About the Book of Joel

The Book of Joel can be seen as a short-story with a powerful plotline:

There was an agrarian people whose lives and landscapes were devoured by caterpillars and locusts (Joel 1:4). While in crisis and in mourning and lamenting their losses, they came together as a community (Joel 1:14). The people cried out to God who met them as a compassionate Being who does not anger easily, but rather abounds in love (Joel 2:13). God responded: “I will repay you for the years that the cutting locust, the swarming locust, the hopping locust, and the devouring locust have eaten…” (Joel 2:25a). The restoration included God pouring out God’s spirit on all people, young and old, men and women, slave and free (Joel 2:28). Empowered by the God now resting upon and dwelling in persons, the people were held accountable, especially where injustices were found. As some expected judgment for their actions (Joel 3:2), others anticipated the grace of water flowing from God’s throne, giving life to the earth (Joel 3:18).

Much around Joel the person and Joel the book remains a mystery. His father, Pethuel, for example, is not mentioned elsewhere in scripture, and we are uncertain as to who wrote the book or even when it was written.

This is what we do know about the book:

  • Joel means “Yahweh is Elohim/God.”

  • He probably lived in or around Jerusalem given the frequent references to the temple, but roamed Judah, a tiny agrarian province that included Jerusalem and its surrounding area. We learn about priests, farmers, and wine makers.

  • Most scholars think Joel was written somewhere between 586-555 BCE, a time the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, but some place the book 400 years earlier than that.

  • It is short book with merely 73 verses or 957 words. Joel has been contained in three chapters since the early thirteenth century, departing from Hebrew texts that have the same number of verses placed in four chapters.

  • The book has two distinct sections: One on destruction and one on restoration.

  • Joel’s compelling message calls on his listeners to hear, weep, awake, sound an alarm, return, rejoice, fast, lament, assemble and more. There are 43 commands in 73 verses!

  • Commentators disagree on the central theme of the book. Interpretations range from addressing a real locust plague to anticipating the Day of the Lord, a present or future possibility. Some argue that the book is in response to drought brought on by dry sirocco winds. Other scholars identify the genre of the book as prophecy, whereas others yet find the book to be theodicy (bringing God and loss/crisis together), a lament, or an apocalyptic vision of the future.  

  • Joel, unlike the other prophets, is not preoccupied with Judah’s sinful ways. Rather than condemnation and denunciation, one finds promise and encouragement.

  • Joel is clear that worshipping God is possible even if the temple is destroyed. For a people who inextricably linked God to the temple, this was a radical message.

  • The book is one of the twelve Minor Prophets—with Hosea, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.