Like Swarming Locusts (Joel 1-2) by Michael J. Chan

The first two chapters of Joel contain several dramatic scenes of desolation in Judah. These poetic depictions are interlaced with laments, injunctions, and words of hope. Taken as a whole, the chapter moves from calamity to recovery. Like many other prophetic texts, these poems are overflowing with inventive imagery. The non-human elements of creation are particularly prominent beginning with verse 4, which describes an unprecedented and devastating wave of locusts afflicting the land.

Are the locusts symbolic?

Many questions have been raised about this plague of locusts. Is verse 4 describing an actual plague of locusts afflicting Judah? Or are the locusts metaphorical or symbolic of a foreign army? Do they perhaps foreshadow an invasion to come when the “day of the Lord” finally arrives? Additionally, four different Hebrew terms are used to describe the locusts (“cutter,” “locust,” “grub,” “hopper,” in English). Could each term represent a different nation, king, or event? Or perhaps they represent different stages of the locusts’ development? Perhaps the use of four different terms simply underscores the completeness with which the locusts devastated the land. These questions are made even more difficult by the book’s lack of a concrete historical setting (see Joel 1:1). Scholars know very little about the circumstances of the book’s composition.

How do the locusts fit into the larger message of Joel 1-2?

These are all important questions. But what is often overlooked in studying the identity of the locusts is how they fit into the larger constellation of creational forces and imagery utilized in Joel 1-2. When taken as a whole, these chapters depict acts of judgment and salvation that are cosmic in scope, involving the entire natural order—from the stars in the sky to the very soil itself. The locusts in Joel 1:4 are only one element of that larger picture.

For example, enemy invaders are described metaphorically with the “teeth of a lion” (Joel 1:6). Their numbers and might devastate agricultural growth (Joel 1:7). The country is severely decimated causing the ground to mourn alongside the priests (Joel 1:9-10). Wine, oil, and other agricultural products are destroyed (Joel 1:10-12; compare Joel 1:16-17) and joy itself has “dried up” among the population (Joel 1:12). The failure of the crop means that storage areas are empty, like the stomachs of the people and the animals (Joel 1:17). The animals respond as well with groaning and bewilderment (Joel 1:18), because fire consumes their feeding areas and eliminates their sources of hydration. Having nowhere else to turn, the animals “pant” after the Lord as they would for water (Joel 1:20). Creational sorrow and human sorrow are deeply interconnected.

Even the world’s light is diminished. The day of the Lord will be one of “darkness and despair” (Joel 2:2), because a violent horde scorches the earth leaving behind a desolate wasteland (Joel 2:3-5). The power of this army is so great that creation will tremble from ground to sky (Joel 2:10). The astral entities themselves—sun, moon, and stars—will lose their ability to illuminate the heavens and effect growth on the earth.

When the Lord’s salvation finally arrives, it also happens on a creation-wide scale: The land brings forth “new grain,” “new wine,” and “new oil” (Joel 2:19). The Lord addresses the soil and the animals directly, telling them to “fear not” (Joel 2:21-22), for he would bring the rains followed by an overflowing harvest (Joel 2:23-24). With a final nod back to the locusts, the Lord promises to “repay” Judah the years devoured by the destructive plague (Joel 2:25). This brief catalogue of cosmic and creational language shows that the locusts were but one element in a larger cosmic and creational drama.

Unfortunately, there is no answer key at the back of the book to tell us the precise identity of the locusts. One thing is clear, however: the destructive deeds of the locusts need to be interpreted in light of the larger cosmic drama that preoccupies Joel 1-2. They are but one element of a larger creational upheaval that occurs at the Lord’s direction. The locusts are, as Joel 2:25 indicates, the Lord’s own “great army.”  

Michael J. Chan, "Like Swarming Locusts (Joel 1-2)", n.p. [cited 7 Dec 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/related-articles/like-swarming-locusts

Contributors

Michael J. Chan

Michael J. Chan
Assistant Professor, Luther Seminary

Michael Chan is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN. He is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University (BA), Luther Seminary (MA in Old Testament), and Emory University (PhD). In addition to many articles and essays, Chan is also the author of The Wealth of Nations: A Tradition-Historical Study (2017) and coauthor of Exploring the Bible (2016).

related to the stars

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Joel 1:1

1The word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethuel:

Joel 1-2

Chapter 2

Joel 1:4

4What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the ... View more

Joel 1:6

6 For a nation has invaded my land,
    powerful and innumerable;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
    and it has the fangs of a lioness.

Joel 1:7

7 It has laid waste my vines,
    and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
    their branches have turned white.

Joel 1:9-10

9 The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off
    from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,
    the ministers of the Lord.
10 The fields are deva ... View more

Joel 1:10-12


10 The fields are devastated,
    the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil fails.


11 Be dismayed, you farmers,
    w ... View more

Joel 1:16-17


16 Is not the food cut off
    before our eyes,
joy and gladness
    from the house of our God?


17 The seed shrivels under the clods,[a]
    the storehouses ... View more

Joel 1:12

12 The vine withers,
    the fig tree droops.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple—
    all the trees of the field are dried up;
surely, joy withers away
    among the ... View more

Joel 1:17

17The seed shrivels under the clods,
the storehouses are desolate;
the granaries are ruined
because the grain has failed.

Joel 1:18


18 How the animals groan!
    The herds of cattle wander about
because there is no pasture for them;
    even the flocks of sheep are dazed.

Joel 1:20

20 Even the wild animals cry to you
    because the watercourses are dried up,
and fire has devoured
    the pastures of the wilderness.

Joel 2:2

2a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never ... View more

Joel 2:3-5

3 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,
  ... View more

Joel 2:10

10 The earth quakes before them,
    the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
    and the stars withdraw their shining.

Joel 2:19

19 In response to his people the Lord said:
I am sending you
    grain, wine, and oil,
    and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
    a mockery ... View more

Joel 2:21-22

21 Do not fear, O soil;
    be glad and rejoice,
    for the Lord has done great things!
22 Do not fear, you animals of the field,
    for the pastures of the w ... View more

Joel 2:23-24

23 O children of Zion, be glad
    and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain[a] for your vindication,
    he has poured down for you abu ... View more

Joel 2:25

25I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.

Joel 1-2

Chapter 2

Joel 2:25

25I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.

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