3. OCCASION AND PURPOSE
The first part of the book is concerned with a devastating plague of locusts. But are these real locusts swarming and crawling when Joel lived, or are they symbols of future foes? The history of interpretation of Joel reveals a certain leaning toward the second view. The Targum at 2:25 paraphrased the list of four locust terms as “peoples, languages, rulers, and kingdoms.” The margin of a sixth-century a.d. ms. of the Septuagint, Q, more specifically interprets as “Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans.” This allegorical application to future history is found also in many of the Church Fathers and was echoed by Pusey. Calvin took the locusts of ch. 1 as literal and those of ch. 2 as allegorical.
A more refined form of this allegorical view is the apocalyptic interpretation propounded by Merx, who took the locusts of ch. 1 as supernatural creatures and those of ch. 2 as symbols of the enemies of the end times. Pfeiffer and Wolff are among those who distinguish between chs. 1 and 2, the former speaking of literal locusts, the latter of apocalyptic.
But most scholars interpret the locusts in both chapters in strictly contemporary terms, and this is the most natural way of construing the material. 1:2–4 speaks of the locusts as a present threat to Joel’s generation and the occasion of his summons to lamentation. 1:16 confirms this impression of direct involvement with the ravages of real locusts. The past verbs of 2:18, 19 categorize Yahweh’s response to the locust crisis and the people’s penitential cries as having already occurred. 23 It is significant that the locusts behave in a literal manner: they ravage fields, trees, and fruit, but do not kill or plunder, or take prisoners of war. They are indeed described metaphorically as an attacking army and are compared with soldiers, 24 but to conceive of figurative locusts who are like the soldiers they are supposed to represent is a tortuous and improbable interpretation. Moreover, the restoration promised by Yahweh in 2:18–27 concerns the material damage associated with locust attacks. In Amos 7:1–3 a locust plague is certainly a symbol of coming destruction, and Rev. 9:3, 7–9 actually applies Joel’s language to an apocalyptic event, but these passages provide no warrant for detaching the theme of Joel from its historical and literary contexts.
The description of the locusts’ attacks corresponds remarkably with historical reports of their appearance and effect, and gives an impression of firsthand observation of locusts at work. Blended with this realistic eyewitness account are a number of less literal elements. “Joel’s description of a locust invasion has never been surpassed for its dramatic picturesqueness combined with amazing accuracy of detail.” 25 The futuristic interpretations have obviously been encouraged by such eschatological elements as the motifs of the Day of Yahweh in 1:15; 2:1, 2, 11, of theophany in 2:3, 6, and of the northerner in 2:20. It will be noted that most of these motifs occur in ch. 2, but this hardly permits a distinction between the locusts of ch. 1 and those of ch. 2. The army of 2:11 is clearly that of 1:6 over again, and 2:25 confirms this identification (Rudolph). Joel is no mere reporter, but a prophet and an interpreter of a current event in terms of its divine import. As Amos interpreted a locust plague and drought as Yahweh’s means of chastising a sinful nation (4:7–9), so Joel views a series of destructive plagues and associated drought as signs that God is punishing his covenant people.
But his message goes astonishly far beyond this. Amos and later prophets had spoken of the Day of Yahweh as Yahweh’s intervention in signal catastrophe against his enemies. Joel sees in the locusts the dawn of this very Day. Zephaniah had urged the people to repent and perchance avert from themselves the wrath about to be poured out upon Israel and other nations (1:14–2:3). Joel repeats his call, to which his horrified hearers respond. To interpret the Day of Yahweh and similar eschatological motifs as merely poetic and hyperbolic metaphors is to do Joel an injustice. They represent rather a conviction that the end is at hand, heralded in this unprecedented destruction caused by the locusts, which threatened the very survival of the community.
Joel had received a complex tradition of the Day of Yahweh. It was composed of a number of elements; and as Amos’ audience apparently already knew, it was associated with blessing for God’s people and doom for other nations. Amos had taught Israel that it spelled doom for them, too, as a sinful people, and later prophets confirmed this sinister connotation. But if the Day was averted for Joel’s generation, there remained the other ingredients of the prophetic tradition to be fulfilled. Accordingly, after revealing the immediate blessing, which Yahweh is to bestow on the locust-ravaged land, Joel naturally reverts to the theme of the Day. He considers its threat for the nations in reprisal for their involvement in the 587 B.C. debacle, and gives reassurance of the security and prospect of further blessing in store for the people of Judah. By their repentance they had won a reprieve from the Day: its terrors could no more appall them. Thus the first and second parts essentially hang together. “It was Joel’s experience of the awful plagues [of locusts] that give him his intrinsic conviction that the great and terrible Day was near and impelled him to write about it. Chapters 3 and 4 [= 2:28–3:21] came from the burning heart of a poet whom we know to have experienced these depths of suffering.” 26