The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Hebrew Exegesis course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Directly after describing the imminently impending Day of YHWH, Joel calls for the people to repent (שׁוב) in order that YHWH might relent his vengeance against them (Joel 2:12-14). Joel creates an inclusio—וְקִרְע֤וּ לְבַבְכֶם placed directly between two שׁוב imperatives (vv.13-14; notice also the alliteration with these three parallel verbs in 12c, 13a, and 13c). As such, an understanding of וְקִרְע֤וּ לְבַבְכֶם is vital to the interpretation of this text as it essentially defines the nature of this וְשׁ֖וּבוּ אֶל־יְהוָ֣ה that may result in salvation from God’s wrath (v.14). One might even callוְקִרְע֤וּ לְבַבְכֶם the central exhortation in the entire book of Joel!
The practice of renting or tearing one’s outer garments was a common feature of Israel’s cultic sphere, which is seen in texts such as Isa 32:11; 2 Kings 18:37-19:1; 2 and King 22:11(Allen, 79). As a customary rite in lamentation, individuals tore their clothes as an outward manifestation of their inward turmoil. This custom typically commenced with its accompanying aspect of clothing oneself in sackcloth (Crenshaw, 135; Wolff, 49).
Interestingly, however, rather than exhorting his audience to rend their garments, Joel deliberately and purposes diverts from this common tradition by calling them to rend their very hearts. Joel’s change in the object to be rent has the immensely powerful rhetorical effect of providing a visual illustration of the inward repentance for which YHWH longed—a whole-hearted return (שֻׁ֥בוּ עָדַ֖י בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֑ם; 2:12c, Crenshaw, 135). Unlike the typical contemporary, symbolic notion of “heart” as the center for feelings and emotions, לֵבָב in Hebrew refers to the center of one’s being, involving thoughts, reflection, volition, disposition, etc. In other words, Joel’s “intention is not so much that people should [merely] feel bad (they already do) as that they should subject their minds to YHWH in obedience and faith” (Barton, 80; cf. Crenshaw, 135).
The significance of וְקִרְע֤וּ לְבַבְכֶם֙ is greatly informed by Joel’s next words— וְאַל־בִּגְדֵיכֶ֔ם. Joel commands his audience literally to “not rend your garments.” As Barton notes, most scholars generally agree that Joel’s aim is not to provide an anti-ritual polemic (80; cf. Joel’s commands in v.12). One might translate v.13 as, “Rend your heart and not merely your garments.” Nonetheless, the negation וְאַל־בִּגְדֵיכֶ֔ם enlightens what Joel intended by וְקִרְע֤וּ לְבַבְכֶם֙—“Ritual repentance, however fervently carried out, is of no use if the heart is unchanged” (Garrett, 346). Joel was reacting against the dangers of vain ritualism—providing a false sense of security to the spiritually dulled worshipper—seen throughout the Old Testament as a besetting problem for Israel (Isa 1:11-15; 29:13; 58:1-9; Jer 4:4; Am 5:21-24; a rebuke picked up by Christ as well Mt 23; Mk 7:6-7). Although “Yahweh’s appeal had been for penitence within the cultic sphere, neither conscience nor cultic” are “sufficient without the other” (Allen, 79; cf. Ps 51:17)
In closing, Joel’s exhortation is predicated on (note the causal כִּי) the nature of YHWH as one who is merciful, gracious, and slow to anger (v.13; cf. Ex 34:6). Joel’s instruction is not deceitful, not a mere psychological remedy. Joel offers his audience the genuine solution to their position of wrath before YHWH—sincere repentance from the heart, a repentance symbolically presented in terms of the lamenting custom of tearing one’s garments.