The Date of the Book of Joel

JOEL 1 The book of Joel itself gives no indication of its date of authorship. This is unusual in the Old Testament prophetic literature; most prophets indicated that they preached during the reigns of certain kings (e.g., Hos 1:1; Hag 1:1) or provided other chronological indicators (Am 1:1). The dates suggested for Joel range from the ninth century B.C. (making him the earliest of the writing prophets) to the late postexilic period (making him one of the latest).The following arguments are often raised in the discussion:

    • Joel is the second of the minor prophets, and thus the book is early, since they are roughly presented in chronological order. But there are exceptions to this rule: Obadiah, for example, almost certainly was written later than Micah, and Hosea later than Amos.

    • No kings are mentioned, and therefore the book is postexilic. On the other hand, postexilic prophets sometimes dated their books by Persian kings (Hag 1:1; Zec 1:1). Thus, the non-mention of any king does not imply anything in particular about the book's date.

    • Joel does mention priests and elders, and therefore the book was written when the nation was governed by these groups rather than by a king, making the book postexilic. However, the elders are mentioned only in a context of calling for ritual lamentation (2:15-17).2 They are not said to have been in a governing position, and the reference may in fact have been literally to a group of elderly men (1:2). Again, nothing here helps us to date the book.

    • Joel never alludes in any way to the northern kingdom (usually called Israel or Samaria), suggesting that the northern kingdom may no longer have existed and that the book was thus OW written after the fall of Samaria (722 B.c.)

    • Jerusalem had walls (2:7-9). Thus, the book was written Mail either before its fall (586 B.c.)4 or late in the postexilic period, after the walls had been restored.

    • Worship was carried out at the temple (2:15 — 17), indicating that the book was written either before its destruction or after its restoration.

    • All who lived in the land could gather in Jerusalem (1:14). 14/ 1 This suggests that the population of the community was relatively small, as in the late preexilic or the postexilic period.

A few other fine points regarding the language and circumstances of Joel are debated but have produced no consensus. All in all,the above considerations speak against a date that was very early, very late or during the exile. Apparently the northern kingdom no longer existed, but the temple was functioning and Jerusalem's walls were intact. A seventh-century B.C. date seems reasonable, but the fact remains that the book itself does not tell us when it was written.

Locusts in the Ancient Near East

JOEL 2 The book of Joel describes a calamity that befell ancient Judah when it was struck by a locust plague. Locusts in fact can do an astonishing amount of damage to agriculture. Over the past few hundred years, a number of observers have left accounts of the sudden and complete devastation of crops produced by a swarm of locusts in Africa, the East and the American Midwest. The situation in the ancient world was exacerbated by the fact that almost all farming was subsistence farming. Catastrophic crop failure within a single year meant starvation or near-starvation, as importation of food in sufficient quantities to make a difference was not feasible.

Joel 1:4 uses four different Hebrew words to describe the locusts. Translators struggle to distinguish among them. For example, the New American Standard Bible says: "What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten; And what the swarming locust has left, the creeping locust has eaten; And what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten" (emphases added). The NIV puts it this way: "What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten; what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten; what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten" (emphases added). One translation is not necessarily better than another; both are trying to bring out the fact that four different Hebrew words for "locusts" - the original meanings of which have been lost - appear in the original.

What do these four words represent? Are four different species of locusts implied? This is possible, but it may be that the reference is to the four different instars (stages of insect growth) of a single species. Under this scenario, it would appear that the first term (NASB gnawing locust; NVI locust swarm) is the third stage of growth. The second term (NASB swarming locust; NIV great locusts) is the fourth and final instar - an adult locust. The third term (NASB creeping locust; NVI young locusts) is the larval stage, representing the offspring of the previous generation of locusts as the first instar of the insect. The fourth term (NASB stripping locust; NIV other locusts) is the nymph, the second instar of the locust. This suggests that a swarm of locusts moved in, devastated the land and laid their eggs. The eggs then hatched, and the voracious larvae and nymphs devoured every green thing that remained. the repetition seen in 1:4 clearly makes the point that nothing was left by the time the last stage of locusts had eaten its fill.

The Greeks and the Old Testament

JOEL 3 Alexander the Great conquered the ancient Near East during the late fourth century B.c.and began a process of "Hellenizing" the region (spreading Greek language and culture). Unfortunately, this has wrongly given some modern interpreters the notion that any sign of a Greek presence in an Old Testament text is evidence that the text was not written until after the time of Alexander. Thus, for example, the book of Daniel is often dated to the second century B.C., partially on the ground that Daniel 3 includes a few Greek words (e.g., sumponia, analogous to the Greek sumphonia, perhaps referring to some wind instrument). However, Greek musicians were famous in the ancient world far earlier than the time of Alexander the Great, and no doubt some of the Greek musical terminology was adopted by other cultures.

An interesting case is Joel 3:6, where the prophet castigated the Philistines and Phoenicians for having taken Israelites as slaves and sold them to Greeks, thus removing Jews far from their homeland. Some have taken this to be an indication that the book of Joel is postexilic, but this is not necessarily the case. The Greeks were well known as a seafaring people, and undoubtedly preexilic Israelites had some contact with Greeks. It is significant in the Joel text, however, that Greece is perceived to be far away from the land of Israel. In preexilic times very few Israelites had ever ventured there, and most had never encountered a Greek. Thus they would have perceived Greece to be a remote and far-flung place. However, during the postexilic period, and certainly after Alexander's time, contact with Greeks was frequent and the Greek language widely spoken. Travel to Greece was also more common during this era.

The perception of Greeks as a faraway people in verse 6,therefore, actually suggests a preexilic date for the book. In addition, in the seventh century B.C. Greece was in the midst of a great economic expansion and needed many slaves. This, too, fits well with what we see in Joel 3 if the book is dated to the seventh century B.C.