E. Assis, The Book of Joel: A Prophet between Calamity and Hope

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Assis, Elie, The Book of Joel: A Prophet between Calamity and Hope (LBHOTS, 581; New York: Bloomsbury, 2013). Pp. xvi + 289. Hardcover. US$120.00. ISBN 978-3-16-151008-3.

This monograph offers a detailed examination of Joel and brings together portions of the author's previous research. The book is divided into four parts, beginning with introductory and background matters in part one before engaging in detailed literary and rhetorical analysis of Joel's prophecy in parts two through four. In the first chapter of part one, Assis addresses the difficulty of determining the date of Joel's prophetic activity and the composition of the book. He provides a brief discussion of previous attempts to locate Joel's time of composition, noting the paucity of evidence supporting various options. Assis is deeply committed to this task, asserting right at the beginning, “in order to understand the prophets fully, we must understand their historical background” (p. 3). In the case of Joel, this is an admirable attitude towards an improbable task. Assis offers his own proposal, suggesting that Joel was a prophet of the exilic period, specifically prophesying sometime between 587 and 537 b.c.e.. In doing so, he provides a novel explanation for one of the thorniest problems in Joel: the absence of declarations of Judah's guilt. In an exilic context, this absence stems from the despair of the audience since declarations of their guilt would be too traumatic in the wake of the destruction.

In the second chapter of part one, Assis considers the nature and function of the locusts imagery that Joel employs. He argues that the locusts are certainly intended to reflect the devastation of real locusts and argues against scholars who view them exclusively as metaphors for human armies or apocalyptic warriors. Assis's view of the locusts is actually quite nuanced as he suggests that the prophet deliberately employs a strategy of ambiguity, repurposing the literal description of the locusts' ravaging in Joel 1 to comment in more figurative terms on the political situation in Joel 2 and beyond. He briefly discusses metaphor theory, indicating his preference for an “interactional view” of the locust imagery (p. 46). This is more sophisticated than a “substitution view” or a “comparison view” in which is there is a one-to-one relationship between the metaphor and its referent. The “interactional view” allows for the relationship between metaphor and referent to create meaning through their interaction. This is an interesting perspective and it might be helpful to see a deeper engagement with the field of metaphor theory to explore more fully the different metaphors found in this book.

Assis's foray into metaphor theory provides the foundation for his understanding of the trajectory of the book. Essentially, Joel begins with the destruction caused by literal locusts to obliquely bring up the question of the relationship between God and the Judahite community as the locusts then function more metaphorically as an enemy that should cause the people to cry out to YHWH in hope of deliverance. Assis suggests that “the people should internalize the possibility of prayer and apply it to the theological/political realm, and not see the destruction as a sign that their relationship with God had ended” (p. 49). Essentially, Joel's goal is to demonstrate that as prayer is the proper response to the locusts, so is it also the proper response to the political and theological crisis that the Judahites face.

Following this introductory material, Assis works through Joel passage by passage in parts two through four, showing how each part relates to the trajectory he proposes in part one. Along with most interpreters, he divides the book into two halves, although he does mark out 4:18–21 as a coda summarizing the preceding material. He finds the major point of division at Joel 2:17/2:18 based on the suggestion that the prophet is the primary speaker of the first half who encourages the people through the priests to cry out to YHWH, while YHWH is the primary speaker in the second half responding to the cry of the priests in 2:15–17. In part two, he divides Joel 1:1–2:17 into four different oracles, which he suggests slowly draws the audience into crying out to YHWH. The first oracle (Joel 1:1–12) focuses on gathering the people, while the second introduces the house of God as the place of their gathering (1:13–20). The third oracle (2:1–14) deepens the crisis, suggesting that YHWH is acting against his people but also indicating that even now it is possible to return to him. This then creates the context for the priest's cry that the prophet commands in the fourth oracle (2:15–17).

This sense of the progression from the locusts to a theological crisis of a disrupted relationship between YHWH and the Judahite audience is generally well-conceived. Assis also provides solid commentary on the literary and rhetorical function of the imagery used in each passage. There may be questions, however, about his divisions of the four oracles. For example, one could argue for the inclusion of 1:13–14 in the first oracle since it continues the pattern of using an imperative to commence each subsection that was established in 1:2. Further, the reference to the “elders” and “inhabitants of the land” in 1:14 suggests an inclusio with 1:2. The division between the third and fourth oracle is also disputable. Joel 2:11 concludes with the shocking revelation that YHWH leads the force assaulting Jerusalem described in the preceding verses, while Joel 2:12–14 begins the process of calling for response. This topic switch suggests a closer linkage between Joel 2:12–14 and 15–17. Essentially, Joel 2:12–14 proposes the possibility of crying out to YHWH, while 2:15–17 actualizes it. The third oracle thus begins and ends with the announcement of the Day of the Lord, while the fourth guides the audience towards a proper response.

In part three, Assis views Joel 2:18–4:17 as the divine response to the crises presented in the first half. Joel 2:18–27 provides YHWH's response to the crisis of the locusts, while 3:1–4:17 is YHWH's response to the political/theological crises that the audience faces. Helpful is his observation that both of these divine replies conclude with similar statements that the audience will know that YHWH is their God (Joel 2:27 and 4:17). This section contains many useful interpretations of challenging questions, including the identification of the “northerner” in 2:20, the identity of “all flesh” in 3:1, and the reasons for the prophetic condemnation of the Philistines and Phoenicians in 4:4–8.

Assis takes a unique approach to the key question of the temporal orientation of this half of the book, suggesting that 2:18–4:17 reflects an imaginative construal of what might happen should the people respond to the injunction to cry out to YHWH in 2:17. This is rooted in Joel's desire to prompt the people to pray, even in their desperate circumstances. This proposal cannot be demonstrably proven, but it is a plausible way to understand the shift in tone between 2:17 and 2:18. It does appear that the way to bridge the gap between these two verses is to adopt the perspective that the audience either has cried out or will cry out to YHWH as the prophet commands.

Assis concludes his discussion of Joel in part four with a brief examination of Joel 4:18–21. Essentially, he sees these verses as a summary of the book. The promise of overwhelming abundance in Joel 4:18 responds to the ravages of the locusts discussed in 1:1–2:27, while the promises of judgment against Egypt and Edom summarize the political threats against the people of God that dominate 3:1–4:17. Assis finds structural parallelism between 4:18 and 19–21, suggesting that each follows an ABCD pattern. The connections between the “B” and “C” elements, however, both based on the idea of flowing liquid (“milk” in 4:18b, “water” in 4:18c, paired with “blood” in 4:19b, and the permanent inhabitation of Jerusalem in 4:19a) are tenuous. His overall conception of these concluding verses is solid, but it is a stretch to argue for this specific parallelism.

In summary, this monograph provides a useful examination of the shape and purpose of Joel. Assis is to be commended for both identifying a coherent progression in the book's trajectory and engaging in a rigorous reading of the text. The overall judgment of this work rests heavily on one's perspective of Assis's proposal for Joel's historical setting. This claim is the linchpin of the monograph, guiding Assis's understanding of the purpose of Joel's imagery and rhetoric. Assis's argument is not conclusive, but it is not on a weaker footing than other proposals. Overall, Assis provides a plausible reading of Joel in light of a possible option for its date of composition. This monograph is a welcome addition to Joel studies and offers a useful resource for scholars wrestling with this text.

Joel Barker, Heritage College and Seminary