By Shelley Neese
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Joel is a slim three-chapter book, but it has plenty to unpack. For many prophets, writing their biographical profile is a straightforward job. Six of the twelve made it easy by including a historical superscription: Hosea, Amos, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, and Zechariah. Others named kings who reigned during their ministry, making it easy to deduce the period in which they were writing. Prophets sometimes described significant, datable events. Amos referenced a traumatic earthquake which shows up in the archaeological record from the eighth century BCE. These details in the text help fix the prophets in time. However, Joel does not work that way. In fact, scholars can spend their entire careers deliberating the historical setting for the book’s composition.


Joel, as a historical person, is unknown. His name (“Yahweh is God”) was common, but no other books allude to him, and he gave us scant biographical information. His prophetic status may not have required justification due to his preexisting reputation as a holy man in Jerusalem. Alternatively, since those in his small community were the direct recipients of his prophecy, he did not need to specify his historical setting.

What we know about Joel is that he was a prophet to the Kingdom of Judah, not the northern Kingdom of Israel. His discourse revolved around Jerusalem and the temple, so he lived somewhere in its environs. In fact, Joel had a high view of the temple and the sacrificial system and knew a good deal about the priestly ritual requirements. Scholars therefore speculate that he held the office of both prophet and priest, like Ezekiel.

Educated guesses on the book’s date range from 900 to 300 BCE. Therefore, Joel could be the first Minor Prophet or the last, depending on the date one accepts. Since any theory about Joel’s timestamp does not threaten the fundamentals of the gospel or the credibility of the Bible, it is a worthy exercise to weigh the evidence.

Upon their return to Jerusalem after 70 years of exile in Babylon, the Judahites were a small and poor community with no king. This is called the postexilic period or Persian period, a 200-year interval in Israel’s history (539-332 BCE) when Judah was a province of the Persian Empire. Several textual clues in Joel place the book in this phase of Judah’s history, but they are only clues, and we can interpret clues multiple ways.

Joel never mentions the Kingdom of Israel. This is a glaring omission. Remember that Hosea directed his message to Israel, but he included warnings or blessings for Judah. This was the typical refrain for the early Minor Prophets living during the time of the Divided Monarchy. If Joel lived before the Assyrian attack, why didn’t he condemn Israel along with Judah for her disbelief?

Assyria decimated the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. As per their policy, Assyria killed or dispersed the captives throughout their empire. Joel 3 begins with a prediction about God’s future judgment of the nations for their scattering of his people and destruction of his land (3:1-3). The verb tense refers to a past dispersion, not a future one. With this in mind, Joel likely dates to a time after the Northern Kingdom’s capture in 722 BCE.

One text critical to dating Joel is when the prophet says, “For you have taken my silver and my gold and have carried my rich treasures into your temples” (3:5). This could be an allusion to the destruction of the First Temple and Babylon’s raiding of the temple treasury (2 Kings 25). If so, Joel’s book can be shifted to a period after 586 BCE.

The book of Joel does not include a king—an unusual occurrence for any prophetic text written before the exile. The omission of a king suggests there was no monarchy at the time of his writing. This was the scenario upon the return of captives from Babylon to Jerusalem. Without a king, priests and elders took on leadership responsibilities. Joel alluded to a kingless communal organization when he called for the elders and people to assemble. If “all the inhabitants of the land” could meet at the temple, Joel’s community would have been rather modest. This reflects the situation in the postexilic period, when small waves of Jews returned to rebuild Jerusalem.

Another contributing argument to the postexilic date is that Joel does not refer to idol worship or the blending of Yahweh worship with pagan ritual. In the generations preceding both the Assyrian attack on the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonian assault on Jerusalem, idolatry was one of the primary concerns of the prophets. The descendants of Abraham had defaulted on their covenant with Yahweh by going after the gods of their neighbors. Hosea foresaw that, upon their return from exile, they would no longer speak the name of Baal (Hos. 2:17). Such was the case in the postexilic period. Certainly, the people had their share of problems, but Baal worship faded, and the people had renewed their commitment to monotheism. Since idolatry was not the main concern, Joel did not call it out.

Joel was intent on reviving the daily temple offerings, and according to the text, the temple was operational (1:9, 13-16; 2:15-17). Joel’s descriptions do not align with the period of exile, because there was no temple from the time the Babylonians destroyed it in 586 BCE until the returnees rebuilt it around 516 BCE.

The last indication of a postexilic dating is the way Joel described the enemies of Judah. He lists Judah’s enemies as Tyre, Sidon, Philistia, Egypt, and Edom (3:4,19). These were Judah’s traditional enemies over generations, so these allusions do not help us identify a date. However, he does not mention Assyria or Babylon, not even with a passing nod. In the centuries leading up to the Assyrian and Babylonian attacks, all the prophets referred to Assyria and Babylon as God’s instruments of judgment. Two interpretations are available. Either Joel wrote before Assyria was a problematic neighbor to Israel, or Joel wrote after Babylon’s fall in 539 BCE.

I lean towards a postexilic date for Joel, making him one of the last prophets and not one of the first, since the book excludes any reference to a king, to Israel, Assyria, Babylon, or to idol worship. I pin a postexilic date to the prophet more for what he leaves out than for what he includes. The only argument made from substance rather than silence is the allusion to the dispersion of the Israelites (3:2) and the mistreatment of the First Temple (3:5). These are the two textual arguments for a postexilic date.

Locust motif

Joel’s central motif is locusts—not a metaphor about locusts, or a spiritual allegory for the lifecycle of locusts, but an actual swarm of invasive insects. The prophet wrote the first chapter in the aftermath of an unprecedented natural disaster. Locust swarms ravaged Judah’s farmlands, trees, vines, and produce. The skeletal fruit trees and lack of vegetation caused a lowering of the water table which prompted a drought, which dried the riverbeds and dehydrated the ground, resulting in wildfires. Even the animals suffered with no land to graze or water to drink. Joel wrote, “How the animals groan!” (1:18). Even the wild animals let out a “cry” to God (1:20). Joel’s tender language describing the prayerful moans and cries of the animals reminds the reader that creation depends on God for sustenance.

In the first chapter, the prophet has summoned everyone to assemble: the elders, all the inhabitants of the land: the drunkards, the farmers, the vinedressers, and the priests. Each community had experienced unique consequences from the devastation. Joel calls the people of Judah to repent. From his vantage point, the disaster was divinely authored, and returning to Yahweh was the only way to comprehend and alleviate the suffering. The elders would have to rebuild the impoverished nation. The wake of destruction had deprived alcoholics of new wine, and the farmers and vinedressers had lost their livelihoods. Without wine, grain, and oil, the priests also lacked the ingredients for daily offerings at the temple. Joel lamented, “the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are ruined because the grain has withered” (1:17). Starvation was imminent without adequate food reserves.

The people were shaken. God had used one of the same plagues he had used in Egypt to discipline his own people. Highlighting their despair, Joel asks, “Has such a thing happened in your days or in the days of your ancestors?” (1:2). He calls on them to continue teaching about this hardship to their children and grandchildren, not as an object lesson of providential deliverance but of his judgment.

Joel wanted the entire community to analyze their lives and ask themselves what they may have done to solicit God’s wrath. He exhorted them, “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” (1:14).

Twice daily, the laws of Leviticus had required the priests to offer flour, wine, and oil at the temple, but without a harvest, there could be no grain offerings at the temple, and the priests risked going hungry (Lev. 6:14–18). Priests ordinarily wore fine vestments for their temple services. Joel told the priests, instead, to come to the temple in black sackcloth, like a virgin lamenting for the lost husband of her youth (1:8).

When we read in 1 Samuel and Hosea of God’s preference for obedience over sacrifice (Hos. 6:6; 1 Sam. 15:22), the message resonates with our modern Protestant ears. Joel wanted the people to obey, but he also was eager to return to full temple worship. For Joel, the sacrificial system remained the ideal way for people to express their devotion to Yahweh.

The suffering described in Joel is unlike that which the other prophetic books depict. Whereas Amos and Hosea railed against the dangers of affluence leading to spiritual lethargy and idolatry Joel’s ministry was not to people with full stomachs. His hearers were desperate and listening.

The people’s repentance after tragedy gives us a timeless liturgy of lamentation. Maybe the lack of historical setting for the book of Joel is part of its appeal and continued relevance. We would be wise to return to it in a moment of personal or national crisis.

My grandfather was a preacher for almost 70 years, and he saw in every crisis an opportunity to lead people back to God. He was there for the revival on September 12, 2001; he was there for the revival when the nation went into quarantine in 2020, and he was there for the revival of many people in his community during moments of personal tragedy and trauma. We have modern-day Joels living among us in this way. I am thankful for those with biblical truths ready at their lips to help the desperate and broken-hearted as they awaken to their need for God when shaken by events on this earth.