Formations 01.31.2016: Creation from Catastrophe

Joel 2:12-21

Unknown Dutch artist, The Great Fire of London

Unknown Dutch artist, The Great Fire of London

This September marks the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Among those commemorating the event is the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), which has already opened an exhibition called “Creation from Catastrophe: How Architecture Rebuilds Communities.”

The focus of the exhibit is on natural disasters—floods, earthquakes, fires, etc.—as well as architectural responses to such events. Rebuilding a community after great devastation often opens doors to new creative opportunities. For example, Chicago became the birthplace of the modern skyscraper because its rebuilding after the fire of 1871 coincided with the development of new elevator and steel-frame technologies.

Many other architects came into their own in the aftermath of great catastrophes, not least Sir Christopher Wren, who proposed a plan (ultimately unused) to dramatically rebuild London after the 1666 fire. After massive flooding in Pakistan in 2010, architect Yasmeen Lari worked with villagers to build their own bamboo homes without relying on expensive supplies that had to be brought from outside.

Rebuilding after a catastrophe is also a theme in the book of Joel. After the terrible devastation of a locust plague, what shall be the people’s response? What creative opportunities exist for them as they strive to move forward?

Although Joel’s emphasis is on spiritual rather than architectural rebuilding, most of us can appreciate how a major setback can spur people to positive action. If things aren’t working, how can we do better? What new spiritual, emotional, or relational “technologies” do we need to embrace? The prophet calls on the people to change their hearts and return to God. A period of national mourning is in order.

In response, God promises to restore Israel’s fortunes and make the land fertile again. Indeed, Joel twice affirms that “the LORD is about to do great things” for them (vv. 20, 21).

Robert Bevan, “Creation from Catastrophe: How Architecture Rebuilds Communities, Exhibition Preview—A Tale of New Cities,” Evening Standard, 19 Jan 2016


• When has a tragedy strengthened your resolve to make needed improvements in your life?
• Joel called for the people to repent, but is calamity always evidence of sin?
• If not, how can we know when the crises we face call for repentance?
• What does it mean that God has pity on the people (v. 18)?

Reference Shelf

The Book of Joel

The Book of Joel gives no clear historical references. Consequently, scholars have dated it from 835 to 312 B.C.E.; the generally accepted date is from 400–350 B.C.E. Similarly, the book gives no clear indication of its setting. However, the many references to the Temple, Zion, and Jerusalem suggest Jerusalem as the location for Joel’s prophecies….

Classified as one of the minor prophets, the Book of Joel is significant for three reasons. Use of earlier prophetic traditions, such as Amos’s view of natural disasters as God’s punishment (Amos 4:6-12) and the Day of the Lord as a day of darkness and gloom (Amos 5:18-20), and Isaiah’s prophecies about turning swords into plowshares (Isa 2:4, here reversed) show the influence of previous prophetic traditions. Secondly, Joel’s use of vivid imagery strongly influences the literary style of the pre-Christian period. Lastly, Joel outlines many basic beliefs of apocalyptic theology: natural disasters as signs of the coming end; separation of the faithful from the enemies of God; a final judgment; and a final era of peace guaranteed by God’s presence on earth in the midst of the people.

Joanne Kuemmerlin-McLean, “Joel, Book of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 457–58.

A Renewed Call to Repentance

Joel 2:12 marks a major turning point in the book. Whereas 2:1-11 describes the army’s attack on the impending day of YHWH, 2:12 addresses the people, calling them to repent before the day of YHWH comes. In Joel 2:12, YHWH commands the people to repent (“return to me”), describing repentance in both internal and external terms. Internally, the repentance requires “all your heart,” while externally it involves fasting, weeping, and mourning. Joel 2:13 continues the call to repent, though YHWH now appears in the third person. It also references internal and external acts of repentance, but emphasizes the internal in that the call to “rend your hearts” is given preference over the external “tearing of garments.” The second half of 2:13 reiterates the call to return/repent that began 2:12. In other words, the chiastic structure of 2:12-13 has YHWH imploring the people (a) to return with (b) sincere acts of repentance, followed by the prophet calling for (b) sincere acts of repentance and (a) a call to return to YHWH, your God.

Joel 2:14 culminates 2:12-17 by asking a rhetorical question: who knows whether YHWH will change his mind? The point of the repentance in 2:12-13 is to attempt to change YHWH’s mind. The rhetorical question in 2:14 assumes this change is possible, but that only YHWH knows whether YHWH will relent.

By utilizing self-quotes from 2:1 and 1:14, Joel 2:15 draws together the two major portions of the book so far: gathering the people (1:2-20) and warning of the impending day of YHWH (2:1-14). [Self-quotations from Joel 2:1 and 1:14] Joel 2:16 extends 2:15’s call to gather by specifying the elderly, the children, the groom, and the bride. This combination covers the entire extended family, emphasizing what is at stake—the continuing existence of the people itself. Finally, Joel 2:17 explains the purpose of this gathering. The people are gathered to witness the priest’s intercession to YHWH to spare YHWH’s people. The reason for this intercession is YHWH’s own reputation, much like the rationale used by Moses when interceding to YHWH in the wilderness after the people worshiped the golden calf (Exod 32:11-12).

James Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea–Jonah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011), 234–35.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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