The Biblical Background of Winepress

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 the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery states, the winepress is “an evocative biblical image. . . .” (954). Central to the life in the ANE (Deut 15:14; 2 King 6:27) and employed with rhetorical variety, a proper understanding of the winepress’ background and usage in various Biblical themes are crucial for understanding certain portions of scripture. One of those texts is Joel 4:13, in which the entire verse involves winepress imagery.

Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery summarizes well the ancient nature of winepresses and practice of wine pressing (see also Isa 5:2; Mt 21:33; Mk 12:1):

Once the grapes ripened, they were spread in the sun for up to a week to increase their sugar content. Then the grapes were taken to the winepress where they were crushed beneath bare feet so that their precious juice might be collected. The winepress consisted of two basic parts – a gently sloping, flat floor on which the grapes could be stomped and one or more collection vats connected to the stomping floor or hewn channels (274).

Winepresses served a foundational role in Israel where drinking water was somewhat rare and water quality was a definite concern (Zondervan, 274).

In biblical-rhetorical use, the winepress often becomes a picture of fortune or lack thereof. It serves as an image of abundance (Num 18:27, 30; Deut 15:14) and blessing (Prov 3:10; Joel 2:14). A winepress harvest was cause for rejoicing (Deut 16:13-14). Therefore, a winepress’ emptiness served as a vivid example of devastation and loss (2 Kgs 6:27; cf. Job 24:11). In such cases, it emptiness often represented God’s judgment (Is 16:10; Jer 48:33; Hos 9:2; Hag 2:16; cf. Mic 6:5).

Of particular importance for Joel 4:13, the prophets often employ winepress imagery to describe the judgment and wrath of God in an extremely vivid manner. The trampling of grapes often denotes the expression of God’s wrath (Isa 63:1-6; Lam 1:15; Rev 14:19; cf. Joel 4:13).

The harm that comes to the grapes is likened to the harm that will come to those who oppose the Lord. . . . For people who stained their garments year after year in the winepress, these images were a graphic reminder of the judgment to come (Zondervan, 276).

As such, one often finds that reaping and sickle language often accompany this winepress metaphor (Joel 4:13; Rev 14:14-20). In these incidences, the juice of the crushed grapes frequently symbolizes the blood of God’s enemies (Rev 14:20; Isa 63:1-6; cf. Rev 19:13). As Crenshaw notes, “Because the juice from grapes resembled blood, the image of treading grapes was a natural one for pouring out the blood of enemies” (191).

However, the wine imagery tends to vary. For example, wine can refer to sin with which men are “intoxicated” (Rev 14:8). A harvest of grapes and vats of wine commonly represents the immense measure of human wickedness, as if iniquity is being stored up until it reaches its limit and overflows (Joel 4:13; Rev 14:14-19). Wine symbolizes God’s wrath that the wicked shall drink (Isa 63:6; Rev 14:10). Unsurprisingly, such pictures of winepress-judgment are associated with the Day of YHWH (Isa 63:4; Lam 1:12).

Concerning Joel 4:13 in particular, Joel uses grape-winepress imagery to describe God’s impending judgment against the nations. He employs a mixed metaphor of sorts (contra. Allen [118] who provides an explanation for harmonizing the latter two images), each image describing a distinct stage in the winemaking process. However, they all portray the same reality (note the three parallel causal כִּי clauses)—the wickedness of the nations is primed for judgment. The unharvested grapes are ripe. The winepress is filled to utter capacity; the vats are described as overflowing; evil has gone beyond the limit. YHWH says, “enough is enough!” Therefore, he commands the judgment of the nations (רְדוּ, “tread”). In sum, the winepress imagery in Joel 4:13 portrays the nations as on the verge of judgment due to their overabounding wickedness (Wolff, 80-81; Garrett, 391).

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.

The identity of “Valley of Jehoshaphat” in Joel 4:2, 12 (English 3:2, 12)

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.