Written by Pastor Ed
When Disaster Strikes
May 31, 2015
Books of the Bible – Joel
Joel 1: 1-12 and 2: 21-27
“[F]rom a prophetic standpoint, every time the United States gets involved in some kind of a pressure on Israel to split their land, there’s some natural disaster that happens here in America,” so said Pat Robertson, noted televangelist. But he’s certainly not alone. It seems any time there is a natural disaster in the world, someone finds a way to blame it on those who were most affected.
Hurricane Katrina was proclaimed to be God’s judgement on New Orleans for its lax sexual behaviour, or because of abortion, or any number of other reasons. Haiti, according to some, made a pact with the devil many years ago, and has paid ever since with natural disasters. I haven’t heard what Nepal’s sins were, but I’m sure someone out there has made claims of divine retribution as the cause of the recent earthquake there.
And it’s an easy leap to make. Sometimes we do it implicitly, if not explicitly by what we say after a disaster strikes. I grew up in an area that saw numerous tornados, including the most famous ones that took place 50 years ago on Palm Sunday. Tornados are notorious for completely destroying one property while leaving the next door neighbour relatively untouched. And I have often cringed when I hear someone say, “God was certainly with me, because my property or self wasn’t hurt.” Does that mean God wasn’t with the person down the street whose property was destroyed?
Natural disasters, tornados, floods, earthquakes, drought and so forth have been with us at least as long as recorded history. It’s interesting that Amos is dated as “two years before the earthquake” and it must have been a major one because it was remembered also by Zechariah, many years later. And, it is generally agreed, it is in the context of a natural disaster that Joel made his decree to the people of his day.
Most scholars today date the little book of Joel to sometime after the exile, probably somewhere around 400 B.C. While there is some argument about whether it all comes from the same writer or not, there is little reason to break it up into different parts. One somewhat interesting note in terms of the text itself is that in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible the book of Joel is divided into 4 chapters while our English texts combine several sections to make only three. It’s all there, just divided differently.
As you may recall from our look at Ezra and Nehemiah, the period after the exile was a time of fierce nationalism among the people of Judah. They were a struggling group trying to re-establish a place for themselves in the landscape of the Middle East which had been overrun again and again by conquering armies.
And now, perhaps just as they were making some headway, disaster struck in the form of a plague of locusts. Now, I have never experienced anything like this, but I have certainly read accounts and seen pictures of the prairies in the 30’s when grasshoppers devastated what was left of the crops following the drought. And people who know say that Joel’s description of the destruction is quite accurate. Everything, it seems, was destroyed. There was not even enough left for the grain and drink offering to be made in the temple. And there is some indication that this infestation followed a period of drought, as is generally the case. Joel notes fires and streams dried up as part of the disaster.
So how do you talk about or explain such a disaster? We know very little about Joel, only that he was the son of Pethuel, about whom we know even less. But clearly Joel was familiar with prophets who had come before and was in the line of priests and prophets that were a part of life in Israel. Certainly he was familiar with those prophets who had proclaimed a coming day of judgement and so, for Joel, this disaster was an omen, a portent of things to come, or at least it raised the question, “Could this be a sign of the end, of the coming day of the Lord?”
At the very least it was cause for concern for people still assumed that bad things didn’t happen to good people. And so when bad things did happen, people would question, “Where is your God?” as the Psalmist notes in Psalms 42 and 43. It’s a difficult question to answer sometimes when God seems far away or uncaring.
In any case, Joel saw this disaster as a call to repentance and as with all the prophets he was sure that if the people humbled themselves and were obedient, God would respond. And indeed, it seems the land did respond. The rains came and watered the earth and they were promised a good harvest, with plenty to eat to make up for the lean years and all that the locust had eaten. Indeed, not only would the earth be restored and all of creation with it, but God would pour out his spirit on all flesh, from young to old, both male and female, even the slaves among them would experience a renewal of body and spirit. This promise of God’s spirit being poured out was remembered by the New Testament church who saw its fulfillment in the events of Pentecost, which we celebrated last Sunday.
As with most of the prophets, and particularly those after the exile, the restoration of Israel’s fortunes meant, for them, the defeat of the other nations around them. The Day of the Lord which this disaster seemed to Joel to foretell was a day of judgement, and for the children of Israel, that meant a defeat for the nations around them and so the book of Joel ends with Judah restored to a place of prominence in God’s sight, and the nations who had treated them badly defeated and desolate.
Unlike Micah who foresees a peaceable kingdom, Joel calls for the warriors to “beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears.” (3:10) and join in the battle to defeat the nations. For Joel the coming “day of the Lord” was above all a day of reckoning when things would be put right, Judah would be restored to its rightful place, creation would be renewed and all God’s enemies would be defeated.
So what shall we take from this little book of Joel, other than those few verses that we often read at Pentecost or that are repeated in the Acts account?
Well, as I hinted at the beginning, my thoughts as I read the book of Joel turned to the question of how we view creation, and particularly how we cope with or think about natural disasters. As I noted, some are quick to assign blame or see such things as floods as God’s judgement for certain behaviours. But that is an Old Testament viewpoint that Ezekiel was already moving away from and Jesus and the New Testament clearly disputed.
Ezekiel, you may recall, was beginning to dispute the idea of collective punishment for sin when he said the people could no longer repeat the saying, “the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” And when Jesus is asked pointedly about the fate of some Galileans who had met their death at the hands of Pilate he says, “Do you think that these Galileans suffered in this way because they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Or the people who had a tower fall on them, were they worse sinners than those who survived? “No,” Jesus says, “they weren’t” (Luke 13: 1-5) In other words, you can’t blame the victims of a disaster as being somehow more deserving of it that those who survived. We are all sinners. Elsewhere Jesus notes that God sends the rain on the just and the unjust, the good and the evil.
So I think we need to say rather clearly, natural disasters, indeed any kind of disaster, are not God somehow punishing a group of people for their sins. Granted, some disasters are man-made and are the consequence of human behavior, but we shouldn’t blame God for those.
Natural disasters do remind us, certainly, of the fact that we are not in control and that life is fleeting. I have experienced tornados, seen the destruction of hurricanes, and felt minor earthquakes. And they are unsettling and certainly should call us examine our lives and our relationship to God and to each other. The forces of nature are powerful and when we see or feel those forces at work around us we are often awestruck at what they can produce. They remind us that there are forces much larger than us in the world and no matter how good we are, or how advanced we think our civilization may be, we are no match for disasters such as the earthquake that hit Nepal recently.
We should also be reminded that we too have a role to play in this creation and that our actions can and do play a part. As I said, our human actions sometimes do cause disasters and there are things we can do to prevent or mitigate some of what happens. Joel saw a restored creation as the part of God’s plan, but that doesn’t mean we can just do whatever we want because God will fix it in the end. All you have to do is go to the Colombia Icefields and see how they have shrunk, or hike up the Plain of Six Glaciers trail in the summer and hear the roar of the glaciers calving almost constantly, to know that global warming is taking its toll on creation. And yes, we are all contributing to that in some way.
More recent historians have noted how the farming methods of the 1920s, at least in the American plains, stripped the soil of ground cover and at the very least exaggerated the dust bowl of the 1930’s. Like it or not, this world is the one we have been given to live on and tend and as Christians we ought to be the most concerned for creation and its care, for it truly is a gift from God intended for our good.
Joel was assured that even though a natural disaster had struck God had not abandoned his people, nor his creation. Since Joel’s time, natural disasters have continued to strike all over the world, but God still cares for his people and for the whole of creation, and I believe calls on us to also care for God’s creation.