Is God Punishing Sin in Joel?
What was it that Joel saw God doing in the locust plague described in the first few verses? Did he see God punishing Israel’s sin? Perhaps, but we should be careful how we state this, because the text is remarkably vague and even bordering on silent about Israelite sin.
Joel 1:5 – Not an Indictment of Drunkenness
In chapter one the only part that sounds like it might be an indictment of Israel is verse 5:
Wake up [or sober up], drunkards, and weep; wail all you drinkers of wine over the new wine, for it is cut off from your mouths.
But this verse isn’t really condemning alcohol consumption. It is easy for conservative American Christians, who tend to be teetotalers, to over-read this verse. The Old Testament is not as absolute in its condemnation of alcohol consumption as American Christians are. The Old Testament is far more concerned with religious fidelity, sexual purity, and what we call social justice – the rich and powerful treating the poor and vulnerable fairly. You won’t find excessive alcohol consumption among the sins by which Israel could violate their covenant with God in Deuteronomy. Alcohol was acknowledged to be dangerous since consumption of too much of it could impair one’s judgment. It was, therefore, deemed inappropriate for those in positions of spiritual and civil leadership (Leviticus 10:8-11; Proverbs 31:4-5). However, moderate alcohol consumption was assumed to be the norm for most people, and some verses in both the Old Testament and New Testament actually endorse alcohol consumption in certain circumstances (Proverbs 31:6-7; 1 Timothy 5:23). Moreover, while the Bible expresses disapproval of those who are habitually intoxicated, some characters are described as being “cheered” by alcohol without implicit or explicit condemnation in the text. I’m thinking in particular of Boaz in Ruth 3:7 – “Boaz ate and drank and his heart was cheered.” This is actually an idiom for slight tipsiness, and it is depicted as a natural part of celebrating.
Now, I’m not saying “Let’s all drink alcohol,” but I am saying that we need to be careful about reading Joel 1:5’s mention of “drunkards” too strongly, as, for example, a sign of societal decay and a reason God sent the locust plague in the first place. Joel 1 depicts how the effects of the locust plague permeate every level of Israelite society, and it is a call to every level of Israelite society, from low to high, from the drunkards to the high priest, to likewise wake up and weep and call out to God for mercy. Joel 1:5 is not telling us why God sent the locust plague. It is showing us immediately the effects of the locust plague. The word “drunkards” is a translation of Hebrew shikkorim, which is literally those who are intoxicated by shekar, a word that refers to fermented alcoholic drinks made from grain, honey, and fruits – in other words, beer, mead, and cider. The fact is that in ancient and medieval societies, and in less technologically developed societies even today, beer is nutritionally important. We Americans are so completely surrounded by foods that are rich in calories that even the poorest among us are not really concerned about starving (the poor in America are far more likely to be obese), but in societies where starvation is a very real possibility, you get your calories where you can. A pint of beer can have about 400 calories, which is why we have the meme of the beer belly, but when you aren’t eating a whole lot, a pint of beer every day can be a pretty significant caloric boost and perhaps even the difference between survival and starvation. Also, beer has more minerals, vitamins, and protein than unleavened bread made from the very same grains. All of this is why many societies, including medieval Christian Europe, have treated beer more as a food than as a drink. When you grow crops, you have to think about how you are going to preserve a big part of your harvest, and making alcoholic beverages is historically one of the most important methods of preserving crops. Finally, as with wine, the little bit of alcohol found in beer has antiseptic qualities – it’s often safer to drink beer than untreated water. The nutritional importance of beer and wine in ancient societies made them economically important, as well. All this means that if people who drink shekar and wine are being faced with a shortage of drink, you know something really bad is up.
Joel 2:12 Does Not Necessarily Say “Repent”
So let me bring this back to my original question: does Joel see the locust plague as God’s punishment on Israel? Even if yes, Joel 1:5 is probably not best read as a description of the sinfulness or decadence of Israelite society that motivated God’s wrath. And if we read the rest of chapter 1 there is nothing I can see that names specific sins. This makes Joel a stark contrast from other prophetic calls to repentance, such as those found in Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. And this noteworthy lack of specific sins or even any implication that Israelite society is viewed by God or the prophet as “sinful” continues in chapter 2 through verse 11. It is not until 2:12 and 13 that we see another possible indication that Israel are thought to be “away” from Yahweh:
(12) Even now, says the LORD, turn to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. (13) Tear your hearts and not your garments, and turn to the LORD your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and abundant in grace, and he will relent over this disaster.
Now, certainly the Hebrew verb shub is one of the main words Hebrew uses to mean “repent” – literally to turn or to return – and that is the way most modern translations appear to render it here in verse 12. However, given the text’s lack of specific things to repent over, I am inclined to read this more in the sense of “turn to” or “appeal to” the LORD. There may be sin in Israel and there may not be. In either case, the appropriate response to the unprecedented disaster of the locust plague is the same: turning to the LORD, fasting, weeping, mourning – actions that are about both trying to get God’s attention and looking inward to determine whether there is something that needs to be repented over.
I think this is an important point. If we read Joel’s prophecy in a limited fashion, as simply a “repent for your rebellion” kind of message, we may be less likely to see ourselves as Joel’s target audience and thus benefit from adopting his prophetic point of view on world events when faced with disasters in our own time. We may also be tempted to see natural disasters in a rather simplistic “retribution theology” light. We might think, “the locust plague wouldn’t have happened if the Israelites hadn’t been sinning.” The problem, as I’ve pointed out, is that Joel doesn’t necessarily say that. And regardless of why the locust plague came about, it has affected everybody in Israelite society, righteous and unrighteous. And it is the responsibility of the righteous as well as of the unrighteous to turn to God, the latter to repent of their unrighteousness and the former to ask God for covenant mercy.
God Has the Right to Punish Sin Through Natural Phenomena
This is not to say that God does not use natural disasters to punish human wickedness. Indeed, if we are to understand Joel’s response to the locust plague, first we need to begin with an affirmation that God has the right to punish sin in whatever way he deems right and necessary, and that can include catastrophes of various sorts. We moderns tend to shy away from that kind of thinking: that God uses natural disasters and other events in the material world to punish human sin. Atheists see this as a particularly toxic kind of superstition that we ought to put behind us once and for all. Many Christians are also uncomfortable with this kind of thinking, saying outright that God doesn’t do this, or at least he doesn’t do it anymore. There is no spiritual meaning or divine intention behind catastrophes such as natural disasters, famines, epidemics, economic collapses, and wars. These things just happen, these Christians will say or at least imply. Well, I say that this attitude is misguided, coming as it does out of a bifurcated view of the world that sees the material and the spiritual as two different realms that do not cross over into one another. This kind of worldview, one of the more troublesome parts of our Enlightenment inheritance, assumes that God’s proper realm is the spiritual – he doesn’t deal in the physical. Perhaps these Christians think they are defending God’s goodness by keeping him conceptually sealed away from natural disasters and other catastrophes, but in so defending his honor they sacrifice his absolute sovereignty. They profess a God who is not directly involved in natural processes, even though he technically could be. In a sense, then, the God of these Christians has abdicated the throne of this world.
But not only is this picture of God contradicted by the Bible, it is a direct denial of one of the two central theses of the Christian Gospel, which are, first, that Jesus is risen from the dead and, second, that Jesus is Lord. That means he is Lord right now and that he is Lord of all Creation. All that happens, whether in nature or in human society, he has sovereign authority over it. To declare that Jesus is Lord does not primarily mean that Jesus is Lord of my life, though certainly that must be included. But our declaration that Jesus is Lord is an assertion about objective reality, not subjective feeling.
Unfortunately, the popular theological vocabulary of the evangelical church in America is thoroughly infested by phrases and ideas that derive more from the world and its narcissism than from the Bible and the historic Christian confession, and we see evidence of the infection in the way we talk about becoming a Christian. Becoming a Christian is not about accepting Jesus into your heart and making him Lord of your life. Jesus is no beggar, and you are not doing him any favors by “letting him in”. He is not meekly standing at your heart’s door saying, “Please, good sir or madame, if you would, do let me in.” No! He is Lord whether you recognize it or not. Becoming a Christian is about realizing that you are completely outclassed and outgunned and on the wrong side of the only conflict that matters, and it is about surrendering now before you are totally obliterated and hoping that perhaps Jesus will have mercy on you. He most certainly will, but we need to recognize just how good the news is that he will have mercy on us, because without this recognition our Gospel proclamation has no power.
God Has Multiple Purposes, One for the the Unrighteous, One for the Righteous
So God has the right to punish human sin, and as ruler of all creation he has both the authority and the power to use natural processes to accomplish this. However, we also know that bad things do happen to good people and good things to bad people. God is righteous, but the way he executes or manifests that righteousness very often defies our ability to comprehend. So our sin may or may not be God’s target in a natural disaster, but one way or another this means that when bad things happen to us, we are right to examine ourselves to see if we have somehow brought it on ourselves through our own actions or attitudes. It may be that, upon examination, we can find nothing that clearly merits punishment or correction, but that doesn’t mean that God is not responsible for the trouble, nor does it mean that he has no purpose in the trouble for us.
In the case of natural disasters like the locust plague of Joel, it is probable that God has multiple purposes, one of which may be to punish certain people that may or may not include us, and another of which may be to refine and perfect the blameless. These are essentially two sides of the same coin, the effect being determined by our relationship to God. Calamity and suffering bring destruction on the unrighteous, but they have the unexpected effect of benefiting the one whose trust is in the LORD. When God refines us through suffering, what he is doing is separating pure from impure. In us as individuals he is bringing our imperfections and impurities to the surface so that they can be dealt with. In the Church as a body he may also be using suffering to separate out the goats from the sheep and the tares from the wheat. The thing is, the NT repeatedly tells us, in the teachings of Jesus and in the writings of the Apostle Paul, that the enemy sends false brethren into our midst – weeds sown in our garden that choke and destroy the plants that are intended to grow there. One way God weeds out these false believers is by sending persecution and suffering. When everything is going well for the Church and when Christians are prosperous and accepted in society, it may actually be socially and economically advantageous to people to join the Church and claim to be Christians even if they don’t really believe the Gospel. But when it costs you something to be a Christian, when Christianity is not socially acceptable, many kinds of false brethren will slink away, since they no longer find it convenient or advantageous to claim the label Christian. God can use natural disasters for this kind of thing, too – to test us and to see who among us are only Christians when it is convenient to be so.
So why does God send the locust plague in Joel? The best I can tell is that Joel never gives us a definitive answer, but that Joel sees God executing multiple purposes in the plague. Nevertheless, whether we are righteous or unrighteous, our response to calamity is the same – turn to Yahweh and cry out to him for help. If we have sin in our lives, then we should repent of them. If we cannot find sin in our lives, then we should ask for rescue and look for ways that God is purifying us in the fire of calamity and suffering.