Bite-Sized Exegesis, Joel, Old Testament

Translating Joel 2:32

Joel 2:32 (my translation)

A) And it will be that all who call [yiqraʾ] upon the name of the LORD will be saved.
B1) For on Mount Zion [behar tsiyon] and in Jerusalem [biyrushalayim] there will be an escape [or escapees?; peleytah],
B2) Just as [kaʾasher] the LORD has said,
C1) And among the survivors [baseridim],
C2) Whom [ʾasher] the LORD is calling [qoreʾ].

Escape or Escapees?

If you look at all the different English versions of Joel 2:32, you will see that there are different ways to translate the verse, and in this case the verse says something slightly different depending on how you translate it. The main point of difference among the translations centers on the word that the KJV translates “deliverance” in the clause, “For in Mount Zion an in Jerusalem shall be deliverance.” The Hebrew word is פְלֵיטָה (peleytah), and the KJV understands it abstractly as “escape”. The NKJV, HCSB, and NIV all agree with the KJV in this. This is probably the word’s primary meaning, but in most cases the Hebrew Bible uses the word figuratively not of escape itself but of the remnant who escape. Indeed, that is the way most translations have rendered this word since the beginning of the 20th century.

Now, if it means “those who escape” here in Joel 2:32, then the verse should be rendered:

For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be an escaped remnant, just as the LORD has said, and among the survivors whom the LORD is calling.

This literal translation reveals the problem with understanding peleytah to refer to those who escape rather than the escape itself in the abstract. This kind of translation leads one to see the word peleytah as parallel with בַשְׂרִידִים baseridim, which is translated “among the survivors”, because “escapees” and “survivors” are definitely related concepts. However, there are two problems:

  1. The verse does not say “survivors” alone. In Hebrew “among the survivors” is all one word, because “among” is a prefix (the word consists of the parts b (in) + ha (the) + seridim (survivors) = baseridim (among the survivors)). On the other hand, peleytah has no prefix. So
  2. Grammatically, baseridim “among the survivors” is not parallel with peleytah “escape/escapees” but with “on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem”, because both of these place names are prefixed by the same preposition as “survivors”, the Hebrew preposition b. In other words, “on Mount Zion”, “in Jerusalem”, and “among the survivors” all start in Hebrew with the same preposition: behar tsiyon, biyrushalayim, and baseridim. Notice the “b” sound. That’s the part that means “in”, “on”, and “among”. You will notice that the KJV tidily translates all of them “in”. In the first clause, what is “in” Zion and Jerusalem is peleytah, which, again, means either “escape” or “escapees”. The second clause appears to be saying that peleytah, whatever it means, is “in”, b, “the remnant” or “among the survivors”. So if peleytah means “escapees”, then the second clause says that these escapees will be among the survivors. It does not say that they will be the survivors (this is the way the NET tries to translate the clause).

Obviously this creates a conceptually messy situation. If we translate peleytah not abstractly but as a reference to the escapees, we now have two separate categories of people – escapees and survivors, with “escapees” being a subset of “survivors”: escapees are among the survivors. But it is clear from the rest of Joel that there is no subset intended here, that a subset would, in fact, be nonsensical, and that the easiest way to resolve this problem is to translate peleytah not as “escapees” but as “escape” or, as the KJV puts it, “deliverance”. It is “escape” that will be “in the remnant” or “among the survivors”, just as it is “on Mount Zion” and “in Jerusalem”. This is figurative language either way, but the figure of speech makes more sense if peleytah is translated as an abstract concept and not as a reference to those participating in that concept. So it is baffling to me that so many translations, including normally very literal translations, such as the NASB, give us a translation that implies just such a subdivision between “escapees” and “survivors”. Others that use this problematic rendering include the RSV, the ESV, the NLT, and the JPS translation.

Some translations try to get around this subset problem by essentially ignoring the grammar of the Hebrew and leaving many words untranslated. For example, the NET Bible, which is normally very good, translates the last clause, “the remnant will be those whom the LORD will call.” But this English sentence structure is just not possible from the Hebrew. It completely ignores the preposition b that I talked about earlier and adds in “will be those” without any justification in the Hebrew. If the clause in question were grammatically unusual or abnormally difficult to translate, this kind of guess work might be justified. There are plenty of verses, especially in the prophets, that we honestly don’t really know what it says, and all we can do is make an educated guess. But Joel 2:32 is not all that way. Neither the vocabulary nor the grammar are unusual or difficult. There just is no good reason not to use a literal translation of the last line, such as “among the survivors whom the LORD is calling”.

The CEB tries to makes avoid the problem apparently by emending baseridim “among the survivors” to biyrushalayim hasseridim “in Jerusalem the survivors”. Again, in very difficult parts of the Old Testament, guess work of this sort is common because it is certainly possible that the Hebrew text is corrupt in places. But here there is no need for this kind of heavy handed text-criticism. The text actually makes perfect sense as it is, if we will just read it carefully and humbly. This is yet another example of just how good a translation the KJV really was.

Those Who Call Will Be Called

So in the latter two thirds of Joel 2:32, I read “on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be an escape” as a parallel clause with “and among the survivors”. Now, this means that I also read “just as the LORD has said” as parallel with “Whom the LORD is calling.” Again, this parallel is more evident in Hebrew than it is in English. What I translate “just as” in the first clause is Hebrew kaʾasher, and what I translate as “whom” in the second clause is Hebrew ʾasher: the same word but without the prefixed preposition k. So in Hebrew the two clauses start with essentially the same word, even if the word has very different meanings in the two contexts (ʾasher is very flexible that way). Now, reading “As the LORD has said” as parallel with “whom the LORD is calling” is interesting and suggestive. It highlights the fact that both phrases focus on Yahweh’s sovereignty over salvation and over those who are saved. There will be an escape, as the LORD has already said, and not because of human ingenuity or impersonal fate or luck. That any will escape is only possible because the LORD has determined it. And not only has the LORD determined that there will be an escape, those who escape are those whom the LORD is calling or summoning. Yahweh is sovereign not only over the existence of salvation but also over those who are to be saved. Now, this is a mystery, but it is a mystery that is picked up and brought forward in the New Testament especially by Paul. But what does this mean?

Well, I think we get some clarity by reading the verse as a whole, now considering the first clause, as well. There is an interesting parallel and balance in the first and last phrases of this verse in the form of two complementary occurrences of the Hebrew verb qaraʾ. Joel 2:32 begins, “And it will be that all who call (yiqraʾ) upon the name of the LORD will be saved”, but then it ends by saying that those who will be saved are those “whom the LORD is calling (qoreʾ).” In the first phrase, salvation is graciously given in response to a human call upon Yahweh, and in the second phrase salvation is graciously given in accordance with a divine call upon humanity. It is interesting that in this one verse we might see contained both sides of an ongoing debate in Christianity over the role of the human will in salvation. On the one side, we have what is called synergism, which means “working together” and which understands salvation as a kind of cooperative effort between divine grace and human free will. Christian groups that hold some kind of synergistic concept of salvation include Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Arminian Protestant groups, including Methodists. Historically speaking, Pentecostals have tended to have synergistic doctrines of salvation, but there is no inherent or logical reason why Pentecostalism needs a synergistic soteriology – this is more a matter of historical accident. On the other hand, we have monergism, which means “working alone” and which understands salvation as entirely the work of God with no human cooperation whatsoever. Lutheran and Calvinist theological traditions tend to be monergistic in their doctrine of salvation.

Now, the Church has as a whole has rejected certain kinds of synergism. Specifically, a theological position called semi-pelagianism has been pretty much universally condemned (though you will still find it taught among the theologically ignorant). What distinguishes semi-pelagianism from synergism more generally is that semi-pelagianists would teach that salvation begins with an act of faith out of the human free will. The subsequent growth of our faith then is understood as God’s exclusive jurisdiction. But this position runs into clear problems in the Bible, which teaches in several places that we cannot even come to God unless he first draws us or calls us. In John 6:44, for example, Jesus says, “No one can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.” Regardless of their differences, modern synergist and monergist Christians tend to agree on this point: salvation begins and ends with God. It does not begin with an act of the human will. Humanity are so completely tainted by sin that they cannot even begin to move towards God except he first enable them. This is what the doctrine of Total Depravity is all about, and this divine enabling is called by non-Calvinists prevenient grace, literally “grace that comes before.” Where Calvinists and non-Calvinists disagree is on whether this grace is resistible or not.

That, however, is a discussion for another day. What I want to point out in relation to Joel 2:32 is how it says that those who will be saved both call upon the name of the LORD and are called by him, and the one act does not negate the other. And this understanding of Yahweh calling those who will be saved is not ignored or neglected in Acts 2, where Joel 2:28-32 functions thematically. In Acts 2:38-39, Peter essentially reiterates the “call” symmetry: “Then Peter said unto them: Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”

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Translating Joel 2:32
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Translating Joel 2:32
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A translation and commentary on Joel 2:32 - "And it will be that all who call upon the name of the LORD will be saved. For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be an escape, just as the LORD has said, and among the survivors, whom the LORD is calling."
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Bite-Sized Exegesis
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