I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Monday, March 17, 2014

Joel's Locusts...Really, They're Locusts

My Original Vacillations

With chagrin I admit that I’ve never looked at Joel as closely as I should. Recently, though, I’ve read it through several times. Also to my shame, I don’t have any commentaries on the book! In my readings, I’ve come to rest soundly on the literal locusts view of chapters one and two.

Of course the locust-military question thrust itself upon me quickly. I suppose part of its intrigue is rooted in my interest in biblical tropology. In fact, I believe this intrigue initially influenced my first readings, if not even inspired some eisegesis on my part. Whatever coloring it provided, I was initially convinced that the locust were metaphor for military invasion. As such, I was like the proverbial kid in the candy store, granting how radical and far-reaching the prophet was pressing the imagery. There is also some good traction for this understanding of the imagery elsewhere in the Prophets (see, e.g., Jer. 51:14, 27; Nah. 3:15—18). It was great; I thought I had it nailed.

However, the deeper I read, and the further I reached out to the language and allusions in chapters one and two, the harder it became to maintain the military reading. I think some folks avoid the either-or dilemma by suggesting a both-and view, positing chapter one as meaning a literal plague of locust, while embracing a shift to military invasion in chapter two. You know me; I’m rarely taken by a fence-rider position. I’m given to dogmatic, polarizing, extremist, remnant-mentality stances on non-essential and periphery issues, according to some. ;) Carnegie stole my thunder with that rip-off of my original thesis: How to Make Friends and Influence People. All that said, I think the bugs are bugs.

There’s a maxim in fly fishing, which exhorts the anxious trout hunter to “Match the hatch.” The obvious point is to select a matching fly that is presently represented by a hatch of great numbers of the actual bug (trying to figure out how to tie a stink bug...that’d be the all-season fly!). For Joel, if it is a military invasion that he is representing by the locust, then his artificial bait—the locust word pictures—is so real that I’d bite, taking the bait, and the hook, line and sinker with it. I think his metaphor is too real to not be the actual thing signified by the bugs. Part of this, though, could be the big numbers paradigm through which I am evaluating the finer data.


I believe that Joel is a prophetic rib, a covenant lawsuit indictment. This is obviously not a revolutionary perspective. But more particularly, I believe it is indicatively a rib with the imperative to a todah response from the priesthood specifically. The todah is the prescribed and right response to the rib. For discussion’s sake, if we take the real-critters view for a moment, the rib has the covenant curses threats from Deut. 28:38-39, 42 as background. And because of the cultic emphasis (e.g., 1:9, 13, 16; 2:12—14), demanding a liturgical-prayer response, the todah-prayer, I believe Solomon’s temple dedication also figures in. Interestingly, one of the primary purposes of the Solomonic todah-prayer is that Israel might then understand that “YHWH is God” (1 Kg. 8:60), which is etymological equivalent to the prophet’s name, Joel (yô'êl =YHWH is God). For me, these technical bones are further fleshed by exodus imagery.

Exodus and Amos

I believe the eighth plague on Egypt, the locust, provides a good bit the paradigm imagery for our prophet. In fact, the later prophet, Amos, states this much pretty clearly.

I have smitten you with blasting and mildew: when your gardens and your vineyards and your fig trees and your olive trees increased, the palmerworm devoured them: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD. I have sent among you the pestilence after the manner of Egypt (4:9—10a).

Several points are noteworthy in Amos’ retrospect. First, we have the “palmerworm” (gâzâm) again; and, again, it is reported devouring the land’s “vineyards and your fig trees” (cf. Joel 1:4, 7 respectively). At least two observations make these data interesting. 1stly, that Amos uses the same entomological vocab that Joel did years earlier. If the authors had a restrictive word group to work with, this would be of little account. Instead, Hebrew provides at least nine different terms to denote what we would generally call a locust. This is impoverished compared to the 19 different words in the Semitic cousin tongue of Akkadian!

2ndly, Amos again invokes the vine and fig, as did Joel. When we find an Israelite sitting around under his fig and vine, the biblically literate reader perceives the intended sense of tranquility, peace, and prosperity—in a word, shalom (e.g., 1 Kg. 4:25; 2 Kg. 18:31; Mic. 4:4; Zec. 3:10). Thus, both Joel and Amos are putting an inverse spin on the image, denoting calamity, famine, and woe. But in connection with the “palmerworm” and other assorted locusts, it is pressing the image even further, because the fig and vine were two of the least desired table fare of locusts; these were the locusts’ proverbial boot leather. So, by using these two plants as the extreme poles, the prophets included every other green herb, too (i.e., the figure called the totality of polarity).

On this latter point, we have another road sign pointing us back to the exodus. Describing the eighth plague in Egypt, and the wholesale destruction brought by the locust, Moses writes,

A. For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened;
B. and they did eat every herb of the land,
C. and all the fruit of the trees
X. which the hail had left:
C. and there remained not any green thing in the trees,
B. or in the herbs of the field,
A. through all the land of Egypt (Ex. 10:15; cf. Ps. 105:33—35).

The wholesale consumption is greatly emphasized here. The striping the entire land of all things chlorophyll is more broadly and dynamically described in Joel chapter 1, but it is quite apparent nonetheless. Additionally, the chi or X member above is important, too. In Egypt, the locusts cleaned up any and all of the residue “which the hail had left (vb. yâthar; cf. Ex. 10:5). Likewise, the subsequential scavenging of each class of four locusts in Joel is emphasized by repetitio.

That which the palmerworm hath left (n. yether)
hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left (yether)
hath the cankerworm eaten; and that which the cankerworm hath left (yether)
hath the caterpillar eaten (Joel 1:4; cp. Ex. 10:5, yether).

So, Joel’s locust points back to the exodus and is mentioned by the latter prophet Amos. Also in connection with the locust is the dearth that Joel warned about. Hear Amos, again. Looking back to Joel’s warnings, Amos recalls the drought and subsequent famine that followed.

And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and want of bread in all your places: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD. And also I have withholden the rain from you, when there were yet three months to the harvest: and I caused it to rain upon one city, and caused it not to rain upon another city: one piece was rained upon, and the piece whereupon it rained not withered. So two or three cities wandered unto one city, to drink water; but they were not satisfied: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD (Amos 4:6—8).

Associated with the locust plague in Joel are the various warnings of a corresponding drought/famine. Although the mixed metaphors for the drought/famine are scattered like seeds (no pun intended) throughout chapters one and two, Joel 1:17—20 leaves no question concerning a literal and very serious drought.

The seed is rotten under their clods, the garners are laid desolate, the barns are broken down; for the corn is withered. How do the beasts groan! the herds of cattle are perplexed, because they have no pasture; yea, the flocks of sheep are made desolate. O LORD, to thee will I cry: for the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and the flame hath burned all the trees of the field. The beasts of the field cry also unto thee: for the rivers of waters are dried up, and the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness.

There are also the many references to the famine being so great and extensive that the risk of not having enough meat, meal, and wine for the temple offerings was a real and present danger.

The Fact of Famine and the Role of the Land

On a more subtle note is the land’s role in the oracle. I believe the prophet’s command to “Lament” ('âlâh; Joel 1:8a) is directed to the land, since the lament in verse 8 and the land in verse 10 are both feminine, and are thus the only reasonable correspondences. Moreover, there is a phonetic parallel between the command to “lament” ('âlâh) in verse 8 and the land’s responsive obedience in that she “mourneth” ('âbal) in verse 10. Also, in this section the “drunkards” (v. 5) and the “priests...ministers” (v. 13) are given separate imperatives, while apart from the land, verse 8’s “lament” has no subject.

Additionally, in response to the priests’/peoples’ todah prayer and repentance, YHWH’s compassionate mercy is profoundly landward. Joel introduces the returned blessings, saying,

            Then will the LORD be jealous for his land, and pity his people (2:18).

YHWH will restore the land; he will pity his people. How does he accomplish this?

            Behold, I will send you corn, and wine, and oil, and ye shall be satisfied therewith (v. 19)

And YHWH will regenerate the land by removing the cause of its languishment and devastation, as described in verse 20.

But I will remove far off from you the northern army, and will drive him into a land barren and desolate, with his face toward the east sea, and his hinder part toward the utmost sea, and his stink shall come up, and his ill savour shall come up, because he hath done great things.

This army, YHWH’s great army (2:11) are the locust, which are again itemized in fourfold fashion in 2:25 (cp. 1:4). They are explicitly called by YHWH, “my great army which I sent among you.” The prophet’s apocalyptic elements vision/metaphor/imagery (as military invasion) with the attending interpretation (i.e., actual locust) is quite consistent with the genre.

The idea of removing the “army” by driving it into the eastern and western “sea(s)” is most certainly an allusion to Ex. 10:19, where YHWH used a mighty westward wind to drive the locusts into the Red Sea. Naturally speaking, this blowing into the sea and the subsequent stench was exactly what happened at the end of a locust plague in these regions. 

The restoration YHWH promises is that he “will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I sent among you” (2:25). If the locusts were merely a metaphor for a military invasion, then the detailed, repeated list of differing critters goes too far. The list doesn’t comport with typical trope; it’s too detailed. Rather, the other way around makes best sense.

What is the practical effect of this restoration? “Ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you” (v. 26). So, we have locusts/drought, which leads to famine; the locusts are driven out, and the land recovers and the people’s sustenance is restored. The major movements of the book hang together, if we let the locusts be locusts. These remedial elements makes little sense in terms of a genuine military invasion.

Amos’ recounting of the events of judgment, as seen above, present a literal famine (4:6—8) and a literal locust plague (vv. 9—10). If this is genuine commentary on those events Joel warned about, then the locusts are real locusts just as the famine is a real famine.

The Use of Simile, a Serious Problem for the Military View

Additionally, there is the use of simile in Joel 2, which strongly suggests real locusts. Note the following uses of simile with respect to the military metaphor in chapter 2, which contains what would otherwise be the strongest evidence for the military view.

·         This great army is not made of up real horsemen, but are “as horsemen” (v. 4)
·         They don’t produce the noise of real chariots, but the noise of them is “Like the noise of chariots” (v. 5)
·         They aren’t really a strong people set in battle array, but are “as a strong people” (v. 5)
·         They aren’t really mighty men, but are “like mighty men” (v. 7)
·         They aren’t really men that climb, but “climb the wall like men” they do (v. 7)
·         They aren’t real thieves, but “enter the windows like a thief” (v. 9)

This is YHWH’s great “army” (v. 11), which isn’t a real army but is like one; the “great army,” again, is really locusts (v. 25).

These textbook instances of simile makes the real-military view very hard to swallow, hard like a palmerworm in the bottom of a bottle of nasty tequila! 


If the prophet is warning of the real invading armies, which brought about Israel’s/Judah’s exile and captivity, if, i.e., Joel is trafficking in classical prophecy, then whence the king?!? The omission of a specific king is very unusual, if Joel is prophesying about a pending invasion by either the Assyrians or Babylonian armies!

I rather think that the shema address and the vocative use of zâqên (“ye old men/elders”) in 1:2 is indicative of a postexilic prophet, who would have been addressing the zâqên class, which was ruling in Jerusalem during the postexilic occupation period (see also 1:14; 2:16; cp. Ezr. 10:8, 14, etc., esp. deuteronomic uses). I realize the dating of the book is highly controversial. However, these observations seem to push it into that later period. (Note the social crises of Joel 3:1—6! Soooo postexilic!)

This is compounded by the prophet’s dabbling in the apocalyptic genre. These elements and this imagery also points to the latter period in prophetic literature.

Speaking of imagery, 1:6 and its use of lion’s teeth images, probably describes the general appearance of the locusts’ mandibles, and that their destructive capacities are bound up in their mouths.

How about 2:9, and the stealthy entrance of the army into houses?

They shall run to and fro in the city; they shall run upon the wall, they shall climb up upon the houses; they shall enter in at the windows like a thief.

Undoubtedly, this is echoing, if not alluding, to Ex. 10:6, which reads:

And they shall fill thy houses, and the houses of all thy servants, and the houses of all the Egyptians; which neither thy fathers, nor thy fathers' fathers have seen, since the day that they were upon the earth unto this day. And he turned himself, and went out from Pharaoh.

Note also in this Exodus passage the remark that the locust plague is one of immemorial proportions, invoking the fathers’ memories for several generations. What then happened in Egypt, Joel says will likewise happen in Israel: “Hath this been in your days, or even in the days of your fathers?” (Joel 1:2). Similarly, the incalculable quantity of the locusts, being “without number,” also alludes to the locust plague of the exodus (Joel 1:6 // Ps. 105:34).

The references to the celestial darkness in 2:2, 10b are readily accounted for by the “clouds” of locusts, which would bring an atmospheric “darkness.”

The mention of the army’s ability to “march every one on his ways, and they shall not break their ranks,” etc. harkens to Proverbs 30:27, “The locusts have no king, yet go they forth all of them by bands.” On a more speculative note, if the prophet is deliberately evoking this proverb for his audience, it may have a subtle ring of irony and taunt, as then-king-less Israel was totally overcome by another king-less “nation/people/army,” which are merely bugs.

Then there’s the “noise” of the army. It’s “Like the noise of chariots on the tops of mountains shall they leap, like the noise of a flame of fire that devoureth the stubble, as a strong people set in battle array...The earth shall quake before them; the heavens shall tremble” (Joel 2:5, 10a). This undoubtedly served as OT background for St. John’s depiction of the locust plague in the Apocalypse: “And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle” (Rev. 9:9; cp. Joel 2:4 for the horse-likeness). These mixed-metaphors probably refer to the deafening sound of the wing beats of innumerable locusts...makes sense.

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