The rhetorical significance of the prophetic gifts (Joel 3:1; English 2:28)

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.

As evidenced by its inclusio placement, the Spirit’s outpouring serves a central role to the message of vv.1-2. Through the Spirit’s presence, the hope of YHWH’s presence among his people, anticipated in the immediately preceding verse (2:27), will be realized (Allen, 98). These factors indicate that Joel’s primary focus in 3:1-2 is the universal presence of God via the outpoured Spirit. As such, his mention of prophetic gifts has a subordinate function (Hubbard, 75). This leads to the question, what exactly is the significance of Joel’s reference to prophetic gifts in this passage? Through examination of Biblical and scholarly data, this article will conclude that Joel uses prophetic gifts as a rhetorical vehicle to communicate his primary message, which is YHWH’s intimate presence via the poured-out Spirit.

Throughout the OT, an intrinsic connection exists between prophecy and the Spirit (Num 11:25-29; 24:2; Deut 34:9-10; 1 Sam 10:6, 10; 19:20, 23-24; 2 Sam 23:2; 2 Kgs 2:9; 2 Chr 15:1; 20:14; 24:20.). As such, for God to grant individuals prophetic gifts is equivalent to God granting these individuals the Spirit’s presence (Turner, 551; Barton 95; Allen 98; Wolff, 66). Therefore, Joel successfully communicates the realization of YHWH’s presence via the Spirit by attributing prophetic gifts to “all flesh” (Allen, 98) As Stuart observes, “The verbs in the verse (‘prophesy,’ ‘have dreams,’ ‘see visions’)” each “describe revelatory functions associated with the fullness of God’s Spirit . . . .” (260). To be a prophet implies having the “Spirit of prophecy”; therefore, these prophetic gifts manifest the Spirit’s presence. As Crenshaw notes, the waw on וְנִבְּא֖וּ indicates result (165)—the outpoured Spirit results in, and is therefore evidenced by, these prophetic utterances. In summary, by claiming that everyone will prophesy, Joel anticipates an elimination of the previous era’s characteristic of only certain individuals, like prophets, being endowed with the Spirit (e.g., Jdg 3:10; Ex 31:3; Num 11:17; 1 Sam 16:13; Stuart 260-261). “The promise takes up the wistful longing of Moses expressed in Num 11:29 . . . and stamps it as a definite part of Yahweh’s program for the future.” (Allen, 99; cf. Barton, 95; Garrett, 368).

Nonetheless, the significance of Joel’s reference to prophetic gifts is not merely bound up with its function in demonstrating God’s presence among His people; it has a particular rhetorical importance within itself—it speaks to the immediacy in which all will relate to God (Crenshaw, 166). Contrary to Orelli (cited in Crenshaw, 166), who argues for a special significance to the pairing of certain gifts with certain groups of people, the various mediums of revelation in vv.1-2 are mentioned in order to enrich poetic parallelism (Hubbard, 75) and to emphasize the direct relationship all of God’s people will have with him (Wolff, 67). And as Wolff keenly observes, Joel’s focus is likely not prophetic proclamation, since all in view share in the prophetic gifts, but that all are prophets, i.e., have the Spirit of prophecy (66). In contrast to other prophecies about the eschatological Spirit, Joel’s point is not new obedience (Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 11:19-20; 36:26-27) or new creation (cf. Isa 32:25; 44:3; Crenshaw, 164-165); but rather, in continuity with the prophetic hope, Joel picks up on the Old Testament’s anticipation of an intimate relationship with God through the Spirit (Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 11:19-20; 36:26-28; Jer 31:1, 31-34) by way of this “prophetic motif” (Num 12:6; Isa 50:4; Jer 15:16; 20:11; Hubbard, 73-75; Wolff, 66-67; Achtemeier, 149; Garrett, 368; Allen, 99).

In summary, Joel uses prophetic gifts rhetorically to communicate his primary message concerning the hope of intimate communion with God via the poured-out Spirit, universal to all God’s people in the “last days.” Joel’s point may not be that all of God’s people will literally prophesy, but that all of God’s people will have the Spirit. All will be prophets in a non-technical sense, i.e., having the Spirit of prophecy; but not all will be “prophets proper.” This understanding accords with the NT: Even after the redemptive-historical fulfillment of Joel 3:1-2 at Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21), not all have the gift of prophecy (1 Cor 12:10, 29); yet all do have the illuminating presence of the Spirit of prophecy (1 John 2:20, 27; cf. Jer 31:34).