By Shelley Neese

BIble Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts!

As much as possible, the Bible Fiber reading challenge tries to match the organization of our modern Bibles, but our chapter divisions are arbitrary, especially with the text of the prophets. Joel more naturally divides into two compositions: Joel 1:1-2:27 and Joel 2:28-3:21. The first half addresses the damage caused by a locust invasion. The second half breaks into eschatological prophecies about the future day of the Lord. The two sections work as parallel poems.

The first poem shows Yahweh as the commander of a locust army sent to destroy disobedient Judah. Joel summoned the people to Jerusalem to fast, pray, and repent of their sins. The sincerity of their humble hearts moved Yahweh, and he reversed every curse that was visited upon them by the locust army. In the second poem, Yahweh judges all the nations. God promises to save the righteous of Judah, while punishing Judah’s historic enemies.

Joel’s poetry flows from past to present, to future. The locust plague was the judgment that got Judah’s attention. The Day of Yahweh would use the forces of nature and cosmic disruptions to alert all the nations to the acts of Yahweh’s hand. Joel predicted that when the day of the Lord neared, “the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” and “the heavens and the earth shake” (3:15-16).

The turning point in Joel from judgment to deliverance occurs when the people petition Yahweh with their whole hearts (2:12). At this point, Yahweh became “jealous for his land and had pity on his people” (2:18) The Hebrew in Joel uses the first-person possessive pronoun “my” (3:1-5). The people, the land, the silver, and the gold belonged to Yahweh. Yahweh would reclaim what belonged to him. He brought them out of slavery and gave them the land of Canaan. It is not the prerogative of the nations to undo the works of God.

Valley of Jehoshaphat

Punishment was on the horizon for every nation that had treated Judah violently. Babylon was the empire God used to destroy Jerusalem, but other nations took advantage of a weakened Judah to further scatter Yahweh’s people, divide up his land, and loot his Holy City. Yahweh would hold them accountable.

Just as Joel summoned the Judeans to the temple for community-wide repentance, Yahweh summoned the nations to the Valley of Jehoshaphat (3:2-12) to appear in God’s courtroom where he presented evidence of their crimes and pronounced his verdict.

Valleys were often the prophetic backdrop for Yahweh’s judgment scenes (Ezek. 39:11, Zech. 12:11, Isa. 22:1), But Joel is the only biblical book to name the Valley of Jehoshaphat. This valley is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible or in historical records. According to the Jewish Midrash, there is no evidence that the Valley of Jehoshaphat ever existed.

Jehoshaphat means “Yahweh Judges” so Joel may have given the valley a generic name and pointed to a general valley near Jerusalem that would host a future judgment. Joel later drops the proper name and refers to the place as the “valley of verdict” or the “valley of decision,” giving further credence to the idea that he never meant to pinpoint a geographic location (3:14). Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions associate the Kidron Valley, the wadi between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives, as the site for the last judgment. For this reason, it has been a popular burial ground for centuries. Fourth-century CE Christian historian Eusebius connected the Kidron Valley to Joel’s Valley of Jehoshaphat, and this connection has been widely held, ever since.

Joel’s reference to Jehoshaphat is a historical throwback to another time when Yahweh saved his people by vanquishing enemy nations on his own (2 Chron. 20). During the reign of King Jehoshaphat, the people of Judah had received word of an impending attack by a coalition of Moabites and Ammonites marching up from Ein Gedi. Jehoshaphat had gathered people at the temple and requested nationwide fasting and prayer, just like Joel. Yahweh had heard their cries and had spoken through Judah’s prophets, reassuring that he would deliver them without Jehoshaphat’s army even having to enter the fray. Internal fighting among the Moabites and Ammonites had left Judah without an enemy to fight. The day of the Lord, as described by Joel and the prophets, looks forward, but it also points backward to other times Yahweh had delivered his people without their having to fight.

At the Valley of Jehoshaphat, Yahweh summons “all the nations” responsible for scattering his people and dividing his land (3:2). He lists their crimes against Judah. No longer was Yahweh the commander of a locust army; now he was acting as the judge over all. If Joel dates to the postexilic period, the conqueror freshest in Judah’s memory would have been Babylon. Joel does not name Babylon, but he seems to be pointing to the empire when he declares, “For you have taken my silver and my gold and have carried my rich treasures into your temples” (3:5). The book of Daniel indicates that it was the Babylonians who were liable for stealing Jerusalem’s gold and silver (Dan. 1:2).

God held the Phoenicians, the Philistines, the Egyptians, and the Edomites accountable for their treatment of Judah. When the Babylonian army had destroyed Jerusalem, Judah’s traditional and closest enemies had taken advantage of Jerusalem’s fall for their own gain. Joel said, “What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia?” (3:4). Tyre and Sidon were Phoenician port cities, well-poised to traffic all that remained of Jerusalem’s booty and people after the Babylonian attack. The Philistines ran their own lucrative trade from Gaza, taking part in the slave trade with southern Arabia. The Babylonian attack on Jerusalem led to the sale of a contingent of Jewish exiles into slavery from the ports of Tyre, Sidon, and Gaza. Joel was experiencing the pain of incomplete national restoration in the postexilic period due to the actions of the Philistines and Phoenicians. Although the Babylonians returned the temple booty, the people sold into slavery remained missing.

Yahweh will repay Judah’s enemies for the atrocities they committed. Joel described how they mistreated Judah’s most vulnerable (3:3). Judah’s enemies regarded the lives of the Judean children as having so little worth that they sold them for only enough money for a bottle of wine or a prostitute for the evening.

Yahweh warned, “I will turn your deeds back upon your heads” (3:7). Within 200 years of Joel’s writing, Yahweh delivered his vengeance. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great laid siege to Tyre. Alexander’s forces killed 8,000 Tyrians upon its capture and enslaved the other 30,000 survivors, mostly women and children. Alexander the Great marched on to the fortified city of Gaza. The Philistines put up a good fight against Alexander’s siege engines, even wounding Alexander, But Gaza could not withstand the naval and land attacks. When the war dust settled, 10,000 Gazans were dead.

The day of the Lord was a common theme among the prophets. Zephaniah the prophet also wrote about a day when Yahweh would serve as both judge and witness in the courtroom trial of the wicked kingdoms (3:8). Ezekiel 38’s pronouncement of judgment on Gog and Magog contains a long description of Yahweh’s army defeating the enemies of Israel.

Without getting too deep into eschatology, Bible readers wonder about the climactic day of the Lord and its timing. Within a generation after their utterance, the prophecies in the Bible often came true. Other prophecies unfolded in stages and were best understood in hindsight. We can assume that Joel’s vision regarding the disappearance of Phoenicians and Philistines has been fulfilled.

There is still more to come, including the calling of nations to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. When John the Apostle wrote from the island of Patmos, he used Joel’s imagery of an enthroned Yahweh delivering judgment to describe the apocalypse (Rev. 14:19; Joel 3:13). He described the ultimate day of the Lord when the cosmos would be upended, and the earth would tremble (Rev. 6-8). John had lived through the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. He had seen the Second Temple destroyed and the Jews exiled to all ends of the empire. Yet, he was still looking to a future punishment for Israel’s enemies. Only then can lasting peace follow. Yahweh assures his people that with his dwelling in Zion, “strangers shall never again pass through it” (3:17).

As a Christian Zionist, I cannot help but note here that Yahweh judged the nations based on how they mistreated Judah, including both the land and the people. During the upheaval of the day of the Lord, Yahweh will again be a “refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel” (3:16).

As I mentioned when we started Joel, scholars grapple with Joel’s dating. One theory suggests an editor stripped Joel of contextual clues or historical references, to design the book as a timeless liturgy. For that reason, it is missing a historical superscript. The biblical authors wrote the Psalms similarly. As a prayer and worship language, they unburdened the Psalms of historical details separating the ancient from the present.

Because Joel focused on the gathering of worshipers at the temple, priests may have used the book at the temple as a liturgy of lament. Using Joel’s eloquent poetry as doctrine, the people could gather at the temple for any national disaster. The book guided them through fasts and prayers of repentance, and it gave them the language of the Torah to remind God of his past mercies on his people while they waited for an answer from the Lord.

In 2020, Hurricane Laura flattened my hometown of Moss Bluff, Louisiana. Laura’s winds came in at 150 miles per hour, toppling pine trees, ripping off roofs, knocking out power grids, and flooding sugarcane crops. The losses totaled around 19 billion dollars. It took weeks for running water to return and six weeks before electrical lines were functioning again. In the long power outages that followed, people stayed in their homes, committed to doing the work to rebuild their lives. On the first Sunday after the storm, I visited the church that I grew up in and that my father had pastored for almost 40 years. The hurricane winds had destroyed the building. Church members gathered under the building’s surviving awning to pray and worship, exhausted from sawing trees and ripping off loose shingles. But they came to God with their miseries and prayers. They came to their battered house of worship because hurricanes are not an excuse to forsake fellowship. Nothing else in my life comes as close to Joel’s post-locust revival as that moment.

I am grateful to have witnessed in these people the strength that came only from God, just as Joel witnessed the revival of his people after a national crisis. Joel doesn’t explicitly narrate a specific moment where the people of Israel are shown to have fully repented. The emphasis in Joel is more on the prophet’s call to repentance and the promise of God’s mercy if the repentance is sincere. Disasters may strip us from every small comfort that we know in this world, but they humble our hearts and open our ears to Yahweh’s call. Nothing can stop us from calling on the name of the Lord. Only he is our refuge and stronghold.