Book Review of John Barton’s, “Joel and Obadiah: A Commentary”

Posted: January 29, 2008 by Rick Hogaboam in Biblical Studies, Book Reviews
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Barton, J. (2001). Joel and Obadiah: A Comentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Press.

John Barton offers many insights into the text of Joel in this commentary. I will rehash some of his thoughts here and offer some of my own comments.

Barton suggests it as “reasonable” that the first half of Joel was dealing with a contemporary situation, whereas the second half is eschatological (p.27). Interestingly, though, Barton doesn’t believe that the events discussed in the second half were imminent for the author. “…there is no particular reason to think the author of the second half also believed in the imminence of his expectation” (p. 29). Barton is contrasting the imminence of the first half versus what is considered to be a “determinism” in the second half, assuring that Yahweh will in fact act on behalf of His people. I would concur with Barton that the main theme of the second half of Joel (2:28-3:21) is mainly the concrete promise that Yahweh will intervene into the affairs of Judah, blessing them, saving them, and judging their enemies. At the same time, I wouldn’t say that such was imminent or necessarily distant, but it is worth noting that the apocalyptic expectations in Israel’s life often varied and reached a fever pitch when Jesus was born.

Barton commenting on Joel’s concern in 2:28-3:21,

This is quite distinct from the concern of the so-called apocalyptic type of seer, who thought that the end time would be breaking in at any moment. It is focused on the reliability of God, not on any expectation of imminent intervention….It seems to me that the second half of Joel belongs more to the world of a concern for theodicy than of bated-breath expectations of imminent divine salvation for the righteous in Israel (p. 31).

Theodicy is primarily concerned with God’s goodness and sovereignty. Joel is vindicating God’s sovereignty and goodness by forth telling what is to come. The fact is that God is alive, powerful, and good…that He will act and be vindicated when everything is said and done. I would also say that the book of Revelation gives us much the same message, assuring persecuted Christians that God will act and vindicate Himself and His own on the last day.

Barton highlights the theme of God’s mercy or “hesed” in the context of Joel (p. 32). God relents from the imposed plagues in response to the lament of His people. I presuppose that such a working of repentance and lament is a work of God’s grace and thus shows that God loves to show mercy more so than showing judgment. I am personally a recipient of this steadfast love and am grateful that my fortunes have changed, that God has relented from His wrath towards me and has deflected it upon His very own Son, Jesus Christ.

While commenting on the impending judgment upon the nations, Barton views Joel’s theology as “Israel centered”. “…seeing foreigners as largely the enemies of Israel and hence of YHWH…(p.34)”. T.B. Dozeman, however, suggests that Joel should be read within the corpus of the “Book of the Twelve”, as noted by Barton (p. 35), and is tempered by God’s compassion for Nineveh found in Jonah. It can thus be debated that Joel has some universalistic concerns, of which I am inclined to believe. The Spirit being outpoured on “all flesh” and salvation provided for all who call upon the name of the Lord both serve as themes which can certainly expand beyond Israel.

Barton considers possible scenarios on how best to understand Joel. Some have suggested that Joel may be a genre of “theodicy” and not prophecy at all, and for those who view Joel as prophetic are not unanimous on what aspects of Joel are past, contemporary, or future. Barton quotes on Joel 2:18,

“Then the LORD became jealous for his land”-when? When the people did as the prophet told them? Or when the prophet had delivered his message? Or even within the prophetic vision-so that the narrative account is simply another part of what the prophet is predicting? The last possibility cannot be ruled out; everything in the book, including the narrative about YHWH’s having pity on the people, could be taking place within the prophetic vision and might not refer to events that actually occurred in the external world (p. 87).

When dealing with the transition that occurs in Joel, starting with 2:28, Barton suggests that it is an addition to an already completed work, “…I believe it is safe to conclude here that the oracle is an addition to an already completed work” (p. 94). While I may disagree with his assessment, I am agreed on his intent to determine what to make of the text in its original context. Barton suggests two possible effects of the outpoured Spirit, “First, it may be seen as the means by which dead flesh is transformed into living beings….But the second effect…is to communicate the power of YHWH…empowering them to do great deeds” (p. 95).

Regarding the text “all flesh”, it has been suggested by commentators that it is restricted to Israel alone, while others have pointed out that nowhere else in scripture does “all flesh” refer restrictively to Israel, but rather inclusive of all humans. Barton draws attention to Rabbinic eschatology, in that the “signs of the end” would be marked by a “gathering in of the Gentiles” (p. 96). The usage of this text by the Apostle Peter on Pentecost certainly validates the idea that an existing tradition viewed God’s actions in the “last days” as having global significance.

Barton’s comments on the “portents” in 2:30 and judgment on the nations in 3:1-3 suggest that such needn’t be understood chronologically,

            It does not seem probable that the “portents” here are meant to follow the outpouring of the spirit in 2:28-29-nor to precede them, for that matter. We simply have another fragmentary prophecy of the end time, which cannot be          arranged with others into a chronological sequence (p. 97).

On the judgment of the nations, he adds,

            Once again, it makes little sense to ask how this act of judgment fits in with the outpouring of the spirit or    the portents of 2:30-32; it is simply another eschatological theme only loosely connected to anything else (p. 99).

Perhaps, I am excercising what I think to be common sense, but it seems obvious that the Spirit’s outpouring, signs, and eventual judgment upon all the nations do have chronological significance and are far more than “loosely connected”. Joel 2:32 promises escape for all who call upon the name of YHWH, and I believe that this promised safety is from the coming universal judgment upon all the nations. These themes connect in a very crucial way.

I appreciate Barton’s contribution in this volume, but feels that he raises more questions than he answers. Where Barton does answer questions, I am inclined to disagree with his conclusions more often I have with other commentators. His vast knowledge of existing scholarship is not to be questioned for he cites much that shows a broad awareness of the existing scholarship on which he speaks.

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