Joel 3: Where Is the Justice?

In M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, Cleveland Heap wonders why this dog-like creature called a “scrunt” is getting away with murder. The scrunt is trying to prevent the sea-nymph Story from returning to her own world. He’s a renegade scrunt because he is not legally allowed to do so, and, ordinarily, these three bloodthirsty monkeys called the “Tartutic” maintain justice through sheer intimidation. Unfortunately, they are not enforcing the law at that time. So Cleveland Heap, the protagonist of the story, asks in a dramatic yet humble manner, “Where is the justice?”

Many people ask this about far worse situations (not that renegade scrunts aren’t a problem, at least in the movie). And it is obviously an ancient question, for it appears throughout the Bible. Biblical authors and characters often wonder why God does not punish evildoers but allows them to continue their destructive activity. The Psalmist tends to respond, “Just be patient. God will punish them soon.” The Book of Job appears to leave the question totally unanswered, as God elaborately tells Job about his human limitations. And the prophets project justice onto an eschatological event, in which God will dramatically intervene in history, restore Israel as a nation, destroy her enemies, and set up a new kingdom of righteousness, peace, and prosperity.

Joel 3 opts for the last approach: it projects justice onto an eschatological event. According to the chapter, after God restores Israel, he will judge Tyre and Zidon for selling Israelites into slavery, an act that removed them (the Israelites) quite a distance from their homes. God will punish Tyre and Zidon by turning them over to the Judeans, who in turn will sell them to the Sabeans, a far off people. God then goads Israel’s enemies into a battle, presumably so he can destroy them. “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears,” God proclaims to the Gentiles. In the end, God destroys Israel’s notorious nemeses, Egypt and Edom.

Why do I fail to completely identify with this chapter, or a lot of the Bible, for that matter? I think the reason is that I have no enemies who are deliberately out to destroy me. “Well, wait till you’ve lived long enough,” I can hear people telling me. Fair enough. But, up to this point in my life, I can’t think of anyone who has actually tried to ruin my life.

Don’t get me wrong. I have been hurt in the past. But, most of the time, my hurts are a result of my frustration at not being socially accepted. Indeed, there are many times when I say to God, “Look, I try my best to be nice, and these jerks do not accept me.” And maybe there is a part of me that wants God to punish them. But, in the end, I do not wish that they were dead. I just wish that they accepted me. And, while I may be angry at them, I do not put them in the same category as a rich noble who’s seeking to exploit society’s most vulnerable (the type of person the Bible condemns). My “enemies” can’t help whom they like or dislike, anymore than I can. So a part of me would like for them to be hurt, and a part of me would not.

But there are many people in the world who desperately thirst for justice, who seek some indication that an authority cares enough about their pain to punish the people who caused it. And that is the feeling that Joel 3 addresses. “Those foreigners sold us into slavery!” I can picture the Israelites saying. “Does anyone care? I want them to feel just as bad as I did when I was taken from my home.”

Most of the Bible has this “What goes around comes around” sort of theme, but one of the prophets adds mercy into the equation. First Isaiah discusses God’s wrath against the nations, but it also contains a beautiful passage, Isaiah 19:22-25:

“The LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them. On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage'” (NRSV).

Imagine that! There is Egypt, the nation that placed Israel into captivity and ditched her when she needed military assistance. There is Assyria, the notoriously bloodthirsty power that defeated Northern Israel and decimated much of Judah. Joel presents the destruction of Egypt and other enemies to Israel, but Isaiah offers a different picture. For Isaiah, Egypt and Assyria get their punishment, sure, but then they come together with Israel to worship the true God. And God essentially says, “Welcome home,” even as he affirms their value in his sight.

Isaiah must have had a lot of strength to write this vision. Jonah certainly couldn’t stomach the possibility that God might have mercy on the savage Assyrians, so he fled from his mission. “The world would be better off without them!” he probably thought. But Isaiah dared to value Israel’s enemies as people, even though he too saw the pain that they had inflicted.

I saw a good episode of Touched by an Angel recently. For a second, I thought I was watching a Dallas/Knots Landing reunion, since it had Joan Van Ark and the lady who played Rebecca Wentworth, the mom of Pam Ewing and Cliff Barnes. But, anyway, there was a scene in which a son was talking to his dying father. The father had continually stuck with his wife despite her bossiness and infidelity, and he chose to love her and the daughter she had through an affair. The son told his dad that he always saw this as a sign of weakness. And that attitude was playing itself out in the son’s own life, for he was about to leave his spouse. Then, the son realized (at the coaxing of Andrew, the angel of death) that his father was actually the strong one, since he chose to love in spite of his hurt.

On a certain level, I can sympathize with both voices of the biblical tradition: justice and mercy. And I say this with the disclaimer that I’ve never experienced the level of pain that Israel endured at the hands of her oppressors. People who are wronged want some acknowledgment of their pain, and they don’t want the victimizer to get off scott free. And Isaiah recognized the value of justice, since he could be as graphic about God’s wrath as the rest of the prophets. But Isaiah also dared to ask, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all friends?” That’s like what I was saying above about my own attitude: I don’t necessarily want my enemies to suffer. I just wish that they accepted and respected me.

But things don’t always work that way in the real world. In the same way that the prophets project justice onto an eschatological era, Isaiah projects reconciliation. But, hopefully, Isaiah’s vision can inspire us to value people the way that God does, even as Joel reminds us of the importance of justice.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Asperger's, Autism, Bible, Daily Quiet Time, Isaiah, Joel, Love of God, Religion, Theodicy, Touched by an Angel. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Joel 3: Where Is the Justice?

  1. scott gray says:

    james—

    another excellent post.

    it’s funny on first reading a post or essay, what jumps out at you. things that resonate in some way. you asked the question of yourself, “why do i fail to identify with this chapter, or a lot of the bible for that matter?” i thought i was the only one wrestling with that; it’s nice to have company. and that thought, with great relief, set me free to muse… i’m coupling this response with the question you asked at the end of your last post, about reconciling the appearance of a coercive god, especially in the hebrew texts.

    i’m a mutt. my ancestors come from all over europe, and half of africa. i’ve even got a bit of american indian in me. as a result, i don’t identify with a ‘people,’ like an italian american or an african american might. i don’t feel tied to a ‘people’ by an ancestory-serial ethnic or ideological tradition, like a jew might. i’m an american, but i consider my ‘belonging’ scope to be more global than that. as a result, i don’t have a group of people i consider ‘my people.’

    i grew up in america, but my family moved 11 times in my first 14 years. i’m not the fourth in a line of ranchers whose family has owned and worked the land for 100 years. i’m not second generation spanish, who considers spain as homeland. i’m not part of an ancestory-serial ethnic tradition, who considers a piece of land homeland, like the jews do about palestine. as a result, there is no nation or region i consider ‘my homeland.’

    i’ve been affiliated through participation with at least 4 christian denominations in my faith formation. my longest, and most vibrant, was with a single episcopal parish, where the liturgical traditions were rigorous, but where the theological dogmas were wide open for discussion and change. during the same time, i had friends who were jewish, buddhist, and atheist, and whose understanding of god was not mine. i also read a lot of science fiction, which validates diversity in paradigms and beliefs. as a result, there is no single theistic understanding i have of ‘my god.’

    much of the hebrew scripture seems to involve these three concepts—‘my people,’ ‘my homeland,’ ‘my god.’ there is much to celebrate in these concepts, i think, and those for whom these concepts resonate have rich interconnections with others who believe. it is these rich interconnections that lead to covenants, i think.

    my experience with covenant has to do with my relationship with my wife of 28 years, my family, and some long standing friendships. i have no covenantal connections regarding ‘my people,’ ‘my homeland,’ ‘my god.’ i can understand those who do, but i don’t experience them directly myself. it allows me to stand on the outside, and see a different, larger picture.

    the covenantal connections are rich, and valuable, but can lead to behavior i find immoral and outcomes i find unethical. ‘my people’ can lead to ‘my people before all others’ or ‘my people right or wrong.’ ‘my homeland’ can lead to ‘my homeland at any cost.’ ‘my god’ can lead to ‘my god over and against your god,’ or ‘my god is the only god’ or ‘anything my god does or wants is ok and should be supported fully.’

    it is the immoral and unethical extremes of these positions, both in contemporary global politics and as portrayed in hebrew and christian scriptures, that i feel no resonance with. it is people famous and ordinary, who hold these extremes dear, that i want to introduce to a larger picture. if there’s anyone i want to convert, is is people who hold these extremes.

    i have less problem with christian scriptures, because there is an expanding of the concepts to a more global setting. for jesus, ‘my people’ includes every single person (the good samaritan and ‘who is my neighbor?’). my land begins in jerusalem, but paul expands things to include all lands, and jerusalem as homeland becomes significantly less important in christianity. the exclusivity of ‘my god,’ however, remains, and extreme christian scripture connections can be just as immoral and unethical as extreme hebrew scripture connections.

    i love the scriptures i grew up with (the episcopal lectionary, primarily). but i have to balance them against a larger understanding that does not include very much of ‘my people,’ ‘my land,’ and ‘my god.’ and that means that, perhaps like you, many of the texts have no resonance. it also means that some of the texts are offensive in an immoral, unethical way, and when those texts come up in the lectionary, i want to ‘denounce’ them as such. even if god is doing the immoral behavior and working toward unethical outcomes.

    it also means that there are many of these texts that resonate in a profound way, and i’m not ready to jettison them all. another time on these, maybe. this comment is long enough.

    james, thanks for the wonderful stimulus in your post, and in your questions.

    peace—

    scott

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  2. James Pate says:

    Thanks for your insights, Scott. Sounds like you have quite a background.

    Your story reminds me of a sermon I heard about Moses. Moses also was a mutt. He was a Hebrew, yet he grew up in the culture of the Egyptians, learning about their gods and way of life. He was alienated from his own people. And he didn’t even get his commission from God among fellow Israelites–he was in Midian. Jethro may have very well been a pagan. Yet, God somehow used him. In fact, he was perfect for the job. He was a shepherd, and he knew the ins and outs of Egyptian society.

    I identify on some level with what you said about the Old Testament and New Testament. My post on Joel somewhat touched on that issue, since the New Testament seems to condemn slave trading of human beings in general, whereas the Old Testament limits slavery when the Israelites are slaves. At the same time, the New Testament seems to present God as having preferential treatment for Christians–we are to do good to all, but especially to those of the household of faith. Yet the difference is that anyone from any nationality can become a Christian. I know that Judaism also accepted converts, but Christianity just seems more open in that it accepts Gentiles as Gentiles.

    I tend to be a little more fundamentalist than you in my outlook on Scripture, in the sense that I would not jettison the parts that seem bad (if I understand you correctly). I think that they also have something to teach us, which is why I wrestle with them. But, oddly enough, I don’t know what to do with them, and the usual evangelical cliches don’t always cut it for me.

    Peace,

    James

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  3. scott gray says:

    james–

    i had to think about the ‘jettison’ idea. what i mean is twofold: 1) i ‘jettison’ those particular scriptures as a definitive source of my personal moral and ethical principles; and 2) i ‘jettison’ those particular scriptures as accurately descriptive about the god i know.

    rather, i understand them as passages by those authors about what they want god to be in their ‘my people’ ‘my homeland’ ‘my god’ world view. a theological snapshot, if you will, of the times and people and situations written about.

    there is still an interesting thing thing or two, besides the two aspects i’ve described above, to be found in the passages i find offensive, too ethnocentrist, or sanctioning immoral/unethical behavior.

    that’s what i meant.

    peace–

    scott

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  4. James Pate says:

    Thanks for the clarification. I guess that my response would be what fundamentalists often ask, and I’m sure you’ve already heard it, but I want to see how you would respond. Don’t you need an all-or-nothing approach to the Bible? If you cannot accept all of it with confidence–even the offensive parts–how can you accept any of it with confidence?

    Where are you right now on this?

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  5. scott gray says:

    james–

    boy, do i need a bit of time for this response…

    interesting question.

    scott

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