today’s Jews may be uninterested in the religion of their fathers, but with their backs against the wall, many will finally cry out to the Lord for help. Here Joel appeals to the nation’s priests and ministers to take the lead in calling for national repentance.

Joel 1:15-18 — The Day of the Lord Approaches

“Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes. Is not the food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of our God? The seed shrivels under the clods; the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are torn down because the grain has dried up. How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle are perplexed because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer.”

This is Joel’s first mention of the day of the Lord. The northerner is his weapon against Israel, and he is the ultimate author of the invasion. But the invasion itself is not the day of the Lord. That is yet to come. Joel depicts even the beasts as crying out for relief.

Joel 1:19-20 — Fire and Flame

“To you, O Lord, I call. For fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flame has burned all the trees of the field. Even the beasts of the field pant for you because the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.”

Again, we have what may or may not be figurative language. It may be that the devastation produced by the mighty army is like the consuming effects of a raging fire, or the fires may be literal, either a tactical miscalculation on the part of fleeing Jews or perhaps the inevitable outcome of hundreds of thousands of cooking fires in a dry and wasted land, or even deliberate and calculated destruction of the land inflicted by the invading army.

Joel will have more to say about the invading army in chapter 2.

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