15 Jul 2016

Do Not Fear, O Earth, Animals, People: Hope of Cosmic Redemption in Joel’s Liturgy

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christian hope, Environment, eschatology, Exegesis, Heaven, Hebrew Bible, Joel

joel-overview-bible-minor-prophet-plague-locusts-day-of-lordWhy this Blog

Another version of this paper was delivered to the 2016 Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars Conference held on the campus of Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.  I almost called my paper “Earth, Wind and Fire” to make a play off of a rock group but I went old school and stuck with the wording from the prophet Joel himself.

I have decided to post this paper on my blog for a variety of reasons (I have removed most of the citations of secondary literature, added the text of Hosea, and left out a few things to keep it short).  One reason was because the current issue of the Spiritual Sword has published a special issue on eschatology in which John Mark Hicks and myself have been mentioned by name in reference to the biblical doctrine of a renewed earth.  The writers in the SS seem, in my judgement, fairly uninformed on the matter from virtually every angle: the overall redemptive theme of Scripture itself, the exegesis of specific passages, the meaning of resurrection, the history of this healthy teaching.  The irony remains that the alternative of a nonphysical eternal state was held only by Gnostics in the early church.  I have asked for the name and passage of a recognized teacher that held that view (other than a Gnositc) in the first five centuries and have not received one yet.

One final reason I have chose to post this is because so many simply do not realize just how wide spread the idea of creation and redemption going together is.  God has not surrendered his prized creation to Sin or Evil.  From Genesis to Revelation redemption is redemption of creation not immaterial souls.  Creation, human and nonhuman, is bound together in suffering and pain because of Sin.  Creation, human and nonhuman, is bound together in glorious redemption.  So this blog is a response to the Spiritual Sword from a specific text. So to the Prophet Joel … Do Not Fear, O Soil, Animals, People: Hope of Cosmic Redemption in Joel’s Liturgy

A Problem with the Land

The prophet Joel offers us the most comprehensive picture of how sin, lamentation, repentance, and renewal are intertwined. The book of Joel is a communal lament with a divine response.[1] It leads God’s people through a liturgical procession. Joel calls the “inhabitants of the land,” the “drunkards,” and “priests” (Joel 1:2; 5; 13) to weep, wail, mourn, and cry out.

A deadly locust plague, perhaps symbolic of some army, has scorched Palestine. In Joel 1:6– 7, as in Jeremiah 8– 9, God laments. The army has invaded,

My land . . .
My vines . . .
My fig trees
 . . .

God is depicted as weeping over the condition of his property.  Sin has hurt not only people but the creation that God loves and said was “very good” (cf. Genesis 1; Psalm 104)

The ferocity of the devastation leads to a wider participation in lament: “The fields are devastated, the land mourns” (Joel 1:10). It is no longer merely humans and deity that are mourning but the earth, the land, the physical creation that is crying under the scourge of the locusts. Joining the land in lament, the animals “groan” or “cry/pray” to the Lord.

How the animals groan!
the herds of cattle wander about

because there is no pasture for them;
even the flocks of sheep are dazed

Human sin has resulted in the suffering of the animals.  Sin does not simply affect humanity but vandalizes God’s creation in every dimension.  The groaning of the animals results in them praying to the Lord, just as Joel has told us humanity has been called on to assemble and lament.  The prophet adds his own voice “To you, O LORD, I cry …” Then he states

Even the wild animals cry to you,
because the watercourses are dried up,
and fire has devoured the pastures
of the wilderness
(Joel 1.20)

There is nothing left in the land following the invasion. The wine is gone. The crops have disappeared. Things are so bad, brides dress in sackcloth instead of white (Joel 1:8).  God laments.  The Land laments.  The animals lament.  The people are called to join the lament.

Lament

What can be done? Joel calls for a solemn assembly in the temple of “all the inhabitants of the land” (Joel 1:14–20). Just as in Hosea 4:1– 3, this includes nonhuman participants: “How the animals groan! The herds of cattle wander about because there is no pasture for them” (Joel 1:18). “Even the wild animals cry to you because the watercourses are dried up” (Joel 1:20). They groan like oppressed slaves in Egypt (Ex. 2:23). Lament appeals to God for deliverance. Joel 1 leads God’s people and God’s creation to their Savior.[2]  Hosea says it like this,

Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her, from there I will give her her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she shall respond as in the day of her youth,
as as the time when she came up out of the land of Egypt.
On that day, says the LORD, you will call me ‘My husband,’
and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal/My Master.”
For I will remove the names of the Baals from her
mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more.
I will make for you a covenant on that day WITH THE ANIMALS,
the birds of the air, the creeping things of the ground;
and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land;
and I will make YOU lied down in safety. And I will take you
for my wife forever in righteousness and in justice and in
steadfast love and in mercy.”
(Hosea 2.14-20)

Most modern Westerners dismiss such talk as mere metaphor or hyperbole.  But It is in the biblical narrative repeatedly.  God ties human redemption to his promise to the animals … remember the first time the word covenant occurs in the Bible is after the flood when God enters a covenant with creation … not people but all flesh where he promises them that they would no more be punished because of the failure of their divine steward, humans (Genesis 9.8-17).

Joel 2 reveals the problem. Gathered in solemn assembly, human sin is exposed as the reason for the devastating day of the Lord. Solomon, at the dedication of the temple, warned how locusts were among God’s tools to bring about repentance.[3] In repentance, “God will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chron. 6:28; 7:13– 14). The locusts, whether Assyrian, Babylonian, or Roman, are representatives of the Creator, the commander in chief.

Once again, creation suffers with humanity and because of human hubris.[4] The Promised Land is a virtual Garden of Eden raped by sin:

Fire devours in front of them,
and behind them a flame burns.
Before them the land is like the garden of Eden,
but after them a desolate wilderness,
and nothing escapes them
. (Joel 2:3, NRSV)

The judgment of God upon Israel reverses creation itself. The fate of the land is bound up with the fate of Israel and the fate of Israel points to the fate of the land. What was good, beautiful, and full of life has now retreated into a useless void (Gen. 1:2; cf. Jer. 4:23).

Nevertheless, “even now,” Yahweh is ready to redeem and heal. God stops the army at the doorstep and offers yet another opportunity for repentance: “Even now,” if God’s people join in genuine penitent lament, hope remains. The prophet, quoting the “God Creed” (Ex. 34:6– 7), declares God “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).

In the light of such a gracious proclamation, another solemn assembly is summoned. The people gather before the Lord and the priests stand before the altar to weep in prayer: “Spare your people, O Lord” (Joel 2:17).  It is the people who have sinned but all who have suffered because of that sin.

God’s Response: Targets of Divine Mercy

God’s response to the priestly prayer (Joel 2:18– 27) is breathtaking. In fact, this gathering is the hinge of the book (Joel 2:15– 17). We move from a death to a resurrection. Though the army of locusts belonged to God, there was no joy in it (cf. Lam. 3:31– 33). The land was “collateral” damage (as in the Flood) in Yahweh’s judgment upon sin: “Then the Lord became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people” (Joel 2:18).  Note carefully those words.  Land is not a synonym for humanity.  God is guaranteeing the safety of his nonhuman creation just as he did in Genesis 9, Hosea 2 & 4, and now in Joel.

However, the jealousy of God for the land is akin to his jealousy for Israel. Indeed, they cannot be separated. God has compassion on all creation. Remembering the covenant with creation given after the flood, and seemingly renewed by Hosea, Yahweh simply refused to extend the damage further. Instead of punishment, God announces three targets of grace:

Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!
Do not fear, you animals of the field . . .
O Children of Zion, be glad and
rejoice in the Lord your God
.
(Joel 2:21– 23, NRSV)

Soil!

Animals!

People!

God directly addresses the earth and animals, not just humans. Bound together in sin. Bound together in redemption. Each of these had cried out in lament. The suffering of creation was a sign of a lack of repentance. So now the praise of creation is a sign of alignment with God. God pours out healing grace.

Grace on the Earth.

Grace on the animals.

Grace on the people.

As creation joined humanity in lamentation, so now— as in the psalms— creation joins humanity in praise for the restoration of Eden.

So astounding is Yahweh’s grace, God seemingly apologizes for the damage done: “I will repay you for the years that the swarming locusts has eaten” (Joel 2:25). What was lost—grain, wine, and oil—because of sin is restored beyond measure.

Eden Renewed-Communion Restored

As amazing as God’s healing grace is to the land, the animals, and the people, this only points to the greatest grace—restored communion with God. The redemption of creation serves the purposes of God from the beginning: to mediate fellowship with God. After the miracle of salvation, Joel declares, “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God” (Joel 2:27). Humanity, expelled from the divine presence, enjoys the redeemed “community of the world” as the Lord comes to dwell within creation again. This is the very promise of Revelation 21 and 22.

Concomitant with the renewal of creation is the pouring out of the Spirit. As the Spirit brought life in the beginning, so now the Spirit restores creation. The inhabitants of the world become the community of the Spirit:

I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my Spirit.

(Joel 2:28– 29, NRSV)

Restored Eden is radically different from the social structures of the fractured world. Hierarchy, patriarchy, and social position lose their significance in God’s new creation. Resurrection is not just a renewed relationship with God but a redefinition of human society itself. The women called by God within Israel in unusual circumstances— Miriam, Deborah, Huldah— are now ordinary.

God’s church is a re/new creation within the old. Peter quotes Joel’s text on Pentecost to identify the dawning of the new age (Acts 2:17– 18). Less well known is how significant Joel 2 is for Paul. Paul’s appeal to baptism as our incorporation into the Abrahamic covenant in which all people shall be blessed echoes Joel’s promise:

Galatians 3:26–28                   Joel 2:28– 29
Jew/Greek                              All flesh
Male/female                          Sons/daughters
Free/slave                              Free/slave

The church is the future of the world on display within the old as a demonstration (or we are the leaven of life from God’s renewed creation sprinkled within the old) of what God intends to do with all of us.  Just as Jesus’s resurrection is the first fruit of God’s new world for all of us. Renewed Israel is the place where the old power structures are removed.

Yet we still wait for the final consummation of Eden’s return in the restoration of all things (Acts 3.21).

A New Notes:

[1] Joel’s relationship to the temple cult is explored in G. W. Ahlstrom, Joel and the Temple Cult of Jerusalem (Leiden: Brill, VTSup XXI 1971) and more recently in Laurie J. Braaten, “Earth Community in Joel 1-2: A Call to Identify with the Rest of Creation,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 28 (2006) 113-129.

[2] Graham S. Ogden, “Joel 4 and Prophetic Responses to National Laments,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 26 (1983): 103-105.

[3] Locust invasions and drought are among the curses which come upon the land when humans sin (Deut 28.23-24, 38; Lev. 26.19-20)

[4] Scholars have identified nine “suffering” or “mourning” of the land passages in the Hebrew Bible. These are: Amos 1.2; Hos 4.1-3; Jer 4.23-28; Jer 12.1-4; Jer 12.7-13; Jer 23.9-12; Isa 24.1-20; Isa 33.7-9 and Joel 1.5-20.  See Laurie Braaten, “The Groaning of Creation: The Biblical Background for Romans 8:22,” Biblical Research 50 (2005): 19-39; Donald E. Gown, “The Fall and Redemption of the Material World in Apocalyptic Literature,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 7 (1985): 83-103

3 Responses to “Do Not Fear, O Earth, Animals, People: Hope of Cosmic Redemption in Joel’s Liturgy”

  1. Profile photo of Jerry Starling Jerry Starling Says:

    Thank you for sharing this paper. More and more I am seeing that redemption involves all of creation, not merely the “righteous few.”

    It is frightening to think of what man’s sin has done to the physical creation. Romans 8 seems more and more important to our view of the future.

  2. Warren Baldwin Says:

    Excellent post, Bobby.

  3. dwight Says:

    When man, who was corrupt, he was kicked out into a hostile environment and kept from the garden. Earth would be a thorn to man as man struggled to subdue it. Man could not go back the garden, but man can seek God and the heavenly Canaan.

Leave a Reply