The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Hebrew Exegesis course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Be aware: I use the Hebrew Bible’s chapter and verse references in the following, which can be different than what one will find in English translations of Joel.
In Joel 3:1-2, Joel describes the scope of the Spirit’s outpouring. Almost all commentators would understand the identity of this scope as referring to all the inhabitants of Judah. However, some, namely Barton, push back against this consensus by suggesting that aspects of the text do not fit neatly within a “merely Judah” perspective, but actually indicate a more universal extent. The significance of this exegetical issue is demonstrated by Barton’s observation that his interpretation would “make this prophecy one of the most ‘universalistic’ in the Old Testament . . . almost unparalleled in the Old Testament” (96).
The scope of the Spirit’s outpouring is identified asכָּל־בָּשָׂ֔ר. The high majority of commentators understand this as referring to all the inhabitants of Judah for the following reasons. (1) The 2nd person pronouns littered throughout this text indicate that this promise is limited to Judah, the addressee (Garrett, 369; Achtemeier, 148; Hubbard, 73; Wolff, 67). (2) Context: (a) As Wolff succinctly states, “According to the introduction in 2:19 this oracle . . . pertains to Yahweh’s people, and immediately preceding it the manifestation of Yahweh ‘in the midst of Israel’ has been announced (2:27)” (emphasis added, Wolff, 67; cf. Allen, 98). (b) Rather than addressing the nations in 3:1-5, Joel’s message to the nations awaits the final chapter (Crenshaw, 165; Wolff, 67). (3) Joel is most likely building upon, interpreting, or expanding the hope anticipated in texts such as Ezek 39:29 and Zech 12:10 which were intended for the “house of Israel” (Ezek 39:29) and restrict “the outpouring of a compassionate spirit to David’s descendants and residents of Jerusalem” (Zech 12:10; Crenshaw, 165; see also Garrett 369; Allen 98; Wolff, 67). (4) Crenshaw notes a (doubtful) suggestion made by Cheyne, that Joel intended כל־בשׂר to function as a poetic abbreviation for בישׂרל כל due to their phonological similarity (165). (5) The early church’s interpretation. As Allen keenly notes, “It was obviously in this sense [as referring strictly to Judah] that Peter understood it [Joel 3] in his exposition of the passage in Acts 2, especially in light of the amazement expressed at the ‘Gentile Pentecost’ in Acts 10:45” (Allen, 98).
On the other hand, Barton believes the message Joel 3:1-5 is ‘universalistic,’ extending beyond Judah’s borders. He provides the following arguments: (1) Although the previous commentators recognize that כָּל־בָּשָׂ֔ר can mean “everyone,” “the whole of humanity” (Wolff, 67; Allen, 98l Crenshaw, 165; cf. Gen 6:12-13; Isa 40:5; 49:26; Sir 8:19), nonetheless, they think the context restrains the meaning of “all” to “all Israel.” Barton, however, argues that this view conflicts with all other OT uses of כָּל־בָּשָׂ֔ר, which either means strictly “all humans” or “all creatures,” but none clearly meaning “all Israelites” (96). (2) The reference to male and female slaves quite likely includes non-Judeans (Barton, 96; cf. Crenshaw, 166). (3) The immediate context includes a promise of salvation for everyone who calls on YHWH (v.5) (Barton, 96). (4) The earlier church applied the message of this text to gentile converts, which, if nothing else, “took up a hint that is clearly present in the text” (Barton, 96).
One would be mistaken to assume that the interpreter faces these two perspectives in terms of “either/or.” Certainly, the majority of interpreters are correct to assert that the immediate context intends Judahites as the immediate recipients of this hope. However, the level of ambiguity, well pointed out by Barton, alludes to what becomes explicit in the New Testament—the eventual inclusion of Gentiles in this promise of the Spirit (Acts 10:45, Gal 3:14, 26-29). Ultimately, Joel uses vastly inclusive language primarily as a rhetorical device—defining “all flesh” as widely as possible in order to convey, “the major characteristic of the outpouring of the Spirit is its universality” (Garret, 369).