Yom Hashoah: A Reading of Joel 2:12-14
I often wonder how the biblical prophets would have addressed Israel during the Holocaust. 20 years ago I taught a series on, “Isaiah and the Holocaust.” This year I have been reading some verses in the book of Joel, spoken in a time of terrible suffering, and would like to consider whether these words could have been spoken during the Holocaust.
“But even now, the word of God, return to Me with your whole mind, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Rend your inner disposition and not just your clothes, then return to God, your Lord; for merciful and compassionate is He, patient and abundantly loyal, repenting about punishment. Perhaps He will turn and relent, leaving a blessing in His wake, a cereal offering and libation for God, your Lord (Joel 2:12–14).”
Joel speaks to the people in the face of reported horrible facts: first, a devastating invasion by locus that consumed the vegetation and threatened the survival of people and animals; second, the ominous nearness of “The Day of God.” God uses the locus to wreak havoc like invincible soldiers. This invasion is a harbinger of an army that will inaugurate the dreaded “Day of God” amid other heavenly portents and awesome signs. Both threats directed against the people originated by God, Whose fury freely poured itself out. How then dare the prophet appeal to the very One bent on punishing His possession?
Joel shares God’s promise of an outpouring of Divine vitality on the people, disposing them to conduct themselves righteously. Then God will move to settle the score with traditional enemies of Israel and to sit in judgment on all nations before acting to secure His sacred precincts and once again taking up residence in Zion. Joel attributes to God the control of rain (Verse 23), and thus nature’s productivity. God is Master of history and nature.
Could the people hear Joel’s description of God even while convinced that they were suffering at His Hand? Could they connect the realities of their lives to the prophet’s descriptions of God? Were the people able to believe the promises offered by Joel in the name of God?
I find it fascinating that in these verses, the prophet does not at any point describe the people as culpable or guilty. He did not say to them that they had caused their own suffering.
Joel cries out, “Have pity, God, upon Your people, let not Your heritage be an object of scorn, for nations to dominate them. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ (Verse 17)”
It seems clear that Joel is speaking here as advocate for his people. I believe that his intention was not only to have them here a prophet of God advocate for them, or to hear promises of healing, but to speak to them during their suffering in no way they would remember when all would be better. The famine did miraculously end. The people did have food. At that point they could think back and remember prophet of God who advocated for them. They could remember that he never criticized them during their suffering. They would remember that he was the one who continued to offer a vision of hope during the worst of times. Joel was speaking for the future. He was speaking for the people who would survive the calamities. He was offering them lessons they could use when they recovered.
Joel planted seeds of a relationship with God that would be able to take root, blossom, and grow, only in the future. He did not see his role as comforter. There were no words of comfort possible. He connected to them as their advocate. He spoke to them of their future. Joel was laying the groundwork for what would happen next.
While many leaders of the Jewish people commiserated with them as they suffered the Holocaust, fewer stood up as their advocates, and far fewer saw far enough into the future to plant the same kind of seeds planted by Joel. Would it have worked? I have no idea. But perhaps we can learn from Joel how to speak with people who are suffering: no mention of guilt, advocating for them with God, and planting soft and gentle seeds with a hint that the suffering will end and the future will be better.