Joel, Chs. 1-2: “Locusts and Invaders” or “Invaders who are like Locusts”

I’ve been intrigued with the Twelve Prophets lately.  Not only are they fascinating books on their own, the grouping, editing and redacting of the whole corpus into one book (already by the time of Ben Sira) is an incredible example of inner-biblical interpretation.  These books originally written for very diverse purposes have been grouped and edited for use in new and creative ways by later authors, creating a pristine example of what Wolterstorff calls “double-agency discourse” (See pgs. 213-15 in Goldsworthy).

In my most recent reading of the book of Joel, I was struck by the depiction of the “locust plague” in a way I had not been before.  After spending some time this past quarter talking about MB/LB Egyptian military involvement in the Levant, the behavior of the “locusts” in Joel 1 suddenly sounded more like a campaigning army than simply a entomological phenomenon.  Listen to a few verses:

Joel 1.4 What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.  5 Awake, you drunkards, and weep, and wail, all you drinkers of wine, because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth. (Note: all verses from the ESV for this post)

In the ancient world, the army couldn’t radio for a C-17 to do a fly over and drop food supplies for the army when needed.  What couldn’t be packed, the army made up for by pillaging and ravaging whatever farmland was near their campaign route.  In fact, some have argued that Egyptian involvement in the southern Levant during the Amarna period can be attributed to military tactics; by being the overlord of a number of city states, a campaigning army can more easily get food (supplied by the city state kings) during the first leg of a journey up into Syria.

That these “locusts” have cut off the wine and oil (staples in the ancient diet) may not simply be a coincidence, but an effort to feed an army.  In fact, Joel goes on:

1.6 For a nation has come up against my land, powerful and beyond number; its teeth are lions’ teeth and it has the fangs of a lioness.  7 It has laid waste my vine and splintered my fig tree; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches are made white.

10 The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes.

In chapter 2, the description of the invading army becomes more explicit:

2.3 Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns.  The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.

5 As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle.

This next line makes me think of the Assyrian war machine with its expertise in siege tactics (take a look at some pictures of the Assyrian siege ramp at Lachish for an example):

2.7 Like warriors they charge; like soldiers they scale the wall.  They march each on his way; they do not swerve from their paths.

9 They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls, they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief.

I do not think that it is coincidental to find that the description of the locust plague also fits that of the army and vice versa.  We seem to have in Joel 1-2 a text about an approaching army, one known for their siege and blockade tactics as seen in their “wall climbing” ability and their decision to leave the fields in ruin; not only to feed their own army, but to starve out the enemy (Jerusalem in this case as temple ritual is the focal point).

Who is this army?  Perhaps we’ve been reading a bit too much into the “day of the Lord” language by assuming that it is an eschatological, end-times supernatural army.  (See Marvin Sweeney’s treatment in his commentary on the Twelve.)  In fact, we get an idea as to the very human identity of this army in Joel 2.  God promises that he will have mercy on Jerusalem:

2.20 I will remove the northerner far from you, and drive him into a parched and desolate land, his vanguage into the eastern sea, and his rear guard into the western sea . . . .

When armies (Assyrian or Babylonian) campaigned in the Levant, they did not set out due west across the desert, but went up through Mesopotamia along the Euphrates to the Aleppo/Ebla/Emar neighborhood before cutting south.  Thus they were thought of as an army from the north.

I thus have the hunch that the invasion of the army and the locusts are not separate events, but a single event – an invasion of a northern army, skilled in siege warfare, depicted in all its terror.  Just as locusts can ruin a nations food supply in no time, so too can a hungry army.  Just as locusts can climb walls and barge into the windows of houses, so too can a siege force.  (See the Lachish reliefs from Ninevah to see a similar final thrust by the Assyrians.)

I’ve got a few things left to work out:
1. Is this northern army Assyria or Babylon?
2. Is the darkening of the sun and moon better tied to military activity or to the dusty, east winds?
3. What is the diachronic relationship between 1.2-2.27 and the remainder of the book?  (There seems to be some late biblical Hebrew in the final chapters of the book that is lacking in the first chapters.  Also reference to Greece seems to put the later chapters later than the earlier.)
4. What is the synchronic function of the final form of the entire book?  (I.e., how did the final editor/author re-employ this invasion material in the Persian period to suit his own concerns?)

Should be a fun read.  More posts coming soon!


3 thoughts on “Joel, Chs. 1-2: “Locusts and Invaders” or “Invaders who are like Locusts””

  1. Fascinating. Similar thoughts came to me when I recently studied Ex 23 (esp. 23.28) where YHWH says he will send the “tsirah” (hornet? plague?) before the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan. I wasn’t sure YHWH was really speaking about wasps leading Israel into the land. Rather, in that context, it was the Angel of YHWH (the commander of YHWH’s hosts) who would go before the Israelites. Another parallel b/t Ex 23 and your text(s) is that Israel’s conquest, in some ways, is a divine judgment on the people of Canaan, the temporary disappearance of common grace.

    Anyway, if you figure out the locust thing, let me know; it will most likely shed light on the “hornet.”



  2. Interesting … I hadn’t thought about that aspect. I’m sure that all the locust plagues in the bible have some sort of connection via their conceptual matrices, but whether they’re all about an army or not is a good question. So many interesting things to consider in Joel. I read an interesting article in the Sweeney/Nogalski volume “Reading and Hearing the Book of the Twelve” written by Nogalski about the book of Joel as a “literary anchor” for the entire book. He’s got themes that complete Hosea and themes that anticipate Amos; dovetailing quite nicely into each. The more I read, the more this short little book seems to grow in importance!


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