Although most modern readers focus on Yoel 3, with its incredible imagery, the climactic moment for Yoel is in chapter 2. Chapter 2 is also where we learn more about the man behind the prophecy. Yoel’s descriptions of the plagues afflicting the land are so visceral that it’s clear he is relating what he has seen first hand, and he portrays those descriptions as direct experience. We already know that he was at the Temple at least long enough to deliver his instructions to the priesthood, and that, in the time of Yermiyahu (26), the prophets were at the Temple in general (which is where Yermiyahu was accused by the prophets of false prophecy). And it stands to reason that some prophets worked at the Temple as a matter of course.
The land of Israel has a dry season and a wet season. As with any geography with that seasonal pattern, drought during the wet season makes for a disastrous dry season. Ancient Yehudah was no different. Drought soon gave way to wildfire. The hills, valleys, and mountains surrounding Jerusalem were wooded until the time of the Ottoman Turks and are prone to high wind. A grass fire approaching the region could easily have gained significant momentum between the wind and the dramatic increase in fuel, developing into a fast-moving, raging inferno. Such a conflagration is precisely what Yoel describes.
The fire bore down on the walls of Jerusalem like an army—the divine army—laying siege:
Before them peoples are in anguish;
All faces grow pale.
Like warriors they charge;
Like soldiers they scale the wall.
They march each on his way;
They do not swerve from their paths.
They do not jostle one another;
Each marches in his path;
They burst through the weapons [the battlements of the city]
And are not halted.
They leap upon the city,
They run upon the walls,
They climb up into the houses,
They enter through the windows like a thief.
The earth quakes before them;
The heavens tremble.
The sun and moon are darkened,
And the stars withdraw their shining.
The smoke was so thick that it darkened the sun by day and the moon by night, and it blotted out the stars. I used to live in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which, like most of California, has a similar wet season/dry season dynamic that errs on the side of drought. When a forest fire is within a few miles, daylight is indeed reduced to evening light. When a small grass fire is within a mile, the smoke produces daytime conditions that mimic sunset. Yoel’s description of the conditions inside Jerusalem as high flames danced outside the walls is no exaggeration and far from supernatural or celestial in nature.
Again, Yoel uses his experience of fire as a metaphor for the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans, but the absence of the observations made by Yermiyahu tell us that Yoel’s work and experiences precede those of Yermiyahu. Yoel does not discuss rampant idolatry, as Yermiyahu does. Likewise, Yermiyahu, who was both a priest and meticulous in recording the events that coincided with his delivery of prophecies, does not mention the cessation in Temple offerings described by Yoel. These two men were not contemporaries, and the events they describe generally do not overlap.
At this point, the priests finally decide to heed Yoel’s call to repentance. They call an assembly and beg HaShem to relent, if nothing else, for the sake of his own reputation. And HaShem is merciful, in a fashion. He chooses to relent for the sake of the land, not the people, and He decides not to eradicate Beit Yakov entirely. Instead, He sends early rains and abundant harvest (2:23-25), and he promises that “the northerner” (the Chaldeans) will eventually be removed from the land and vanquished (2:20). Beit Yakov will still go into exile and suffer horrible losses, but the exiled remnant will consist of all those who call upon His Name, and those who are righteous will be the ones to return (a subject of considerable concern in Ezra):
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those who the Lord calls.-Amos 2:32
The chain of events is very reminiscent of that described in Yonah of Ninevah’s repentance. I don’t think it would be going too far to suggest that Yoel and Yonah should be read as companion works. This is Jerusalem’s Day of Judgment—the dreaded Day of the Lord, which will ultimately lead to another Day of Judgment for Chaldea and her allies in the Valley of Yehoshephat (3:2 and 3:12), presumably the Valley referred to in 2 Dvrei HaYomim 20:16 and 20:26 as the Valley of B’rechah, east of Yeruel, where Yehoshephat defeated the Edomites, the Moavites, and their allies. Ninevah’s repentance allowed Assyria to survive and conquer Israel, but was not sufficient to prevent their ultimate fall to Chaldea. Jerusalem’s repentance does not prevent the Chaldean Conquest or the suffering that follows it, but it does bring an end to the drought and allow Israel and Yehudah to rise again, which is the topic of chapter 3.
In chapter 3, Yoel prophesies the restoration of Israel and Yehudah, which came to pass during the Persian period. The bulk of Yoel’s prophecies are contained in this chapter, while the preceding two chapters are largely documentary. Not only would the kingdoms become fruitful and prosperous, but HaShem promises to wreak vengeance on those nations that colluded with the Chaldeans or oppressed the Israelites during their exile, including Tyre, Sidon, Philistia, Egypt, and Edom. The others I have discussed before, but Egypt I have not. Egypt suffered several defeats on the battlefield against Chaldea, and the Persian army came very close to conquering Egypt entirely.
First, though, fire will return to Jerusalem in the form of a siege:
And I will show wonders in the heavens and on earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.-Yoel 2:30-31
Interestingly, some of the details of Yoel’s prophecies were averted. He says that foreigners would never again enter Jerusalem after the restoration. Nehemiah tells us that foreigners were invited to conduct commerce within the gates, and prophets who followed Yoel tell us that foreigners would be involved in Jerusalem’s rebuilding and would go to the city to worship HaShem. Ultimately, the Israelites failure to achieve independence (and their prosperity under foreign rule) in the centuries following the Exile negated Yoel 3:17.
Likewise, Hashem seems to have changed his mind about the status of prophecy in the return. While Yoel says that all those righteous ones who would return would be like prophets, other, later prophets tell us that the return marked the end of prophecy. Yehezkiel goes so far as to say that anyone who claims to be a prophet in the return will be a false prophet, and should be treated accordingly. However, in the return, the layman played an unprecedented role in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple and in the protection of Jewish populations and culture (Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel), building on the rise of the lay prophet, starting with Hoshea. Indeed, the post-Exilic period of Jewish history (from the Return to the present) has been nothing if not an era of lay scholarship and cultural preservation. In that sense, both Yoel and Yehezkiel were simultaneously right.