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Bible Dictionaries

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

Joel, Theology of

The Book of Joel has been dated by conservative scholars from the ninth to the fifth centuries b.c.: more recent scholars tend to date the book to the latter end of the spectrum. Particularly important in supporting this later date are Joel's apparent quotations from earlier Old Testament literature. Because of the relative uncertainty regarding the date, this article discusses the book's theology without heavy dependence on the question of its date.

Nothing more is known concerning Joel than what is given in the book: that he was the son of Pethuel and that he lived in or near Jerusalem. There is not reason to connect him with any of the other Joels mentioned in the Old Testament.

Like that of other prophets, Joel's theology is not set forth systematically. Nevertheless, it will be convenient and appropriate to trace a selection of his themes, giving particular prominence to his most distinctive theological contribution: the expected outpouring of God's Spirit on all flesh.

God . God is both the Lord God of Israel and the Judge of all nations. As the Almighty, Shaddai (1:15), he controls the invading, destructive locusts, which are his army obeying his command (2:11). Likewise, he takes them away (2:20), doing great things (2:21) and wonders (2:26). He moves the powers of the heavens to do his will (2:31; 3:15) and brings the nations into judgment (3:2,12). There is no one like God (2:27).

The People of God . For Joel, as for the Old Testament generally, the Lord has a special relationship with the people of Jerusalem and Judah. They are his people (2:17-19,26-27; 3:2-3,16), and he is their God (1:16; 2:13-14; 3:17). They are his inheritance (2:17; 3:2), and their possessions are his (3:5). Their land is his land (1:6; 2:18; 3:2), and its crops belong to him (1:7).

It is true that Joel does not dwell on specific great Acts of God in the past associated with the patriarchs, the bondage in Egypt, the exodus, the theophany at Mount Sinai, and the conquest of Canaan. Nor does he mention the law, animal sacrifice, the king, the sages of the wisdom tradition, or other well-known aspects of Old Testament religion. This silence, however, should not be overly stressed, as if he did not hold to the realities involved, or as if such elements either did not yet exist or no longer existed in his day. Joel does draw on the teaching of his sacred literature, particularly the books of Deuteronomy and Obadiah, and he clearly embraces the traditions surrounding God's dwelling in Zion, his holy mountain (2:1; 3:16-17,21) and in its temple (1:9,13-16). Moreover, the Zion-Jerusalem tradition is seen in the context of the larger and older Israel tradition (2:27; 3:2,16).

Joel exhibits a striking understanding of solidarity within his community and between his people and the natural environment in which they live. The locust plague affects human beings (1:5), the ground (1:10), and the beasts (1:18-20). Correspondingly, the restoration comes to them all (2:21-22; 3:18). The call for repentance encompasses the whole population (2:16), just as the locusts had affected all (1:2).

The Day of the Lord . The fact that the first mention of this theme in the book calls it simply "the day" (1:15) probably indicates that it was an established concept, that Joel was drawing on earlier prophetic voices such as Amos (5:18-20), Obadiah (15), or Zephaniah (1:7,14) in his depiction of the crisis present to his people. Moreover, it is perhaps debatable whether Joel, in the final analysis, viewed the devastating locust plague as actually the day of the Lord or as merely its harbinger. At least the plague did not exhaust the day of the Lord concept. For beyond the present calamity, however terrible it was, would be yet another, more awesome manifestation of God's judgment, this time affecting not merely Judah, but all the nations (3:14), the Lord's people being spared (2:32; 3:16).

In spite of this difference in time, the present calamity and the future day of the Lord are described in strikingly similar terms, including irregular cosmic phenomena (2:10,30-31; 3:16) and temporal imminence (2:1; 3:14). The apparent nearness of the future day of the Lord is probably to be explained as a foreshortening of time from the prophet's perspective. The cosmic phenomena theme comes to expression again in the New Testament, as, for example, in the Lord's prediction of future events (Mark 13:24; Luke 21:26 ) and in the Apocalypse (Revelation 6:12 ).

Sin and Repentance . Joel does not appear to castigate his people for their sinfulness, as do other prophets. But this is only appearance. Joel clearly recognizes the sins of the nations (3:2-7,19). His failure to be explicit about the sins of Judah is probably due to his being thrust into the crisis situation of the plague, in which causal explanations were assumed rather than stated. Furthermore, some would argue that the three groups addressed in chapter 1 are selected because of sins they were committing: drunkards (1:5), farmers (1:11, perhaps involved in fertility rites), and priests (1:13, who fail to lead the nation faithfully). And, of course, the appeal to repentance makes no sense apart from presupposing national sin. Perhaps it is chiefly the sin of mere formality in religion, since Joel urges an inward repentance of the heart and not merely an outward rending of garments (2:13).

True repentance, then, must come from a sincere heart, must consist in a return to the Lord and presumably to his standards for living (2:13), and is based on the possibility that God will respond to such turning to him. That he would respond to repentance is consonant with his nature as a gracious and merciful God (2:13), but it is not a necessity that he do so ("Who knows? 2:14). Ultimately God is sovereign in his response to even sincere human repentance. Moreover, Joel's emphasis on repentance of the heart should not be understood to render the more formal aspects of religion unnecessary or wrong. The repentance he urges flows from the heart but is to be expressed in the religious forms of weeping (2:12), fasting (2:12,15), assembling at the temple (2:15), and communal prayers led by officiants (2:17).

Salvation . In this case God responded to the people's repentance and restored their material losses (2:23-26). It is noteworthy, however, that the prophet still holds to God himself as the ultimate good for his people, not their material possessions. It is in the Lord that they are to rejoice (2:23) and it is his name they are to praise (2:26).

Joel's further statement (2:32) that all who call on the Lord will be saved probably refers initially to a deliverance from the physical terrors of the day of the Lord. Yet in light of the foregoing appreciation of the need for a deep experience of repentance, one cannot exclude the possibility that a deliverance from the Lord's judgment on sin may also be involved. This certainly appears to be the way the passage is understood and applied in Acts 2:21 and Romans 10:13 .

God's Spirit . Joel's announcement of God pouring out his Spirit (2:28-29) can be analyzed under three aspects.

Its Degree . It is probable that the word "pour out" draws attention to God's generosity and graciousness. Throughout its usage in the Old Testament it tends to speak of a pouring out that is complete, or at least abundant or extravagant because it is unnecessary.

Its Recipients . These are indicated not only by the words "all flesh" but also by the word "your." It is, therefore, not possible that expressions like "your sons and daughters" could refer to all humankind indiscriminately. Rather, this refers initially to Judah, whether all Israelites, all kinds or classes or Israelites, or primarily Israelites but extending to some Gentiles as well. Of these three alternatives, the last depends on the assumption that the servants mentioned in verse 29 would be non-Israelite. But this may be assuming too much. Non-Israelite slaves would normally be assimilated into the nation and so become virtually Israelite. Moreover, at some points in history, Israelites may themselves have been enslaved to fellow Israelites. This may in fact have been the case in the postexilic period (Nehemiah 5:5,8 ), and this would be especially relevant if the commonly adopted postexilic date for the Book of Joel is correct. If the third alternative seems weak, the other two remain grammatically possible.

Its Results . The recipients of the Spirit are said to prophesy and have dreams or visions, words capable of a wide variety of interpretation, largely due to the fact that Joel's announcement comes rather abruptly, having no apparent conceptual connection with earlier material in the book. Therefore, the explanation of Joel is often sought in other passages, such as Numbers 11:29 , Jeremiah 31:31-34 , Ezekiel 36:26-27 , or Acts 2 . But since this method risks importing extraneous elements into Joel's thinking, the present approach will be to probe the actual statements before relating them to other passages.

On the assumption that dreams and visions represent merely poetic variation, there are two phenomena said to result from the Spirit's outpouring: prophecy and dreams/visions, the former referring to the proclamation of God's message, the latter to its reception. It is doubtful that the reception is to be emphasized, since prophesying would presumably not be listed first if it were a subordinate element. Moreover, in the Old Testament the exact mode of receiving the message was not as important as the fact that it was from the Lord and that it was faithfully proclaimed. Joel was announcing, then, that the people of God would faithfully proclaim God's Word.

This bare description is not elaborated in terms of who are addressed by the proclamation. Presumably it could be either the people of God or the nations or both. Some support for the idea of a proclamation to the nations may be found in the reference to those who find security through the Lord's call (2:32) and the fact that sometimes God is said to extend his call through the work of prophets (Jeremiah 35:15-17 ). On the other hand, it must be admitted that, since many interpreters do not see 2:32 as referring to the nations, such a reference is at best tentative, although supported by the application of the verse in the New Testament. Furthermore, any interpretation of 2:32 has to struggle with the roughness of its syntax. Still, a reference to proclaiming God's Word to the nations is possible.

The content of prophetic proclamation in the Old Testament varies according to context. Quite exceptionally, prophesying may be thanksgiving and praise to the Lord (1 Chronicles 25:3 ). Typically, however, it refers to delivering words of threat and warning (Jeremiah 26:9; 28:8; 32:3 ), or of encouragement and hope (Jeremiah 37:19; Ezekiel 13:16; 37:4 ). Its meaning in Joel should be sought along these lines. On the basis, therefore, of 2:28-32 alone, the Spirit's outpouring can be said to produce the faithful proclamation of God's word of warning and encouragement.

A great many interpreters, making a connection with Numbers 11:29 , see Joel as announcing the realization of a wish of Moses that all of the Lord's people be prophets having God's Spirit. The value of this appeal, however, may be questioned. First, the nature of the elders' prophesying may be atypical, there being nothing in Numbers to indicate that their prophecy was proclamation: furthermore, it is not clear that interpreters are correct in holding that this is in fact a real wish or hope on the part of Moses. It may be simply Moses' attempt to renounce any heavy-handed means of defending his authority, as Joshua appears to have asked him to do.

A connection with Ezekiel 36:26-27 is often affirmed. However, in Ezekiel the effect of the Spirit's presence is obedience to God's Word, whereas in Joel it is proclamation of God's Word. True, the two are not mutually exclusive; but neither are they identical.

The same difficulty exists in attempting to define Joel's prophecy in terms of Jeremiah 31:31-34 , in addition to the fact that Jeremiah's prophecy does not explicitly concern the Spirit. Nor do other Old Testament passages (Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 39:29; Zechariah 12:10 ) offer sufficient help in interpreting Joel, being themselves quite general and not specific in terms of the results of the Spirit's outpouring.

Joel and the New Testament . Joel's prophecy is quite widely quoted or alluded to in the New Testament, occasionally being transformed in its application. The primary passage, of course, is Acts 2:16-39 , where the words of Joel are seen to be at least partially fulfilled in the proclamation of the mighty works of God (v. 11) by the band of 120 (Acts 1:5; 2:1 ), which presumably included women (Acts 1:14 ), the young, and the humble poor. But now it is the risen and exalted Jesus who pours out the gift (2:33). The echo of Joel 2:32 in Acts 2:39 brings together the gift of the Spirit and the calling of God, although the call is not yet seen here as extended to Gentiles ( Acts 2:5 ). Things are different, however, in Acts 10:45 , where the Holy Spirit is "poured out" on Gentile converts. Their speaking in tongues and praising God (v. 46) may be a transmuted form of Joel's "they shall prophesy." The words of Joel are again applied to Gentiles in Romans 5:5 , which, though somewhat wordy, means that God, out of his love, has poured his Spirit into all believers' hearts. And the same general thought is present in Titus 3:6 . In Romans 10:13 a different aspect of Joel's passage has likewise been extended to Gentile believers; the promise that "every one who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" applies equally to Jews and Greeks (v. 12). Finally, Galatians 3:28 generally echoes Joel's thought in saying that possession of God's Spirit is not restricted by considerations such as one's religious or ethnic background, social position, or sex.

David K. Huttar

See also Day; Holy Spirit; Israel; Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy

Bibliography . L. C. Allen, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah; T. J. Finley, Joel, Amos, Obadiah; D. A. Hubbard, Joel and Amos; D. Stuart, Hosea-Jonah; H. G. M. Williamson, ISBE, 2:1076-80.

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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Joel, Theology of'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

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