Like Swarming Locusts (Joel 1-2)

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.”  

Contributors

  • 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).