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 Joel paints a unique portrait of Israel’s eschatological restoration in 3:1-5, he begins with the anticipation that YHWH will pour out his Spirit. The repetition of this phrase אֶשְׁפּוֹךְ אֶת־רוּחִי (forming an inclusio) identifies this concept as particularly important in vv.1 and 2. As such, a proper understanding of אֶשְׁפּוֹךְ אֶת־רוּחִי is vital for an accurate comprehension of these verses.
The prophetic utterances that result from the Spirit’s outpouring (3:1-2) specifically identify רוּחַ as the Spirit of prophecy (cf. Num 11:25-29; 1 Sam 10:10), that is, the divine, personal Spirit of God.
The most basic meaning of שָׁפַךְ is “to pour out” (BDB, 381). It is often used to refer to the “sudden, massive spillage” of blood (e.g., Lev 17:4, 13; Deut 12:16, 24; 15:23, etc.) or the pouring out of other objects such as water (e.g., Ex 4:9; Amos 5:8), broth (Jdg 6:20); entrails (2 Sam 20:10); tears (Job 16:20), etc. (HALOT, 1629-1630). However, as is clearly the case here with רוּחַ, שָׁפַךְ often has a metaphorical meaning, for example, referring to the symbolic outpouring of one’s “heart” (לֶב, Ps 62:9 ; Lam 2:19) or “soul” (נֶפֶשׁ, 1 Sam 1:15; Ps 42:5 ) (Wolff, 66).
Among scholars, much consensus halts at this point in the discussion. Regarding the significance and background of אֶשְׁפּוֹךְ אֶת־רוּחִי, interpreters differ. Chavalas provides one of the most detailed hypotheses:
“The concept of having God’s Spirit ‘poured out’ on an individual signified election by the deity. This was done in Mesopotamia with the monarch, who was endowed with melammu, a word denoting the glory of the deity. In fact, monarchs have their own melammu, which often in context meant ‘royal terror.’ Assyrian monarchs such as Shalmaneser III and Shamshi-Adad V described themselves in this way in their annals, especially in regard to the enemy, ‘I poured my melammu over them.’ Demons and even inanimate objects such as palaces and royal weapons could also be endowed with this divine material.”
However interesting or valid such ideas may have been in the ANE, Chavalas’ melammu explanation is entirely foreign to the concerns and emphases of Joel in 3:1-5 (cf. the following two articles).
Building on the frequent use שָׁפַךְ with objects of water (e.g., rainfall), Garrett postulates that Joel used rainfall as an analogy—“The pouring out of the Spirit is distinct from but analogous to the pouring out of rain on the land. Both are saving works of the day of the Lord” (367). However, although Garrett’s observation finds validity in such parallel texts as Isa 32:15 (ערה) and 44:3 (יָצַק), where the pouring out of the Spirit is poetically compared to rainfall that nourishes the ground, this analogy does not transcend these texts as a paradigmatic framework for every instance of this sort of language (cf. Ezek 39:29; Zech 12:10). In other words, despite what it may connote in one instance, אֶשְׁפּוֹךְ אֶת־רוּחִי is flexible imagery. Case and point—the nourishing work of rain is an alien analogy to Joel 3:1-5.
Rejecting the water/rainfall metaphor, Reymond claims that the unction of oil explains the אֶשְׁפּוֹךְ אֶת־רוּחִי language (cited in Allen, 98). But again, however real such oil connotations may have been, this explanation misses Joel’s purpose in employing this language.
The lavish nature of God’s granting his prophetic Spirit best explains the significance of the אֶשְׁפּוֹךְ אֶת־רוּחִי language in Joel 3:1-5. Pouring out or spilling “suggests that God is not being niggardly” (Hubbard, 72-73). The content and structure confirm this proposal—the mention of all types of people receiving the Spirit (content) within the inclusio of אֶשְׁפּוֹךְ אֶת־רוּחִי (structure). Joel uses אֶשְׁפּוֹךְ אֶת־רוּחִי to express the liberal manner in which YHWH will distribute his Spirit.