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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Day of the Lord

The theme of the Day of the Lord runs through the book as a unifying thread. The earliest mention of the Day of the Lord is in Amos 5, 18 . It is apparent from that passage that this was originally a festive day, to which people looked forward in joyful anticipation. Amos, however, declared that it would be a day of darkness and not light. By the time the book of Joel was written, any great disaster could be dubbed a “Day of the Lord.” In Joel 1–2 the reference is quite specifically to a plague of locusts, which transforms the land from being like “the garden of Eden” to a “desert waste” ( 2, 3 ). Joel speaks of the locusts as an invading army, with the Lord at their head ( 2, 11 )—whatever actually happens is the work of God. The people respond to the emergency in ways typical of the ancient world, by bringing offerings and libations. It is characteristic of the Hebrew prophets, however, that a crisis such as this is made into an occasion for reform and repentance. The exhortation in 2, 13 is a classic expression of the prophetic view of proper ritual: “Rend your hearts, not your garments.”

In the modern secular world we do not usually regard natural disasters such as locusts or tornadoes as visitations from God, nor do we rely on rituals for relief. It would indeed be unfortunate if recourse to ritual kept people from taking whatever practical measures were possible to resolve their problems. The situation in Joel, however, was beyond human control, at least in that time and place. The ritual, then, was all that people could do. It was their way of expressing their desperate concern and their hope that God would give them relief. In urging them to use the crisis as an occasion for reform, the prophet is bringing some good out of a bad situation. He is also recognizing that all of life has religious significance. The prophetic idea of salvation is primarily concerned with the welfare of the people on earth. Anything that threatens that welfare is worthy of the prophet's attention, even if it is not the result of human activity in any evident sense.

The plague of locusts was undoubtedly traumatic for those who experienced it, but it was not an event of great historical moment. We do not even know when it took place. In the context of the book of Joel it takes on a broader significance. It is a prefiguration of a greater Day of the Lord, when God will come to judge the nations. The destruction of the land by the locusts is a small‐scale rehearsal for the final judgment. In chapter 3 , then, the Day of the Lord takes on a different meaning from what it had in the first two chapters. It now refers to the Day of Judgment. The description in 3, 1–5 has become a classic passage because it is quoted in Acts 2, 17–21 . The imagery suggests the end of the world—the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood. Such imagery is increasingly common in prophecy of the postexilic period (compare Is 13, 9–11; 34, 1–4 ).

Despite the vividness of the imagery, Joel does not envisage the end of the world, in the sense familiar from the book of Revelation. The language here is metaphorical. The darkening of sun and moon is a way of expressing that there will be a time of great tumult and confusion. The world order as we know it will be turned upside down and, most importantly, the foreign nations who have oppressed the Jews will be overthrown. The magnitude of this upheaval is expressed through the imagery of the physical universe. This kind of imagery is very common in the apocalyptic literature from the second century BC on, (see the Reading Guide to Daniel). The later apocalyptic writers, however, took the imagery more literally and came to believe in an actual end of the world. This is not yet the case in Daniel, but it is commonplace by New Testament times. In 2 Esdras 7, 30 (a Jewish writing from the end of the first century AD), the earth is turned back to primeval silence for seven days before the resurrection, so that the new creation is clearly separated from the old. Joel, in contrast, has no resurrection, and looks for a transformation of this world rather than a new creation.

A Vision of Plenty

There are two aspects of Joel's hope for the transformation of the earth. First is the universal human hope for freedom from hunger. This is a natural reaction to the locust plague. In a time of scarcity Joel comforts his people with the promise that they will eat and be filled ( 2, 26 ) and even rhapsodizes that “the mountains shall drip new wine, and the hills shall flow with milk” ( 4, 18 ). This kind of prediction is very common in the Prophets (see, for example, Is 11 ). It evidently involves a strong element of wish fulfillment. More than two thousand years later, the world is still a long way from being rid of hunger. The optimistic prophecy has two functions. It gives hope to the poor, not certainty indeed but a hope that is within the bounds of possibility, and it reminds us all of a goal toward which we should work. The role of the prophecy is to sustain energy and morale in depressing times. In itself, the prophecy did not feed the hungry, but then humanity does not live by bread alone, and the prophet supplied strength in other ways.

Vengeance on the Nations

The second aspect of the Day of the Lord is one that Christians sometimes find distasteful, although Christians have certainly indulged it in the course of history. This is the desire for vengeance. It is not enough that Judah flow with wine and milk, the hated neighbor Edom must be a desert waste ( 4, 19 ). If the Philistines have sold Jews as slaves, their own children must be sold in turn ( 4, 4–8 ). Where other prophets called on people to beat their swords into plowshares (Is 2, 4; Mi 4, 3 ), Joel reverses the call and looks forward to a showdown in the valley of Jehoshaphat. Vengeance is not one of the nobler human emotions, but it is certainly understandable and sometimes irresistible. Distaste for vengeance should not distract us from the more fundamental problems that give rise to it. The prophets' call for vengeance is usually a call for justice. In the case of Joel it is a protest of the powerless who had seen their children sold into slavery. Slavery was a far more fundamental sin against humanity than vengeance, real or imagined.

In the modern world, the vengefulness of the prophet often finds its counterpart in the feelings of Third World countries toward the more developed West. Vengeance is all the more distasteful when it is directed against ourselves, for reasons we seldom understand. Since the Hebrew prophets are part of our own tradition, they may help us reach some understanding of the mentality of those who see themselves as oppressed and want to see the tables turned on their more powerful neighbors. This is not to approve of vengefulness, but to affirm that we can learn something even from a somewhat distasteful text.

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