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.
The phrase עֵ֖מֶק יְהֽוֹשָׁפָ֑ט (“valley of Jehoshaphat”) is used twice in Joel 4, vv.2, 12. An interesting interpretive predicament revolves around this phrase since the precise identity of this valley is unknown to geographers, both ancient and modern (Barton, 99), and this “valley of Jehoshaphat” is referred to nowhere else in the entire Old Testament (Wolff, 76). So, the responsible interpreter asks, what is the identity of this “valley of Jehoshaphat”?
Many answers to this question have been suggested. Beginning in the 4th century, following the lead of Eusebius, many began to identify this valley with the Kidron Valley (Wolff, 76; Crenshaw, 175; Barton, 99). However, עֵמֶק refers to a large plain (HALOT, 847); and as many scholars have noted, the Wadi Kidron is far too narrow to be considered a plain (Wolff, 76) and for the multitude of nations to assemble in it for judgment (Barton, 99; Crenshaw, 175).
Given its name, “valley of Jehoshaphat,” understandably some have entertained the possibility that this valley (at least in Joel’s mind, if not in actual history) possesses some sort of relationship to the historical King Jehoshaphat. Interestingly, 2 Chronicles 20 tells of King Jehoshaphat’s victory at the “Valley of Beraka” (v.26). The memory of this battle could have influenced his use of the expression עֵ֖מֶק יְהֽוֹשָׁפָ֑ט (Wolff, 76). But this suggestion is merely speculative; and as will be demonstrated, a more satisfactory explanation exists.
Finally, Stuart suggests a possible text-critical solution: Since Jehoshaphat precedes a niphal form of שָׁפַט, Stuart suggests that יְהֽוֹשָׁפָ֑ט may “represent a corruption of the niphal infinitive absolute” שָׁפַט, in which case “a more metrically balanced line would result” (267). However, the likelihood of this suggested textual error is doubtful sinceעֵ֖מֶק יְהֽוֹשָׁפָ֑ט occurs twice in this passage, requiring the text-critical error to occur twice.
Along with the majority of commentators, this author suggests that עֵ֖מֶק יְהֽוֹשָׁפָ֑ט refers to a symbolic, non-literal, non-historical valley in which God will decisively judge. HALOT provides an excellent definition for the collocation עֵ֖מֶק יְהֽוֹשָׁפָ֑ט: “The place of final judgment, but not in one particular geographical location. . . .” (848; see also Barton who calls it a “quasi-mythical valley,” 104). The following reasons can be given in support of this interpretation: (1) The clear cipher (“play-on-words,” or pun) created by Joel. The significance of the name יְהוֹשָׁפָט is found in its similar phonology and etymology to שָׁפַט יהוה (YHWH judges). As Hubbard succinctly states, “Valley of Jehoshaphat is best understood . . . in terms of its etymology, ‘Yahweh has judged.’” (79; cf. Crenshaw, 173, 175; Wolff, 76). (2) The use of such ciphers was popular in the emerging apocalyptic writing of Joel’s time (Wolff, 76). (3) The context of both v.2 and v.12 yields itself to this play-on-words. (a) Each text mentions YHWH’s judgment immediately after the phrase עֵ֖מֶק יְהֽוֹשָׁפָ֑ט. But further, (b) even the preceding verb קָבַץ in v.2 often connotes a gathering for the purpose of judgment (Zeph 3:8; Ezek 22:19-20; Hos 8:10; 9:6; Wolff, 76). (4) The mention of two other non-geographical valleys, most clearly בְּעֵ֖מֶק הֶֽחָר֑וּץ (“in the valley of decision”) but even possibly נַ֥חַל הַשִּׁטִּֽים (“the wadi of Shittim,” quite likely a non-historical valley as well; cf. Crenshaw, 200; Wolff, 84; Barton, 109), in Joel 4 support understanding עֵ֖מֶק יְהֽוֹשָׁפָ֑ט as non-geographical (Crenshaw, 173, 192; Hubbard, 79; Wolf, 81). (5) The otherwise geographically contradicting יָרַד (“cause to descend,” v.2) and עָלָה (“go up,” v.12) most likely indicates the symbolic nature of this valley. And finally, (6) the ancient translations of Theodotian and the Vulgate as well as the Targum express יְהֽוֹשָׁפָ֑טas “YHWH judges” (Achtemeier, 155; Barton, 99; Crenshaw, 175), indicating they understood this expression as a cipher. In sum, עֵ֖מֶק יְהֽוֹשָׁפָ֑ט is properly understood as a symbolic, non-geographical place of God’s judgment.