Assume disaster comes into your life. What is your most important goal? To survive, and if possible, turn it to your advantage. The Bible contains God's promises to help us. This week we look at the prophecies of Joel, a minor prophet, who predicted not simply disaster, but the end of the world. He also prophesied what God would do to help. Let's jump right into Joel to see what God has in mind for us in times of trouble!
A Holy and Just God (Joel)
Commentary for the April 20, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“You will sow much seed in the field but you will harvest little, because locusts will devour it. You will plant vineyards and cultivate them but you will not drink the wine or gather the grapes, because worms will eat them. You will have olive trees throughout your country but you will not use the oil, because the olives will drop off. Swarms of locusts will take over all your trees and the crops of your land. The foreigners who reside among you will rise above you higher and higher, but you will sink lower and lower. They will lend to you, but you will not lend to them. They will be the head, but you will be the tail.” Deuteronomy 28:38-40, 42-44; NIV
According to the book itself, the prophet Joel was the son of Pethuel. While we may always question when a name has meaning and when a name is simply a name, we are perhaps justified in considering the meaning of names when we are studying a book like Joel where allegory appears to be the means used to present the message. In this case, the names may add to our understanding as we saw with the book of Hosea.
“Joel” is a combination of Ja, short for YHWH, and El, which is also a common reference to God and a shortened form of Elohim. In our modern era, with a perspective shaped by many centuries of wrestling over monotheism and trinitarianism, issues that theologians still debate today, the distinctions can be difficult to understand. The ancient Jews apparently saw no contradiction between using the plural Elohim, and declaring “The Lord our God is one.” Perhaps there was an early popular syncretism that tolerated both viewpoints. However, as a hardening of theological dogma has set in, the resulting arthriticism has greatly limited opportunities for such flexible accommodation. Whether or not that has been good for the church, we can leave for another day. For now, let’s return to understanding these names.
Some might render the name “Joel” in English as “God is Lord,” but I think this loses some of what is meant by this name. It is a great attempt at a literal translation, but if we replace the word “is” with an equal sign as in mathematics or logic, we can come closer to understanding. In other words, the name is saying that YHWH and Elohim are one and the same. This naturally raises the question of how a singular and a plural can ever be equal, but the book does not answer that for us. In spite of our difficulty with that idea, it seems to be a given and presumed not to be an issue for the reader of Joel.
When we throw into the mix the name of Joel’s father, Pethuel, the meaning becomes richer. Pethuel means “Elohim delivers.” It is as though we have the statement “Elohim delivers” with the answer “YHWH is Elohim.” When we understand that YHWH is a form of the verb “to be,” we can then render the exchange as “Elohim delivers” with the answer “being is Elohim.” In other words, God is not simply our deliverer; He is the source of our very being, our existence. Perhaps this perspective can brighten our understanding of what the book of Joel is about.
The book begins with devastation of the country of Judah as the result of several consecutive locust invasions. In Joel’s day, people lived close to the land and understood the agricultural basis of their economy. They knew that agricultural failure could mean famine and even death for their neighbors, their families and themselves. Today, when we buy prepackaged food in the grocery store to heat in our microwaves, and when our livestock are rendered into “nuggets” and patties that bear little resemblance to the animals they once were, we have more difficulty appreciating the relationship between food and farm.
Perhaps we should pay more attention to that relationship. In the United States as elsewhere, there have been repeating natural disasters that have had profound effects on our economy. Successive years of flooding in the upper Midwest and drought in the lower and southwestern Midwest have profoundly affected not only our local food supplies but have caused increased prices in food worldwide. Perhaps because of our blessings as a nation in having such wealth relative to the rest of the world, we simply pay the increased prices without giving much thought to what is driving them upward. Due to a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we also had an interruption in the supply of seafood, which is a major industry in that area. When we throw into the mix the destruction brought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed over eighteen hundred people and caused eighty-four billion dollars in damage and several other storms and tornados since then, up to and including Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which devastated New York and New Jersey, causing seventy-one billion dollars in damage the picture becomes clearer.
Perhaps our wealth isolates us from seeing the real impact of these successive disasters. Our grocery stores, like cornucopias, still have lots of food in them, with the promise of an endless supply to replace what is purchased. The restaurants continue to operate, although increased food costs are passed on to their customers. Our internet connections, cable and satellite television, and our smart phones all continue to work. Clothing is readily available. We continue to avail ourselves of ever more expensive private transportation. While this may be disconnected from how many in the rest of the world struggle to survive, it is the reality in the United States even though it also represents disconnection from these disasters and what they mean to our well-being over time. Maybe we are truly the Laodiceans of the Bible.
Could it be that the people of ancient Judah felt secure in the same way? We are told that in the reign of Solomon that silver was so abundant that it was counted of little value. With that kind of prosperity, the people could have easily felt secure against any disaster. The repeated locust invasions revealed how foolish this was. Even with lots of wealth to offset the loss, replanting what was lost could take several years to even begin to restore the harvests to their former levels. In the meantime, they would need to import food from elsewhere, if they could find it. The demand would naturally drive prices up, and their wealth could eventually fail them. Many United States citizens do not realize that while we refer to our country as “bread basket to the world,” we actually imported more than sixty-two million tons of food in fourteen key categories from other countries in 2012. Are we on the same path as ancient Judah? If so, Joel may be important to help us understand.
Joel could be telling us that recurring disasters are a result of falling out of relationship with our “existence” in the person of YHWH. This is not only related to the symbolism of Joel’s name. This can work on the very literal level of “obey God and live,” as well as the metaphorical level where we understand that we should not lose sight of what are the necessary structures of our existence. As we divorce ourselves from a relationship with God, the source of existence, we may also divorce ourselves from understanding the relationships with the world we live in and the significance of the health of these relationships to our survival. In this sense, whether considered literally or metaphorically, the spiritual is the indicator of the viability of all other relationships. Perhaps the Bible is not simply a pirate’s treasure map showing us where to find the future, gold-paved streets of heaven. Perhaps it is a guidebook for natural stewardship and mutually supportive relationships in the present.
If we take to heart the message of Joel, maybe we can find that it is not too late to find restoration and healing. Perhaps Joel is a clarion call we should consider heeding. Of course we can wait until we have no choice but to notice the message, but by then the damage could take many painful years to heal. We can ignore a “check engine light” blinking at us from the automobile dashboard, but doing so could result in much more expensive repairs later and a loss of transportation while those repairs are being done. What may have been handled with a short trip of a few hours to the auto maintenance shop could possibly require days rather than hours. Painting over the dashboard light to pretend the warning isn’t there will not solve the problem. That approach rarely works with cars. It also rarely works with prophets.
 Genesis 1:26
 Deuteronomy 6:4
 “List of natural disasters in the United States,” www.wikipedia.org
 “Hurricane Sandy,” www.wikipedia.org
 Revelation 3:17
 1 Kings 10:21; 2 Chronicles 9:20
 “U.S. Food Imports,” www.ers.usda.gov
 Deuteronomy 28
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