Peace and Inheritance (Joshua 13-21)

July 2, 2014

Inheritance (or, possession) occurs fifty times in the book of Joshua, and everyone of them, except for five (11:23; 23:4; 24:28,30,32), occur in chapters 12-21. Further, the verb “to possess or inherit” occurs nine times in Joshua, eight times in Joshua 13-21. So, fifty-three of the fifty-nine occurrences of this word group occur in Joshua 13-21 That is a fairly solid clue to the book’s major emphasis in its second half (and all but two occurrences are found in Joshua 13-24).

The first half of Joshua narrates the entrance of Israel into the land of Canaan and the successful northern and southern military campaigns that secured the land for Israel (at least much of it). The final line of chapter eleven signals the end of the “conquest” (at least in terms of major offensives): “And the land had rest from war.” Chapter twelve recounts the victories.

The last verse of Joshua 11, however, also introduces us to the major theme of Joshua 13-21.

So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the Lord had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.

Two ideas in this conclusion to the first half of Joshua are particularly significant for the theology of Joshua in the second half of the book, and they are intertwined.

First, “the land had rest from war” (also Joshua 14:15). This theme extends into Judges both positively (3:11, 30; 5:31; 8:28) and negatively (18:7, 18). In the former, God gives Israel “rest” through liberating them from oppressors. In the latter, the Danites slaughter a peaceful, quiet (“rest”) town for their own selfish ends; they seize what does not belong to their “inheritance.”

“Rest” appears in the Chronicler’s history. It is what God gives to Israel when they seek Yahweh (cf 2 Chronicles 14:1, 5-6; 20:30; 23:21). In those days of “rest,” there was “no war” (2 Chronicles 14:5).

“Rest” reappears in the prophets as part of the promises of God. The righteous will rest, but the wicked will not (Isaiah 14:7; 30:15; 32:17; 57:20). Ultimately, God’s people will find rest in the land once again without fear (Jeremiah 30:10; 46:27). Both Isaiah and Micah see a time when the nations will learn war no more, the earth will be at peace, and no one will be afraid (Isaiah 2; Micah 4).

The “rest” that God intended for Israel in Canaan is also the rest that God intends for all nations. God created the heavens and the earth for peace rather than war; it was for “rest” rather than chaos. God created and rested; God created and dwelt with humanity. The heavens and the earth are God’s home (Isaiah 66:1-2), and it is given to humanity as a “rest.” Chaos, sin, and the rule of the principalities and powers subvert God’s intent, but there yet remains a “rest” for the people of God (Hebrews 4:4, 8, 10).

Second, God gave the “land for an inheritance to Israel.” Joshua 11:23 is the first time the noun appears in Joshua. The land is Israel’s inheritance (cf. Numbers 34:2; Deuteronomy 4:21, 38; 15:4; 19:10; 20:16; 21:23; 24:4; 25:19; 26:1; Psalm 105:11; 136:21-22), just as Israel itself is God’s own “inheritance” (possession; Deuteronomy 4:20; 9:26, 29; 1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Kings 8:51-53). God gives Israel (God’s own inheritance) an inheritance.

Joshua 14:2-3 summarizes the division of the land:

Their inheritance was by lot, as the Lord had commanded Moses for the nine and one-half tribes. For Moses had given an inheritance to the two and one-half tribes beyond the Jordan; but to the Levites he gave no inheritance among them.

 Joshua 19 is peppered with this line:  “This is the inheritance of the tribe….” Forty-five times in Joshua 13-21 the writer, by the use of this term, stresses the theological meaning of this moment. Israel’s possession of the land is an inheritance from Yahweh.

This language has both creational and eschatological meaning.  God’s gift of the land to Israel is analogous to God’s creation of the earth. God gave the cosmos to Adam and Eve, and “placed” (rested; Genesis 2:15) them in the Garden to serve and protect it (which is a priestly task). Adam and Eve were priests in God’s temple, God’s home. This was God’s inheritance for humanity. God created humanity so that it might reign with God within the creation–to live within the creation as God’s partner in the cosmos.

This is eschatological as well since the new heaven and new earth are what God creates as an inheritance for redeemed humanity. What Israel inherited in the book of Joshua is a type of the inheritance that God will give to humanity. A day is coming when not only Israel is the “heritage” of God, but also Egypt and Assyria are God’s people and the work of God’s hands (Isaiah 19:25). A day is coming when the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).

God gives the land, and God gives rest. At the same time, Israel was an active agent in the process by which the land came to rest from its wars. Israel defeated many kings (Joshua 12), but there was yet much of the land that Israel had not yet taken possession of (Joshua 13). Israel was engaged in a process of clearing the land; a process of eliminating (subduing) the chaos (Joshua 18:1).

Just as God placed humanity in the Garden and they were told to subdue the chaos in the rest of the earth (Genesis 1:28), so God’s people (like Israel before them) are given the task of subduing the chaos. Within the story of Jesus and the church, this task is not a violent one but rather the pursuit of peace and righteousness. The church “subdues” the chaos (including sin and unrighteousness) through redemptive suffering rather than violent revolution. Through that pursuit “rest” for all nations will emerge as God renews all things through Jesus.

Our kingdom task is to subdue the chaos through practicing peace. God promises to renew the earth and create a anew heaven and new earth where righteousness and peace dwell (2 Peter 3:13).

In this way, God will fulfill the promise to Abraham. The land Abraham was promised was but a reflection of the promise to humanity in creation itself. Abraham, according to Paul, was mad the “heir of the cosmos” (Romans 4:13).  In Abraham’s seed, in the Messiah, we have become the heirs of Abraham (Galatians 3:29). We are the heirs of the cosmos, and in the new heaven and new earth we shall inherit the earth and enter into God’s rest.

***This is the substance of a lecture given at Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration 2014***

Below is the handout I gave to the class:

Joshua 13-21
John Mark Hicks
Summer Celebration 2014
Lipscomb University

Claiming the Inheritance (Joshua 13-21)

Brief Outline of Joshua (adapted from David Malick)

I. The Book of War
A. Preparation for Conquest (1:1-5:15).
B. The Prosecution of the War (6:1-11:23).
C. Battle Report (12:1-24).

II. The Book of Inheritance.
A. East of Jordan Inheritance (13:1-33).
B. Caleb’s Inheritance (14:1-14).
C. West of Jordan Inheritance (15:1-19:48).
1. Judah (15:1-63).
2. Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh (16:1-17:18).
3. The Sanctuary (18:1)
4. Remaining Tribes (18:2-19:48).
D. Joshua’s Inheritance (19:49-51).
E. Cities for Justice and Ministry (20:1-21:42)

III. Epilogue: Covenant Life in the Land (22-24).

Key Texts

Joshua 11:23 — So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.

Joshua 18:1 — Then the whole congregation of the Israelites assembled at Shiloh, and set up the tent of meeting there. The land lay subdued before them.

Joshua 21:43-45 — Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to their ancestors that he would give them; and having taken possession of it, they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their ancestors; not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.

The Inheritance

Verb: Josh 1:6; 13:32; 14:1; 16:4; 17:6; 19:9, 49, 51 = nine occurrences.
Noun: Josh 11:23; 13:6-8, 14, 23, 28, 33; 14:2-3, 9, 13-14, 20; 16:5, 8; 17:4, 6, 14; 18:2, 4, 7, 20, 28; 19:1-2, 8-10, 16, 23, 31, 39, 41, 48-49, 51; 21:3; 23:4; 24:8, 30, 32 = fifty occurrences

Rest

One Word Group: Josh 1:13, 15; 3:13; 4:3, 8; 6:23; 21:44; 22:4; 23:1 [Gen 2:15; 8:4; Exod 16:23-24; 20:11; 33:14; Deut 3:20; 5:14; 25:19; Isa 14:7].
Another Word Group: Josh 11:23; 14:15 [cf. Isa 14:7; Jer 30:10].

Josh 1:13 — ‘The LORD your God is providing you a place of rest, and will give you this land.’

The Sanctuary – Renewed “Garden of Eden” (Joel 2:3; Ezek 36:35)

The whole congregation assembled (or, the whole assembly gathered, LXX)

“Whole congregation” (Exod 12:3, 47; 16:1-2, 9-10; 17:1; 35:1, 4, 20; Lev 4:13; 19:2; Num 1:2; 8:9, 20; 13:26; 14:7; 15:25-26; 16:5-6, 11, 16, 41; 25:6; 26:2; 27:20; Josh 22:12, 16, 18, 20; 1 Kgs 8:5; 2 Chr 5:6).

“Assembled” (Ex. 32:1; 35:1; Lev 8:3; Num 1:18; 8:9; 10:7; 16:3, 19, 42; 20:2, 8, 10; Deut 4:10; 31:12, 28; Josh 22:12; 1 Kgs 8:1; 2 Chr 13:3; 28:1; 2 Chr 5:2; 20:26).

Tent of Meeting

Exodus language for the Tabernacle (Exod 27:21; 28:43; 29:4; 29:10, 30, 32, 42, 44; 30:16, 18, 20, 26, 36; 31:7; 33:7; 35:21; 38:8, 30, 32, 40; 40:2, 6, 12, 22, 24, 26, 29, 32, 34). 135 usages of 146 are in the Pentateuch.
Only usages in Joshua are in reference to Shiloh (18:1; 19:51).

Land Subdued

“Subdued” is the language of Genesis 1:28 (word only occurs 13x in OT)
Subdued land/nations (Num 32:22, 29; 2 Sam 8:11; 1 Chr 22:18)
Language of God’s grace (Micah 7:19; Zech 9:15)

Theological Perspectives

1. Israel was God’s third act of new creation—a renewed people.
2. God intended Israel to rest with God, become a light to the nations, and claim the whole earth as God’s dwelling place.
3. God intends to fill the whole earth with God’s rest, and God’s people are the instruments of that peace in the world.
4. We have been grafted into Israel, we are the heirs of Abraham in Christ, and the earth is our inheritance.


Stepping into God’s Future (Joshua 3:1-17)

June 30, 2014

[An audio version of this is available here.]

Contemporary visitors to Palestine rarely, if ever, find the Jordan River imposing. It seems relatively shallow, not very wide, and quite calm.  Wading across does not seem like much of a problem–except that it would take one from the modern state of Israel into the modern state of Jordan or vice versa. The ramifications of that move might not be very pleasant. Today, the Jordan River itself poses no threat and prompts no fear.

So, why did Israel linger three days at Jordan’s shore? Why were they intimidated by this river? And why is crossing the river such a big deal in the book of Joshua? In Joshua 3-4, the crossing is referenced twenty-one times! The Jordan River is mentioned seventy times in Joshua with twenty-eight of them in Joshua 3-4. It functions as a critical and significant moment in the story of Joshua.

Further, the songs and prophets of Israel regarded it as one of Yahweh’s great redemptive feats. In Micah 6:5, the movement from Shittim (east side of the Jordan) to Gilgal (west side of the Jordan) is one of the mighty acts of God! This moment in the history of Israel parallels the crossing of the Sea itself.

For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we crossed over,  so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, and so that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” (Joshua 4:23-24.)

The ancient river was very different from the one we now see.  Today, the river runs low because its water is used as a resource by the states of Israel and Jordan for drinking and crop irrigation. The flow of water has become so limited that the Dead Sea is drying up.

However, in the ancient world the Jordan River was intimidating. John Beck has assembled an impressive collection of evidence to demonstrate this (JETS 48.4 [2005] 689-99). Since there were no bridges until the Roman era, people crossed the Jordan in the dry season when they could wade across at points where tributaries flowed into the river  because silt builds up there or they floated across on animal skins or bundles of reeds. Israel, on the plains of Moab, probably crossed where the Wadi Qilt meets the river near the head of the Dead Sea.

However, when Joshua stood at the Jordan River, it was at flood stage. It was Spring (March-April) towards the end of the rainy season (Joshua 4:19). Coupled with the melting snows of Mount Hermon, the Jordan River became a formidable obstacle. Beck estimates that the water would have been 10-12 feet deep and as much as one hundred and forty feet wide. In those conditions, the Jordan’s “violent current” endangered lives. In fact, ancient Christian travelogues warned pilgrims that the current was strong, and occasionally pilgrims drowned in the Jordan. A thirteenth century letter complained that the Jordan was practically impassable. One nineteenth century explorer, William Lynch, related his harrowing experience on a riverboat where he feared for his life.

The crossing was so difficult and treacherous that the Greek general Bacchides refused to pursue the Jewish leader Jonathan across the river (1 Maccabees 9:48) while the Pereans decided to battle the Romans on the west bank of the river rather than cross it (Josephus, Wars, IV.7.5). Jonathan escaped but the Pereans were slaughtered.

Just as Assyrian generals listed river crossings as “renowned acts” in their reports, this crossing secures Joshua’s position as the successor of Moses. “That day,” Joshua 4:14 says, “the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel.” More importantly, like at the Red Sea, Yahweh defeated the waters and redeemed Israel, and as a result Israel learned to “fear” the Lord (Exodus 14:31; Joshua 4:24).

But this is not the whole story. The imposing physical character of the Jordan creates a dramatic moment, like at the Sea, where Yahweh rescues Israel, but there is more.

J. Michael Thigpen points to the contest between Yahweh and Baal at the river (Trinity Journal 27ns [Fall 2006] 245-254). The Jordan River crossing demonstrates that Yahweh is a “living God” who is the “Lord of all the earth” (Joshua 3:10, 13). This is a polemic against Baal.

The Baal Epic was discovered in the 1930s at Ugarit. It dates from some time in the 1300s B.C (roughly the same era the Joshua account portrays). It tells the story of the god Baal, the Canaanite storm god, who was responsible for the fertility of the land and the seasons of rain. At one point in the story, Baal battles the god Yamm (sea) who is also called Nahar (river). Baal defeats Yamm (who represents both sea and river) and is hailed as king. He is given the title “Lord of all the earth.”

As Yahweh’s people approach the Jordan River at flood stage, they face the might of Canaan’s god.  Baal, after all, brings the rains, ensures the harvest, and the flood is a sign of Baal’s mighty power. The river Jordan was not only intimidating because of its natural obstructions, but more importantly it terrorized Israel because it was associated with the reign of Baal.  It is a sign that, as the Baal Epic describes Baal, that “mightiest Baal lives.” Baal rules Canaan.

When Yahweh creates dry land for the crossing, Yahweh defeats Baal. Just as he defeated the waters of chaos and the gods of Egypt at the Red Sea, so here Yahweh defeats “mighty Baal” so that “all the peoples of the earth” might know that Yahweh is the “Lord of all the earth.”

Israel steps into the water and experiences the power of Yahweh who holds back the waters so that they might cross into a new land, their inheritance. The crossing of the Jordan, then, is not only a defeat of chaotic waters (as in creation itself) but also the defeat of a competing power (Baal). At the Jordan, Yahweh exercises power over both chaos and other powers. God redeems Israel from the powers and secures their safe passage into their inheritance.

Israel crosses the Jordan to become a nation that will light up the world for other nations. They are to become a new Eden in God’s creation. They are to model life with God and how people live together in peace, joy, and righteousness. They enter Canaan commissioned by God to realize God’s kingdom on the earth. But, as we know (and as we well know in our own lives), they failed to fully realize that mission.

The biblical story invites us to see Israel’s Jordan River crossing as our own. This is not simply the history of Israel, it is the story into which we plunge as well. It is the story of Jesus.

We remember how Jesus passed through these waters in his own baptism. John the Baptizer immersed in these same waters–probably even in the same vicinity–where Israel crossed into the new land. For Jesus to step into those waters was to step toward the cross; the shadow of the cross hung over the waters of Jesus’s baptism. It was the moment when he embraced his future suffering for the sake of the future of the world.

Jesus, through his own baptism, experienced God’s redemptive love and heralded a new Exodus and a new inheritance for the whole world.  We follow Jesus into that same water. We, too, have stepped into the water in order to proclaim the one true, living God who defeats the powers that enslave and oppose us. Through our baptism we become God’s new creation and herald the coming of the new heavens and new earth, our own inheritance. Entering the waters of baptism is to take up our own cross, and consequently we must count the cost.

Jesus, through Jordan’s waters, entered into a new world, the world of the kingdom of God. Jesus embraced the ministry of the kingdom in order to bring the reign of God into the world so that the will of God might be done on earth as it is in heaven. We who have followed Jesus into the water also embrace this new world, the kingdom of God. We become the instruments of that kingdom. We, like Israel, embrace the mission of God in the world. We follow Jesus into the ministry of the kingdom for the renewal of God’s good creation and the transformation of the world. We are people who have stepped into the water with Israel, with Jesus, to embrace the newness of the Kingdom of God

The Jordan also represents something else in the story of God. It is where the people of God receive their inheritance.  Israel inherited the land by promise, and we who are also Abraham’s children share in that promise. God appointed Abraham the “heir of the cosmos” (Romans 4:13).

Like Israel, we stand on the Jordan’s stormy banks. We crossed the Sea in our baptism and we have journeyed through the wilderness of life nourished by the bread and wine. We now face those stormy banks; we face death itself.  Like the Jordan in front of Israel, it is imposing and threatening. But we step into the water with confidence and boldness. We pass through the waters of death in order to embrace the promised inheritance. We pass through the waters where we rest from our labors (Hebrews 4:1-13).

When Israel looked across that water, they saw an imposing current and the walled city of Jericho. It looked inhospitable. It engendered terror, uncertainty, and anxiety. There was no one on the other side to assure them or quiet their fears.

However, this is not true with us. We look across the Jordan and we see the resurrected Jesus enthroned at the right hand of God and holding the keys to Death and Hades. We step into God’s future and trust that God reigns in the world.

We no longer fear. We are not afraid to step into the water. We look forward to the new heavens and new earth (1 Peter 3:13). Neither the depths of its waters nor the gods that claim its power hinder our approach.

We step into the water because of the one who beckons us from the other side. We step into the water because of the one who has cleared a path for us. We step into the water because it has become dry ground. Death (water) has become life (a dry path to our inheritance).

***This is the substance of a keynote address at Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration on June 30, 2014 in Nashville, TN***


Joel 3:18-21 — The Lord Dwells in Zion

May 24, 2014

Joel begins with lament over the famine and drought as Yahweh’s army threatens Jerusalem with desolation, but it ends with abundance and water-filled ravines as Egypt and Edom become a wilderness. This reversal happens because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”

“In that day,” Joel announces, the fortunes of Israel are reversed. “That day” links Joel 3:18 with Joel 2:28 and 3:1. “That day” is an eschatological day. It may have some historical referent as Judah experiences renewal on occasion, but the picture is apocalyptic. The vision here is similar to Ezekiel’s new temple (Ezekiel 47) and Zechariah’s apocalyptic vision of Jerusalem (Zechariah 13:1; 14:1-8). “That day” is the day of new creation when “all flesh” is saturated with the Spirit of God; this is the day that has been in Joel’s “mind’s eye” since Joel 2:18. It is the day when God makes all things new.

That day includes both judgment and blessing.

Egypt and Edom, two traditional enemies of Israel like Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia (Joel 3:4), are judged. Egypt, with its Nile-based culture, and Edom will become a “desolation” or a “desolate wilderness” (both words derive from the same Hebrew root).  Joel previously used this language to contrast a desolate wilderness with the Garden of Eden (2:3). In other words, Egypt’s desolation is their uncreation, and consequently, like the northern army in Joel 2:20, Egypt is driven into “a parched and desolate land.” It is a land without water, without the Nile.

The lands surrounding Israel–north (Tyre, Sidon), southwest (Philisia), south (Egypt), and southeast (Edom)–will experience the “uncreation” that followed the exile from Eden in Genesis 3. God will set things right; Yahweh will execute justice on the earth. These nations had shed “innocent blood” and violently mistreated Israel, and consequently they will become like a people exiled from the Garden of Eden, that is, exiled from the presence of Yahweh.

That day is also a day of blessing. The wadis which thirst for water on the east side of Jerusalem will flow with water.  The rainwater that sometimes filled these wadis (or ravines) ultimately flowed into the Dead Sea, and they contained water only when it rained. That is why the vegetation along these wadis is sparse and includes only plants and trees that can survive without much water. Joel describes these wadis as the “Wadi of the Acacias” (or Shittim). Acacia trees grow in dry places. God promises, however, that even the dry places will be filled with water.

This water will flow from the temple of God, just like in the visions of Ezekiel and Zechariah. Israel will no longer depend on rain, but rather a river will flow from the throne of God. At present there is no river in Jerusalem; it is wholly dependent upon rain. But this vision, where water flows from God’s dwelling place, assures Israel that there will be no more dry places in Israel and no more fear of droughts. The once dry stream beds will flow with water from God’s presence.

The water God supplies will generate prosperity.  Just as the drought brought famine, so a plenteous water supply will bring abundance. The mountains, with their growing vines, will drip with “sweet wine,” and the hills, where the cattle graze, will “flow with milk.” The harvests will return and the animals will rejoice. No more drought, and therefore no more famine. Never again will Jerusalem suffer. God will provide because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”

This is vision is dear to the heart of Christians as well. We know it through John’s vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22.

When the new heavens and new earth appear, the new Jerusalem will descend upon the new earth. Within that city is a Garden where the tree of life grows by a river that flows from the throne of God and the Lamb. There is no temple there because the city is itself the temple. This is where God and the Lamb dwell.

There is no more chaos, no more night, no more threatening waters or armies, and there is no more death. God is the light of the city, and we will see God face-to-face.

On that day, the land will rejoice, and the animals will rejoice, and the people of God will serve their God because “Yahweh dwells in Zion.”

 


Joel 3:1-17 — The Nations Held Accountable

May 16, 2014

In the first half, Joel called Israel to lament and repentance, to fasting and assembly (Joel 1:1-2:17). In the second half, Joel assures Israel that their gracious and compassionate God will “restore their fortunes.”

Yahweh promised a new creation where even the soil and animals as well as the people will rejoice (Joel 2:18-27). Yahweh promised to saturate “all flesh” with the Spirit (Joel 2:28-32). And in this section, Yahweh promises to hold the nations accountable for how they have treated Israel (Joel 3:1-17).

“In those days and at that time” is how the text continues the story of God’s renewal. The judgment of the nations–the judgment of evil itself (Joel 3:13)–is part of that future which renews creation and saturates “all flesh” with the Spirit. The timing, then, is dependent upon how the previous texts are interpreted.  I have suggested that they have both historical and an eschatological or apocalyptic meaning. In other words, while the text addresses the situation of the original audience, it also envisions a future reality. It addresses the nations that surround Judah, but it also anticipates (even promises) a day when all the nations will be judged in the context of a new heaven and a new earth (something analogous to Revelation 20:11-21:5).

Consequently, Joel addresses Tyre, Sidon and Philistia, and alludes to Egypt and Edom, but ultimately “all nations” are in view, including present ones. God will hold all nations accountable; Yahweh will put every one of them on trial and render a verdict. In essence, then, Joel assures his audience that God has noticed how the nations have treated Israel and that God will act in judgment against them, and this assurance also carries an eschatological assurance that one day–in the coming days or the last days–God will “restore the fortunes” of Israel.

To “restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem” (3:1) is to end the exile. The phrase literally means “return the captivity.” Exact dating is unavailable for Joel. This potentially could be the end of the Assyrian or Babylonian exiles, but the names of those peoples are absent from Joel’s account. Most likely, Joel’s work appears in the post-exilic period (after the return from Babylonian exile), but the people of Israel are still awaiting the end of the exile.

They were still waiting under Roman oppression when John the Baptist appeared to announce a new Exodus (quoting Isaiah 4o), and Jesus suffered as the Servant who was wounded for the sake of Israel (Isaiah 53), and God put out the Spirit upon a restored (renewed) Israel (Acts 2:17-21, quoting Joel 2:28-32). The appearance of Jesus the Messiah was the beginning of the end to Israel’s exile, and the appearance of the new heaven and new earth will end the cosmic exile that reaches back to when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden.

The Lawsuit (3:1-8)

As Dillard’s commentary on Joel recognizes (Minor Prophets [Baker]), this lawsuit proceeds according to form:

  • the accused are summoned (3:1-2a)
  • the accusations are read (3:2b-3)
  • the accused are interrogated (3:4a-b)
  • the verdict is announced (3:4c-8)

Yahweh gathers “all the nations” to the “Valley of Jehoshaphat.” While moderns sometimes refer to the Kidron Valley (what lies between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives) as the “Valley of Jehoshaphat,” there is no ancient identification of this valley. This is an unknown geographical reference, and perhaps we are not supposed to think geographically but metaphorically.  “Jehoshaphat” means “Yahweh  judges.” Yahweh brings the nations to a “valley of decision” (Joel 3:14) for “judgment” (from the verb shaphat). God has summoned the accused to hear a divine verdict.

The nations are summoned because they (1) scattered Israel among themselves (the diaspora), (2) divided the land God had given Israel among themselves (annexed to their own nations), and (3) sold the people into slavery for the sake of their own immoral pursuits (prostitutes and drunkenness). The nations are judged for what they have done to Israel, and in this judgment their unjust acts also judge how they have treated others as well.  When the nations scatter people (including refugees), annex land that does not belong to them (whether by fiat or violence), or empower the slave trade (including sex-trafficking), God holds nations accountable.

As an example–or, better, as a metaphor for all nations, Yahweh interrogates Tyre & Sidon as well as Philistia. These are historic, traditional enemies of Israel on their northwestern and southwestern borders. They have troubled Israel from the beginning to the time of Joel (presumably, post-exilic era; cf. Zechariah 9:1-8). The Phoenicians, particularly, were known for their slave-trading (Amos 1:6-9; Ezekiel 27:13). But who are they to Yahweh? They are not Yahweh’s heritage. Why, then, do they presume to act against Yahweh’s people so arrogantly and without fear?

Because of their injustices, God will turn their deeds back on them. As they enslaved Israel, so God will enslave them. Indeed, when Alexander the Great destroyed Tyre in 332 BCE, he enslaved 30,000 people, and the same happened to those living near Gaza (Philistia) at the time. In other words, God executes a lex talonis, that is, God does to them what they did to others. This is the verdict that God announces to the nations. This is divine justice–it permits evil to sow its own seeds of destruction.

The nations pursued violence and greed (silver, gold, and treasures), and enslaved the people of God. Yahweh, however, will not let such enslavement stand. The one who liberated Israel from Egypt will also liberate them from their forced exile.

The Oracle (3:9-17)

The prophet, given the dynamics of a trial, speaks for the court. Joel calls the opposing parties to battle.

To the Nations:  “Stir up the warriors!” (Joel 3:9)

To Yahweh:  “Bring down your warriors, O Lord!” (Joel 3:11)

The prophet summons each to battle (Joel 3:9-11). In one sense Yahweh gathers the nations (3:2), but in another sense they arouse themselves for battle (3:11). The nations will enlist everyone–even the weak must become warriors. Farmers must become warriors–using the language that reverses great prophetic texts that proclaim peace; they will turn their farming implements into weapons instead of the reverse (cf. Micah 4; Isaiah 2). This is a full scale effort–everyone, all the nations against Yahweh’s host.

And then Yahweh speaks (Joel 3:12-17). This section of the oracle begins and ends with the voice of Yahweh (note the first person singular).

The nations will stir–they will gather for battle, but there is no battle. It is a harvest of judgment as Yahweh “sit[s] to judge all the neighboring nations.” This is a courtroom scene rather than a battlefield. The valley is not a piece of geography, but the place where God decides the fate of the nations.

God’s judgment is uncreation–it is the reversal of creation itself. The nations may gather, but the ice will crack beneath their feet. The sun is darkened and the stars no longer give their light. The “heavens and the earth” (a la Genesis 1:1) shake! The creation convulses as the the nations fall before the voice of the Lord. This is apocalyptic language to describe the ultimate shaking of the nations on the day of Yahweh.

While the nations crumble, Zion and Jerusalem are a refuge for the people of Israel because it God’s home, God’s dwelling place. God dwells within Israel. The promise of the Exodus–that God would dwell with Israel–is fully realized when God dwells on the holy hill of Zion in Jerusalem and “strangers shall never again pass through it.”

“Never again”–similar to the promises in Joel 2:26-27–lingers in the ears of Israel. “Never again” is eschatological language among the prophets. It is the language of the new heavens and new earth in Isaiah 65:  “no more”…not again…will Israel hear the sound of weeping, or an infant live but a few days.

When that day comes–when the nations are judged, creation renewed, and the Spirit is fully poured out on God’s people–we will “know” that the Lord our God dwells among us.

In the new Jerusalem upon the new heavens and new earth, God will dwell with humanity. There will be no night there–nothing will be darkened.  There will be no chaos, no death. And there will be no temple since God and the Lamb will make their home in that new city.

 


David Lipscomb: A Sermon at the Penitentiary (1900)

May 14, 2014

This sermon by David Lipscomb appeared in The Nashville American (February 21, 1900, p. 5). I thought it was interesting to read what Lipscomb said to those incarcerated at the “State Prison.”

I thought the reference to “character” rather than status, place or position was a veiled reference to looking at the heart of a person (or as MLK put it “the content of their character”) rather than the color of their skin.

Lipscomb is also interested in obedience as it leads to transformation. We love God through obedience so that we might experience gradual transformation, and this includes the ordinances, of which assembling on the Lord’s Day is one. All of God’s commandments (ordinances, ways) are designed to transform us into the image of Christ.

Character makes a difference in life, and a transformed character is the goal of the Christian “religion,” which “rebinds” (restores) us to God.

Here is the text in full.

What the Lord Requires of Israel.

Sermon by Elder David Lipscomb at the State Prison.

The following sermon was preached Sunday by Elder David Lipscomb at the State penitentiary:

He read Deut. x., 12-13: “and now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all they heart and with all they soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statues which I commend thee this day for thy good.”

The speaker, said in part, that God through Moses spoke this to the Israelites, but that the principles upon which God deals with man are always the same. He is spoken of in this connection as the Lord God who is the God of Gods and Lord of Lords, a great God, a might and terrible God, who regardeth not person nor taketh reward.

He spoke of how difficult it was for men to treat impartially their fellow-man without regard to place or position, and not solely in respect to their characters. But this was characteristic of God, who regards not the persons of men whether they be in high or low stations, but as they are in their characters before him, whose judgment is righteous and impartial. He said the Christian religion was designed by its divine Author to lift mankind from sin and shame to the attainment and cultivation of the Christian character.

The speaker said, being once interrogated as to what is religion, at the time he was puzzled to give a satisfactory answer to his querist or even to himself. The world religion means a rebinding. As applied to Christianity it means to rebind man to his Maker, from whom he had been separated by disobedience. Man could only be rebound to God by returning in obedience to God, retracing, as it were, the steps which had separated him from God. This could be effected through Christ, whom God had sent into the world for this purpose. He only could restore man to union and harmony with God. We were taught in this text to “fear God,” but this fear meant not to dread God in terror and alarm, but to reverently regard his holy name, his word and his ordinances.

The speaker alluded to a common popular error which taught that every man should walk in his own ways, but that God commanded man to walk in God’s ways, and in all of them, not to add to nor diminish aught from them. He said to select such ways of God as pleased us and reject those which did not suit us was not to obey God at all. To do only what pleased us and reject other commandments of God was but to walk in our own way and not God’s. It was a fatal error. God often gave tests of faith by requiring us to do things not agreeable to us. This was well illustrated in the case of Abraham who was commanded to offer up Isaac, his only child of promise. God might have foreknown that Isaac would be spared, but Abraham did not. His faith was increased by this test. So every test of our faith should result in our good, to give us stronger faith.

This text also teaches us to love God. God said to the Jews that he loved even strangers. He would do them good. Love was intensely practical. God’s love is manifested in what god does. So our love for God must be manifested in obeying the commandments of God in what we do.

The speaker said all our love, fear and service of God was not to benefit God, but as taught in this connection was “for thy good.” God was omnipotent and needed not this help of man, as many vainly suppose.

He said to shirk or doge a duty to God did not cheat God, but him who avoided the duty, and it would soon be manifest by an incompetency that would put one to shame. The pupil who dodged his lessons at school did not cheat the teacher, but himself. Some church members chose the Lord’s day to visit the sick instead of going to the assembly as God required. They could visit the sick at other times. They, too, cheated themselves and not God.

It was the design of all our worship and service of God to make us more and more like God in spirit and character. In proof of this the speaker read and explained II Corinthians iii.18, in which it is said, “We all with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the spirit of the Lord.” This image was spiritual. It was of gradual formation. It was the result of a constant adoration and worship of God as seen in the life and character of Jesus Christ. This growth of the inner or spiritual man to the image of Christ, though certain and sure, we were yet unconscious of it at any particular time. This was illustrated by the youth who, however anxious to grow to manhood, was never able to see the growth of one day. Measurements at longer intervals would clearly indicate growth. It was so in the Christian life.

This image was never perfected while in the flesh. Although the flesh became weaker day by day and the inward man stronger day by day, it was yet impossible for the weak eyes of mortality to behold Christ in his glorious perfections. Now, we could only see him, as it were, in a glass, in mere outline. A perfect vision of Christ to the eyes of flesh would be too blinding, as the disciples experienced on the Mount of Transfiguration or Saul saw on the road near Damascus. But we shall be strengthened to behold him in his glory. We are “now” the sons of God, but it doth not yet appear what we shall be.

The afflictions of life are the chatisements of a kind Father who feels more than his children the strokes of correction. The afflictions of life are brief and light, however severe in themselves, in comparison with the glory which shall be revealed in us. He will change this vile body and fashion it like unto his glorious body.

The gospel of the Son of God, by its transforming grace, can make the lowest and most degraded of earth to be the peer of the brightest angel that vies around the throne of God.

All were urged to make an earnest effort for a higher and nobler life.


Joel 2:28-32 — I Will Pour Out My Spirit On All Flesh

May 7, 2014

Joel’s lament liturgy in the first half of the book envisioned the devastation of Israel by a locust plague (or perhaps an invading army). That impending disaster also represented a future apocalyptic disaster. Joel is working at two levels–the immediate moment but also a future cataclysm.

Israel’s response to such news, as with all other human beings, is to lament. The prophet calls them to assemble, repent, and pray. They cry out to the Lord because they know Yahweh is gracious and compassionate. Yahweh will save those who call on the name of the Lord.

In the second half of Joel, Yahweh responds to the prayers of the people. Yahweh promises a fruitful land (Joel 2:18-27), a new Spirit (Joel 2:28-32), and a judgment of hostile forces (3:1-19). The promised land includes not only a renewal of Israel’s Edenic life in the land (a restoration of Israel) but also a new creation itself (a renewal of Eden).  That same dual aspect is present also in the promise of a new Spirit.

Poured Out Spirit

Concomitant with the renewal of the land is the pouring out of the Spirit. While the language is sequential, they are nevertheless tied together. God’s new creation is saturated with the Spirit. The restoration of Israel–when it is fully restored–will include the presence of God’s Spirit among the people.

The significance of this text is difficult to overestimate. It stands in stark contrast with Numbers 11 where in the face of tremendous burdens God helps Moses by equipping seventy elders (“old men”) with the Spirit. Though Joshua is puzzled by this, Moses hopes that a time would come when “all” Yahweh’s “people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29). This is that moment! Joel envisions a time when God will answer Moses’s prayer.

Numbers 11:24-25

Joel 2:28-29

Seventy

All

Prophesy

Prophesy

Men

Men and Women

Old

Old and Young

Free

Free and Slave

The Spirit of God will rest upon “all flesh,” and so fully led by the Spirit that everyone will “dream dreams,” “see visions,” and “prophesy.” This language means that everyone will experience God’s life as they all see the world through God’s vision. The Spirit–poured out on “all flesh–will saturate the community of God, and the Spirit will give life, power, and vision to “all flesh.”

This is a radical vision. Israel’s life was hierarchical (elders) and patriarchal (males) though there were notable “exceptions” (e.g., Deborah, Miriam, and Huldah). Older free males stood at the top of the social structure, but this vision levels the playing field in a significant way:  all, old/young, male/female, and free/slave. The young, enslaved, and female will now also fully experience the Spirit. God will live in and through “all” rather than only through seventy older free males.

Apocalyptic Vision

When would this happen? When would God pour out the Spirit upon all flesh?

The text locates this outpouring “after” the emergence of Edenic Israel in Joel 2:18-27, that is, after the restoration of Israel. Within the context of Joel this is difficult to identify with any historical specificity.

If we regard Joel as a liturgical lament, then the divine response of (1) renewed land, (2) renewed [Spirit-led] people, and (3) divine judgment is something happens after Israel’s repentance (their calling on the Lord). It is a general liturgical form, but it also has an apocalyptic meaning and intent.

Apocalyptic language appears in Joel 2:30-31. This describes a cosmic shake-up. It is the appearance of the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” God, in effect, uncreates! In other words, what Joel describes is a disturbance that resembles the undoing of creation itself. The sun, for example, turns into the darkness. The creation (heavens and earth) revert back to chaos. Darkness, fire, and blood fill the creation rather than light and life.

In that great cataclysmic moment God will pour out the Spirit upon all flesh, and those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. A remnant will survive the uncreation.

But what exactly are we talking about?

The Spirit and the Church

Luke narrates the story of Jesus and the church in such a way that the appearance of Jesus is the end of the exile and the restoration of Israel. Indeed, the out-pouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost (the presentation of the firstfruits of the harvest) is the beginning of the restoration of Israel.

Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32a in Acts 2:17-21, and identifies the events of that day as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. “This is that,” Peter says.

Exalted at the right hand of the Father, the resurrected Messiah received the promised Spirit from the Father and the Messiah poured out the Spirit upon restored Israel, which begins with the one hundred and twenty gathered in Jerusalem in Acts 1. The Spirit saturates and renews Israel. And this is only the beginning.

Luke tells the story of how renewed Israel expanded to include the Gentiles (“all flesh”) and how women prophesied in this new community (Philip’s daughters in Acts 21:9). The Book of Acts is not so much the “acts of the apostles” as it is the “acts of the Holy Spirit” who leads and guides the church in its mission as a witness among the nations and the full inclusion of women within the community. The inclusion of women is present among the one hundred and twenty in Acts 1:14, and their presence in the community is consistently highlighted in Acts (5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2, 36-39; 16:13; 17:4, 12). In the light of this emphasis, Luke’s seeming aside about Philip’s daughters (prophetesses) is particularly significant. Joel’s prophecy is progressively realized within the church.

Paul quotes Joel 2:32a in support of the inclusion of the Gentiles. “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek,” Paul writes, because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:12-13).

Moreover, Paul’s inclusion of women in Galatians 3:28 also seems to echo Joel 2:28-29. The children of God include Jews and Gentiles, males and females, and slave and free. They are all heirs of Abraham, heirs of the new creation. They are, as the renewed Israel of God, the new creation (Galatians 6:15-16).

Galatians 3:26-28

Joel 2:28-29

Jew/Greek

All Flesh

Male/Female as Children of God

Sons/Daughters

Free/Slave

Free/Slave

These children of Abraham are the people into whose hearts God has sent the Spirit (Galatians 4:6). They have received the promised Spirit. Whether Jew or Greek, male or female, free or slave, this new creation is indwelt by and saturated with God’s Spirit.  The effect is that some are gifted with prophecy, including both men and women, Jew and Greek, and slave and free.

The heart of Joel’s vision of restored Israel is that God’s Spirit will empower women as well as men, slaves as well as the free, the young as well as the old, to prophesy. The community, in terms of its prophetic leadership and inSpirited experience, will “no longer” (to use Paul’s phrase in Galatians 3:28) be male, free, and Jewish. Rather, female prophets as well as enslaved and youthful ones will lead the people of God through their prophetic work.

Joel’s vision, as applied by Peter and echoed by Paul, still speaks to the church, and calls the church to lean ever more heavily into the new creation that the Spirit is working among us.

New Creation and the Spirit of God

But there is more. Joel’s vision is not limited to the story of the church working its way through history as new creation emerges within God’s ongoing story with creation. Rather, it speaks to the fuller reality that is yet to appear–the creation of the new heavens and the new earth itself.

Just as Joel 2:18-27 anticipates a renewed Eden upon a new heaven and new earth (a new creation), so Joel 2:28-32 anticipates a pneumatic (Spiritual) existence.

A Spiritual (pneumatic) existence? Yes, but let me explain.

At present the people of God are indwelt by the Spirit of God who is busily transforming us into the image of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-18; 6:18-20). In this sense we are already pneumatic (Spiritual) people, that is, we are people whose inner life is animated and renewed by the Spirit of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:12-3:1; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18) even though our outer life–our physical bodies–are decaying day by day.

Pneumatic existence, however, is not simply for the soul. God intends it for our bodies as well. Consequently, the Spirit who now indwells us will also raise our mortal bodies from the grave and give them immortal life (cf. Romans 8:11,23). Paul describes the resurrection body as a “spiritual” (pneumatic) body. It is a body animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit; it is immortal life in an immortal body (1 Corinthians 15:42-57).

The final act of new creation–when new creation fully emerges as God renews heaven and earth–is the resurrection of our bodies, and we will live a pneumatic existence in a new heaven and new earth. When the Spirit is fully poured out, our inner and outer lives will be fully conformed to the inner and outer life of Jesus the Messiah, our resurrected Lord.  Our souls will be perfected by the Spirit so that we are conformed to the image of the Son, and our bodies will be conformed to the image of the Son’s resurrected body. We will be like the resurrected Messiah–fully led, empowered and animated by the Spirit of God.

Come, Lord Jesus!

 

 


Two Chapel Speeches on Lament

April 28, 2014

Below are links to two chapel speeches this year—my only chapel speeches this academic year.

The first was delivered to the whole Lipscomb student body after the loss of Isaac Philips who was found dead in his dorm room in late September 2013. You may view the chapel speech at this link.

The second was delivered at the Abilene Graduate School of Theology chapel on Ash Wednesday (March 5, 2014). You may view that speech here.

Both are focused on lament. The former laments death, and the later laments injustice based on Joel 2:1-17.

 


Joel 2:18-27 — The Promise of New Creation

April 23, 2014

Joel’s propehtic liturgy previously announced the coming of the great “day of the Lord,” which functions at multiple levels. On the one hand, it envisions any impending disaster that is coming upon Israel–whether it is a locust plague, an invading army, or some other communal crisis. On the other hand, it describes an apocalyptic event that will transform human and planetary existence. I think we must read Joel at both levels–the liturgy responds to present crises but also anticipates a future “day of the Lord.”

Joel 1:2-2:11 described a national disaster that prefigured the “day of the Lord.” In the light of such impending doom, Joel implored Israel to return by assembling for a communal fast and prayer (Joel 2:12-17). This is the turning point in Joel’s iturgy. The second half of Joel turns to thanksgiving for and the joyful anticipation of the future. The prophet sees new creation (2:18-27), spiritual renewal (2:28-32), and the defeat of all hostile powers (3:1-21) in Israel’s future.

Just like the “day of the Lord,” these promises function at two levels. They are present realities in the life of Israel that anticipate a future. However or whenever Israel experienced these promises in their history, they also yearned for the day of their full realization. Their present experience of renewal promised a fuller (even eschatological) future. In this sense, Joel’s language is both historical and apocalyptic; it addresses the present and the future.

The liturgy of lament, then, moves to a liturgy of thanksgiving, and the thanksgiving is rooted in God’s promises, that is, what God will do (Joel 2:18-27). The thanksgiving (2:21-24) is the centerpiece of the liturgy, but it is surrounded by a word of grace about God’s gracious and wondrous mighty acts.

A.  The Lord Removes the Dangers (2:18-20)
B.  The Land, Animals and People Rejoice (2:21-24)
A.  The Lord Supplies Israel (21:25-27).

Yahweh’s first concern is Israel’s life in the land or, more broadly, human existence on the earth.  God is “jealous,” and consequently “compassionate,” for the land and its people. Both the land and people belong to God; they are God’s own possession. God acts out of deep emotion for the sake of the land and the people.

Yahweh’s mercy yields a crop in the land (“grain, wine, and oil”) and removes the shame of the people. God drives the invading army into the sea and wasteland, and the stench of the dead locusts reminds Israel that God has delivered them from the disaster.

In other words, God renews the land and brings it peace. God renews Eden in Israel. What was once a “Garden of Eden” (2:3) has become so again. God renews the promise of creation itself, as well as the promise to Israel, that humanity would dwell with God in the land and thrive in harmony with creation. This renewed promise means that all creation celebrates with thanksgiving.

Consequently, God addresses the

soil (2:21)
animals (2:22)
children of Zion (2:23-24)

Fear has disappeared and joy has emerged within the renewed creation. “Do not fear, O soil…you animals of the field.” The soil and animals will “be glad and rejoice”  because the soil will no longer thirst and the animals will no longer starve. God ends the drought. As a result, the trees bear fruit, the vines and figs “give their full yield,” and grain, wine, and oil are abundant. Creation itself, as well as Israel, will rejoice in God’s renewal.

In effect, God renews covenant with both creation and Israel by sending the early and latter rains “as before.” The autumn (early) rains prepare the ground for planting, and the spring (latter) rains enable a rich harvest (cf. Deuteronomy 11:14; Jeremiah 5:24; James 5:7). This was the planting cycle of the land of Canaan, which is still the case today. God covenanted with Israel that the rains would come in their Eden as long as they loved their God, but should they love other gods, Yahweh would shut off the rain (Deuteronomy 11:17; 28:12, 24). The seasonal rains give life to the land, food for the animals, and prosperity to Israel.

This renewal, Yahweh promises, will bring peace to Israel. The verb, translated “repay” by the NRSV, is the verb form of the noun shalom. As in Eden, God will bring peace to the land; God will “restore” (ESV) the years of plenty that were lost in the locust years, the days of the invading army. God will make the land whole once again.

Israel, at peace in a restored Eden, will “eat in plenty and be satisfied,” and “praise the name of the Lord your God” because of what God has done. They will know (Joel 2:27):

that I am in the midst of Israel (divine presence),
and that I am the Lord your God (covenantal relationship)
and there is none else (monotheism).

This knowledge is no mere cognition; it is intimacy. God’s presence within Israel is like God’s presence in Eden, which is God’s presence in the Temple in the midst of Israel. This presence is covenantal, that is, Israel lives in relationship with God. Yahweh is their God and they are Yahweh’s people.  But this is not one God among others. Rather, there is no other God. Yahweh alone is God. This is the heart of Israel’s faith: Yahweh, their God and the only God, dwelling in their midst. Israel is a new Eden, and God lives and walks among them.

The result is that “my people shall never again be put to shame”–and this line is repeated twice in Joel 2:26-27.

But when did that happen? Has it happened yet? It might be hyperbole, but it also might be a kind of already/not yet reality.  Israel has experienced moments of renewal, but they still await the fullness of the promise. There will come a time when Israel will “never again be put to shame,” and this is the hope of God’s people.

A day will come when Israel will live unashamed within the creation, just as Adam and Eve lived in the garden. It is a day when creation itself will rejoice and be freed from the fear of drought and starvation. It is a day when God will dwell in the midst of Israel as God makes a home within the creation. That day is the day when heaven and earth itself will made new, and God and the Lamb will make their home in the new Jerusalem.


Joel 2:12-17 — Assemble and Pray

April 17, 2014

Sometimes assembly is more important than a wedding night.

That doesn’t sound right, does it? But it is the message of Joel 2:12-17. The impending disaster, the day of the Lord, created an urgency within Israel that prioritized the gathering of God’s people over wedding celebrations. A penitent people, according to Joel, should assemble to pray for Yahweh’s mercy, and it must be a corporate act rather than the isolated prayers of scattered individuals.

There is something about corporate prayer that is more important than individual prayer.

The first part of the text is the prophetic call to “return” to God (Joel 2:12-14), and the second half rouses the people to prayerful assembly (Joel 2:15-17). The first half invites Israel to return, and the second summons Israel to assemble as a witness to their return. To assemble, in this context, is to return to God with broken and contrite hearts.

The call comes with the voice of Yahweh, “Return to me with all your heart!” And then it comes with the voice of the prophet, “Return to the Lord, your God.” The double use of “return” (a metaphor for repentance) highlights the reality that Israel had turned away from God, and this is the cause of divine judgment. Joel, however, never identifies any particular sin among the people. Instead, the prophet offers a liturgical form for all sorts of occasions (which is whole book itself, especially Joel 1-2).

Summon the People to Lamentation.
Call the People to Return.
Gather the People in Assembly.
Lead the People in Prayer.
Testify to People about Hope.
Envision a Future for the People.

But first the people must “return,” and return with their “whole heart.” They must “tear” their “hearts” and not just their clothing. Their return must be heart-based rather than an external, ritualistic show. Their lament and fasts must arise from a contrite and broken heart. An external demonstration is not sufficient. Worship–through assembling, fasting, and lamenting–must arise from the heart or it is worthless.

Why should Israel even try? Because of who God is. They seek God because they confess that God “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” They return to God for the same reason Jonah ran away to Tarshish (Jonah 4:2), that is, because God loves, forgives, and renews. This is Israel’s “God Creed.” First revealed to Moses (Exodus 34:6-7), it is pervasive in Israel’s preaching and liturgy (Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:5; 103:8; 145:8). Israel repents because they know Yahweh is merciful and loyal.

However, like the Ninevehites (Jonah 3:9), Israel must not presume upon God’s mercy. “Who knows,” the prophet asks, “whether [Yahweh] will not turn and relent”? Israel’s repentance does not put God in a box; it does not manipulate God or force God into a corner. However God responds to Israel’s “return,” it is God’s decision or else the forgiveness is not gracious.

But the hope is that God will relent, that is, that God would have a change of mind. The term does not mean “repent” as if there is sorrow for sin or evil intent. Rather, in the light of repentance, God may chose an alternative course of action. This is the dynamic that Moses experienced in Exodus 32 where Moses seemingly persuaded God to continue with Israel rather than starting over with Moses. God is dynamically engaged with the creation. God responds Israel’s choices.

The summons comes in a series of imperatives (eight in all).

Blow the trumpet!
Sanctify a fast!
Call a solemn assembly!
Gather the people!
Sanctify the congregation!
Assemble the aged!
Gather the children!
Leave the bridal chamber!

Assembly language piles up in the text. The Shofar (rams’ horn) trumpet signals the time of assembly (cf. Leviticus 25:9; Jeremiah 4:5; even the assembly of all who live upon the earth in Isaiah 18:3). “Call a solemn assembly” is repeated from Joel 1:14, and this language describes other assemblies in Israel (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:9; Nehemiah 8:18). Gathering the people, like gathering in the harvest or gathering armies for battle, evokes a picture of heaping up people in one place. It recalls earlier gatherings in Israel as when Joshua gathered the people at Shechem (Joshua 24:1; cf. Psalms 47:9; 50:5; Nehemiah 9:1; 1 Chronicles 23:2). “Assemble” is a common verb in the Hebrew Bible for the assembling before the Lord (cf. Isaiah 45:20; 48:14), and often refers to how God will assemble or gather together Israel with compassion and renewal (cf. Isaiah 54:7; 56:8; Ezekiel 11:17; Micah 2:12, 4:6; Zephaniah 3:19, 20), including gathering the nations with Israel (Isaiah 66:18).

Everyone is called to the assembly! From young (even infants) to the aged. Nothing should hinder their attendance. Even the wedding night or the wedding should not prevent attendance. Stop the honeymoon! All Israel  must assemble! The urgency of this assembly as a way returning to God in the face of impending disaster demands everyone’s presence.

What happens at this assembly?  Israel fasts, mourns, and weeps. They approach the presence of God at the temple, and through the priests Israel cries out to God. The priests, as intercessors and mediators between God and the people, stand between the temple and its altar–between the presence of God and the sacrifices. They speak for the people and on behalf of the people. They make their case before God; they make an argument.

The priestly prayer in Joel 2:17 is a plea for mercy, and the plea is made on the basis of God’s reputation among the nations (like Moses did in Exodus 32) and on the the ground that Israel’s is God’s heritage. The priests remind God that God’s kingdom is tied to Israel. This is God’s promise to the world itself and so Israel as the heritage of God is the hope of the world. Don’t, they plead, destroy your heritage! The priests argue on the basis of God’s glorious reputation and on the basis of God’s own inheritance within the creation. Their cry for mercy is both dependance on God’s graciousness and a call for God to remain true to God’s own intent for the world.

Through the priests, the assembly confesses, laments, and petitions. The people, gathered at the temple to pray, return to God and throw themselves on the mercy of God.

Sometimes assembly is more important than any other human activity.


Joel 2:1-11 — Eden Despoiled

April 9, 2014

The “day of Yahweh,” or the “day of the Lord,” reverses creation. Through creation God subdued the chaos and gave it boundaries, but divine judgment releases chaos. The “day of Yahweh” uncreates. Eden is despoiled. Or, more specifically in the context of Joel, Israel is threatened with the prospect that the land flowing with milk and honey–the promised land–will turn into a wasteland.

The situation, similar to chapter one, is that some kind of an army is approaching Israel. Some think it is a literal army, such as the Babylonians who besieged Jerusalem in 586 BCE and others think it is another locust plague (perhaps an extension of the one described in chapter one). Most probably, the army–described as a locust swarm–is a metaphor for divine judgment, which is a “day of the Lord” that comes in various forms. It may or may not involve a literal army, but may simply represent divine discipline or judgment. The army is Yahweh’s army; Yahweh rides at the head of this host. Whether literal or metaphorical, the discipline comes from Yahweh.

Dillard (modifying a proposal by Keller) suggests that Joel 2:1-11 has a chiastic structure, and this is particularly illuminating (The Minor Prophets, ed. McComiskey,p. 278).

A. The day of the Lord nears (2:1-2a).

B. Arrival of the army (2:2b).

C. Ravages of the army: chaos (2:3).

D. Conduct of the soldiers (2:4-6).

D. Conduct of the soldiers (2:7-9).

C. Ravages of the army: chaos (2:10).

B. Yahweh’s army (2:11a).

A. The day of the Lord (2:11b).

The chiasm contains four elements: (1) the event is identified as the day of Yahweh, (2) it is described as an army, (3) the result of the invasion is chaos (uncreation), and (4) the army is unstoppable.

In Joel 2:4-9 it is as if someone is watching the army approach from the city walls. They see the war-horses appear on the surrounding mountains, they hear the rumble of the chariots, and they watch the army trample everything in its path like a fire burning through stubble.  Fear fills the city as they watch disciplined warriors stay in formation during their advance and march over defending armies. The soldiers leap up onto the walls and enter homes. Like locusts, they infect every part of the city.

The terror that accompanies the army’s movements is heightened by the fact that this is Yahweh’s army. Yahweh stands at the head of this army, and it is the voice of Yahweh that commands it. This is the Lord’s host, and it is a moment in history when God has decided to act. It is a day when God has decided to uncreate what God created.

The “day of Yahweh” causes the inhabitants–as well as the earth itself–to tremble or quake. It is a day when darkness dawns rather than light (Joel 2:2). The descent of darkness upon Israel reminds them of other great events in its history, including darkness upon Egypt in Exodus 10:22. This darkness, however, is theophanic language; it is the appearance of Yahweh for judgment against a sinful nation (only Zephaniah 1:15 uses the four terms for darkness in this text in exactly the same order). Darkness is often associated with divine appearances or theophanies (cf. Exodus 20:18, 21; Deuteronomy 4:11), and here–like the locust in Egypt in Exodus 10:14–the day is described in hyperbole in order to accentuate its significance. Israel will remember this moment of judgment just like they remember the Exodus except this memory will fill them with fear rather than joy.

Uncreation reverses God’s intent in creation. The images of uncreation are startling. The land of Israel is turned from the “garden of Eden” into a “desolate wilderness.” In Genesis 1-2 God creates Eden out of a formless void that was wrapped in darkness (Genesis 1:2). Eden emerged from that chaos as a divine sanctuary in which humanity could rest with God.

When God created Israel, they were given a land that was like Eden itself. God dwelt among them, rested with them in the land, and protected Israel from even the wild animals. The rhythm of the rainy seasons would provide food, and Israel would live at peace with its neighbors. But Israel did not live by the covenant, and now in Joel (as at other times in its history; cf. Jeremiah 4:22-26) God disciplines them. God despoils Eden. Israel will become a “desolate wasteland.”

Human sin has cosmic ramifications, and the day of the Yahweh causes the whole cosmos to tremble before the Lord. Whereas God placed the sun, moon, and stars as lights in the skin in Genesis 1, during the day of the Lord their lights are extinguished. Darkness will reign upon the earth. Chaos will govern the heavens and earth.

Through creation God orders the chaos, but sin unfetters chaos. Indeed, God even comes at the head of the chaos to discipline and punish those who choose chaos over God’s good order. When humanity lives in covenant with God, order, peace, and tranquility prevail. But when humanity chooses a different agenda–one where they seek their own interests–Eden is despoiled, and God’s good creation is enveloped in darkness.

Israel repeated the story of the original couple. Just as Genesis 3 opened the floodgates of chaos, so Israel’s sin did as well.  And we still do.

The day of the Lord will come again…and again…and again, until that day when God will create anew and fill the earth with the glory for which the creation was intended.