Two things boggle my mind, and three make me wonder whether read the Bible at all: the clarity with which the text states that God has wronged this or that person or nation; the shocked and sometimes angry reactions I’ve gotten when I’ve pointed this out; and the potential that actually reading the Bible has to shake up the ways we think about God.
The oracle in this week’s Joel reading comes after the cutters and the swarmers and the hoppers and the destroyers have been announced. Joel has told the people that these locusts, which may or may not be identical with the armies that the prophet also announces, will darken the land, there are so many of them. They’ll destroy so widely that Egypt will have nothing to complain about. They’ll devour everything before them like a fire. And what’s more, they’ll do so at the command of YHWH (Joel 2:11).
Just in case that wasn’t clear, in today’s reading, the LORD once again notes that what the locusts destroy, they do so at YHWH’s own command (2:25). Why YHWH sends them in the first place and whether such an act stands commensurate to Israel’s offense are certainly up for grabs, but two things remain clear: YHWH claims credit for the attack, and YHWH promises to restore Israel afterwards.
Since I read the Bible as a Christian, I can’t help but wonder whether Peter’s citation of Joel in Acts 2 carried with it the narrative that underlies the restoration, the divine attack that renders Israel unable to sustain itself, rendering it helpless, just before making the promise to restore it. Such a narrative might indeed make some sense to the folks in Jerusalem that Pentecost: after all, the disciples and Jesus before them had spoken of the crucifixion both in terms of divine providence and in terms of human crime, and although the subsequent invitation into the Way of the Messiah was extended unilaterally from Heaven to Humankind, the act that pulled such a narrative forward, the move to destroy the prophet God had sent, remains ambiguous even after the next act of the drama is underway.
Returning to Joel’s moment, the pouring-out of spirit had to trigger in the ears of Israel a memory of a moment long before the impending swarm, when locusts struck the land of Egypt as part of a cosmic battle between the one true God and a would-be god. In those days, in the wilderness after the escape, likewise a moment of mass prophecy erupted, one in which the people who thought they knew the nature of prophecy were greatly disturbed but the great prophet himself simply said, “Would that all of Israel prophesied.” Joel points forward to a time beyond the swarm, when in the destruction left by another plague, just such a thing will happen again, but in ways that far surpass the moment in Sinai. Such a promise, especially after YHWH has caused such destruction, must have sounded to Israel in the days of kings and to the Church in the age of the Empire like bittersweet news, but books like Joel remind us that sometimes life with God is in fact bittersweet, that when the God who meets Moses in the desert finds Israel too comfortable in the garden, sometimes exile happens, and sometimes that exile does not require Israel to go anywhere at all. It’s not an easy message to hear, but perhaps it might be true.
May our stories, in the plagues and when we receive gifts, always be God’s stories.