The Book of Joel offers hope in the face of apocalypses big and small
If we expect to keep it together when apocalypse hits, we’ll need each other.
Apocalypse is so in right now. It’s almost an essential part of the cultural landscape. It’s not just sci-fi that takes us into the realm where everything falls apart. Leave aside the inundation of serials concerning a future overrun by zombies, vampires, androids, and robots. We’re invariably given to understand it’s the horrible humans we have to fear.
This notion is reinforced in dystopian shows about deeply twisted goings-on in prisons, police departments, hospitals, and governments. The horror creeps even closer in dramas exploring the danger implicit in neighborhoods, families, and marriages. Haunted houses? These stories hint: Who doesn’t live in one?
The problem with apocalypse is that it’s getting harder to change the channel on it. Cable news serves up hourly global terrors that rival any fiction. Real life lived locally has its own shattering aspects. We’ve all answered the phone or opened emails to discover stunning news about friends and loved ones imperiled by sudden diagnoses, accidents, natural disasters, or senseless acts of violence. Things fall apart, and the free fall is often closer than we expect.
For these reasons, we may find a weird affinity with the mysterious prophet Joel, whose urgent summons to a grand assembly of repentance kick-starts the season of Lent each year. Crisis and devastation are Joel’s specialty. In a few short chapters, he describes environmental catastrophe brought on by a terrifying imbalance in nature. This crisis has its origin in human behavior; turns out we’re both the cause and the cure for the emergency.
Joel is not a particularly familiar prophet. Each year a single passage from his book makes the alternate reading list at the vigil mass for Pentecost—which means chances are high you didn’t hear it. Which is a shame: It’s a lovely ethereal forecast about how our sons and daughters will speak the truth while the elderly dream dreams (Joel 3:1–5). Joel is also read in the assembly on two consecutive weekdays every other year in October—most of us miss those segments too, which boil with apocalyptic warnings.
In fact, the only reason the average Catholic may hear Joel in church is because his is the first lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday annually: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12). Joel urges us not simply to repent but to assemble. Across the generations and full spectrum of society, we need to transform our hearts—and we need to do this together.
When things fall apart, people come together. We see this in episodes of disaster—when communities are struck by hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, or shootings. As fixtures disintegrate, our instinct is to reintegrate by identifying with clan, parish, or fellow citizens.
When the social order is threatened by internal divisions—racial conflict, partisan wars, blue collar vs. ivory tower—the instinct to form barricades must be overcome by the mandate to re-commune. Healing doesn’t take place around a wound. First you have to close it.
So who was Joel, and how did he arrive at his vision of dissolution and the means to restoration? Scholars guess that his prophecies took shape in the 4th century BCE, at least a century after Israel returned from Babylonian exile to Jerusalem.
The book has an anthology-like quality to it: Over 20 other Hebrew prophecies are referenced, which helps us date Joel later than those. By Joel’s generation, Jerusalem and its Temple have been rebuilt. The Persians are in virtual command of the nation. As the former Israelite kings are not even mentioned, the monarchy is likely a dead issue for Joel’s society. Priests and scribes govern the community in most ways that matter. Things have, in other words, found their new normal.
But this normalcy seems to add to the prophet’s disquiet. He means to disturb the consensus that everything is more or less all right in a working system of imbalance.
If Joel has a theme, it’s that the present situation can easily be reversed. Reality rides a seesaw in which the tipping point is always a minor shift of gravity away.
As we weigh our present options in regard to climate change, international engagement, economic inequality, the gender gap, or racial tension, some of us may sense what Joel perceived: The ground underfoot is only as stable as where we place our next step. Put a foot down in the wrong direction, and we might be dangling from a precipice. And as the ground goes, so do we all.
At the same time, Joel is more optimistic than many apocalyptic visionaries. As firmly as he believes things can become much worse very quickly, he also asserts that circumstances can improve quite dramatically with the right effort. Is this a flip-flop?
Some scholars find Joel’s turnabout unbelievable and have determined that his book may have two authors: Joel bright and dark, so to speak. Yet theologians, scientists, diplomats, and sociologists often present similar Y-shaped paths toward the future. We’re always on the cusp of a choice that could make or break our reality, both personal and global. We can choose kindness or violence, mending or tearing, sharing or hoarding, risking or fearing, yes or no.
There most likely will be an hour in which our cumulative choices foreclose upon the future, and we’ll be stuck with the reality we’ve purchased. In the end, we do become who we’ve always been. But that hour is not now. Soon, perhaps. But not quite yet.
The Book of Joel was popular with the church fathers—Justin, Clement, Origen, Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Athanasius—all of whom inhabited a historical period when church and empire faced off in a way that felt exclusive and definitive. It’s curious that Joel’s generation was in the opposite position: Religion and empire had found a cozy compromise, coexisting in half-light. In many ways we’ve arrived there again, settling for less, pretending to be one nation under God when we’ve yet to prove we’re either.
The central vision of Joel is vintage apocalypse, every bit as scary as any zombie invasion. Swarms of locusts arrive to devour the nation from one end to the other. These creatures come to consume, and they won’t stop until there’s nothing left to eat. St. Jerome viewed the locusts as four eras of military plague visited on Israel: Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, respectively.
Anyone can play the game of allegory, of course. What are the locusts swarming overhead in our generation? How might unrestrained forces with bottomless bellies already be devouring the world as we know it?
Things fall apart. People do too. So do plans, careers, relationships, living situations, and personal identities. We think we know who we are, what we’re about, what we’re capable of. Then we say or do something we never imagined could come from us, and suddenly there’s a stranger in the mirror.
Our illusions about the world and ourselves wind up in fragments on the floor regularly. Apocalypse is about so much more than planetary cataclysm. Private worlds can be annihilated quietly in a handful of words: “I want a divorce.” “The test came back positive.” “The storm took everything.”
If we expect to keep it together when apocalypse makes landfall, we’ll need each other. Which is why we begin our annual season of repentance with Joel blowing his trumpet, proclaiming a fast, summoning the assembly. If anything is to change, we’re going to change it together.
This article also appears in the February 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 2, pages 47–49).
Image: via Wikimedia Commons