The Locust Plague/Army in Joel: More from the Eastern Fathers

A while back I posted a blurb from Isho’dad of Merv wherein he identified the various kinds of locusts in Joel 1.4 as references to individual kings of Assyria and Babylon.  I had one other quote along the same lines I thought I’d share – this time regarding the “northerner” in Joel 2.20:

“I will remove the northerner,” both the Assyrian and Babylonian.  Someone may ask, “Since for its position Babylon is not situated north of Jerusalem, why does God say through the prophet, ‘I will remove the northerner far from you’ and ‘Out of the north evil shall break forth upon ‘ these people”? [Jer 1.14]  And we answer that first of all, these words are not said in consideration of the geographical position of Babylon and Jerusalem but of those northern nations subject to the Babylonians – the Arzanites, the Araratites – who will come down to Jerusalem with the Babylonians.  Second, it is because those who want to reach Jerusalem from the regions of Babylon, Persia and the east go up toward the region of the north and then come down toward Jerusalem in the south.

Cited in Ancient Commentary on Scripture, Vol. 14, The Twelve Prophets, pg. 72.

I find this passage interesting for two reasons.  First, because Isho’dad was so concerned to situate the invading army into the historical situation of the southern kingdom.  Whereas most commentators interpret the army as an eschatological army of supernatural beings, Isho’dad sought contemporary referants for the terms.  While he may have been a bit overly specific in the previous quote I posted, this text seems to show quite a bit of exegetical restraint being exercised by Isho’dad.  Indeed, he seems to be practicing a very early form of historical criticism here!

Second, I find it interesting that Isho’dad seems to equivocate regarding why they are called the “northerner.”  His second answer seems most compelling to me.  Since the Mesopotamian armies couldn’t campaign due west across the desert, they were best served by traveling north along the Euphrates before going west.  By the time the turned toward Jerusalem, they were heading south – i.e., they were armies “from the north.”  Thus this is language from the perspective of the Judean writer.

But notice that Isho’dad also thinks that they are called the northerner because of the Arzanites and the Araratites, Armenian peoples who were subject to the Babylonians.  Since these peoples really did live in the north, the text is thereby being literal about the enemies being from the north.  Ergo, Isho’dad interprets “northerner” both as relative and as absolute in this one passage!

Because of his emphasis on interpreting the Bible within its ancient Near Eastern context – as most biblical scholars tend to do with much more intentionality in the present academic milieu – Isho’dad presents a very interesting approach.  Thus while historical criticism really exploded in the 17th-19th centuries, it is not as though the approach arose de novo. There were precedents set by creative figures, such as Isho’dad of Merv, much earlier.


2 thoughts on “The Locust Plague/Army in Joel: More from the Eastern Fathers”

  1. I always find it striking how much careful scholarship there was in the early church. While there was undoubtedly some excesses in the allegorical department, lexicographically (and exegetically) we still rely on them (St. Jerome, the “grump of Bethlehem,” comes to mind… Some, e.g., of the unknown Hebrew words in Zechariah are still defined by his guesses).

    I am curious if you have looked at the 18th century author John Gill on this text in Joel. Gill was the leader Semiticist/Hebraist of his day and sometimes will note things of interest in the targumin, etc. (I haven’t looked at it… Just wondering :)


  2. Thanks for the note, Nevada. I haven’t checked Gill on this – in fact, I’ve never even consulted him before! Thanks for mentioning him; I’ll be curious to see what he’s got to say!


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