The literary origin and rhetorical significance of Joel’s agricultural-weaponry language

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.

Chavalas summarizes the situation of Joel 4:10a-b quite nicely:

“Farmers are called up for military service and must bring their agricultural implements, from which the blacksmith will refashion the seven-inch metal tip of the ploughshare (or possibly a heavy hoes) into swords, and pruning hooks (small knives used to remove leaves from grapevines) into spearheads” (50).

At first glance, such a depiction may appear rather straightforward and somewhat unimportant. However, in light of the obvious literary relationship between Joel 4:10a-b, Isaiah 2:4, and Micah 4:3, Joel’s weapon-imagery potentially takes on some substantial rhetorical significance that requires further examination.

The above texts demonstrate a clear literary relationship. Note the lexical similarity—how each uses the following words: כּתת, חֶרֶב, אֵת, and מַזְמֵרָה (oddly, Joel uses a different word for “spear” [רֹמַח instead of חֲנִית])—and how they correspond in context—each involves forging one item into another.

However, debate exists over which prophet possesses the original expression, Joel or Isaiah/Micah. Some argue that Joel represents the original and Isaiah and Micah represent a reversal of Joel’s language. Bach describes Joel’s language as “a proverbial expression . . . used in its original sense” (cited in Allen, 115). And Garrett rightly notes regarding the content of the imagery,

“On the surface it would seem more likely that Joel has the original form of what may have been a proverbial expression. . . . It is more difficult to conceive that a call to disarm would have had much usage” (385).           

But on the other hand, regarding this content, one could equally argue that Joel’s peculiar manner of calling individuals to war (i.e., make agricultural tools into weapons?) argues against its literary novelty, that it more likely draws from an already existent imagery. As Crenshaw notes, Joel’s use of the verb כּתת “seems to be parody rather than an original constituent of a summons to battle. . . .” (188). Likewise, Wolff and Allen respond by pointing out that characteristic of Joel is his frequent, deliberate engagement with prophetic traditions, even at times communicating them with a divergent nuance (Wolff, 80; Allen, 115). Finally, the probable postexilic date of Joel tips the scales toward understanding Joel as literarily dependent on Isaiah and Micah. So, as the majority of commentators (Wolff, 80; Hubbard, 82; Achtemeier, 156) recognize, Joel 4:10a-b is a deliberate reversal, contrast, and reformulation of the utopian picture painted in Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3.

This observation has significant rhetorical implications. In one sense, the language of Joel 4:10 communicates significant ideas in its own right—it speaks of the magnitude of this war force needed to combat such an enemy as YHWH himself. Every possible weapon must be mustered (Allen, 115). Every man, even those normally exempt (cf. Deut 20:5-9; note the radical inclusion the weak among those who ironically call themselves mighty men), must be recruited (Garrett, 386; Achtemeier, 156; Stuart, 269; Hubbard, 82; Allen, 115)! However, contrary to Stuart who calls this “a standard challenge to prepare for war” (268), Joel’s purposeful reversal of Isaiah and Micah’s imagery, his going against the “prophetic grain” so to say, has immense rhetorical effect. With the words of Isaiah and Micah ringing in his audience’s ears, Joel’s words create a solemn irony, a moving parody (Crenshaw, 188; Wolff, 80; Allen, 115), which emphasizes the Day of YHWH as the “day of wrath” for all who oppose him.