The Complete Books of Joel, Amos, and Obadiah

Environmentalists' Favorite Bible Book
What's really in the Good Book.
Feb. 20 2007 7:40 AM

The Complete Books of Joel, Amos, and Obadiah

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Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Lots of you answered my plea for an explanation of the "sow the wind" verse in Hosea, Chapter 8. The consensus: "Sow the wind" is a pointless, fruitless action—how can you sow wind? It signifies the Israelites' worship of false gods. Praying to idols is as useless as planting the wind, and the price of this stupidity will be chaos and destruction—"reap the whirlwind."

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

I'm going to rush through three books in one day. This is not because Joel, Amos, and Obadiah are dull—they're much livelier that Hosea! But they are very short.

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The Book of Joel

Chapter 1 and Chapter 2
Joel is the prophet of green, the oracle of Earth Day, the guru of global warming. His brief (four-chapter) book glows with images of nature—as destroyer, and as redeemer. It's astonishingly beautiful. In the first two chapters, Joel depicts a locust invasion that is followed by wholesale natural calamity—the fig trees droop, "the seeds shrivel," and—a spookily brilliant image, "even the flocks of sheep are dazed." The natural destruction signals human disaster—"joy withers away."

This first catastrophe is a prelude to the Day of Judgment, which Joel also depicts as an environmental disaster. The Lord arrives as a thick, dark cloud and sends fiery war-horses to incinerate the land. (Carbon dioxide emissions? Ha! Blazing horse armies sent by God to set the world on fire—that's global warming!) Earthquakes and solar and lunar eclipses follow.

But our God is a recycling God, and His redemption is also depicted in enviro terms. His salvation of Israel is represented as a Greenpeace, complete with lush grasses, fruiting trees, and abundant rains. Is Joel a favorite book of the budding religious environmentalist movement?

Chapter 3 and Chapter 4
Wait a minute! My Christian Bible has only three chapters of Joel, but my Jewish Bible has four. What's going on here? It looks like Christians combine the Jewish chapters 2 and 3. The Christian Chapter 3 is the Jewish Chapter 4.

The most appealing part of Chapter 3 (Jewish version) is the universality of Joel's message: He promises that everyone—even slaves—will receive God's spirit. (The language here is extremely Christian in tone—God "pours out [His] spirit" on us. That's a phrase that I can't imagine hearing in synagogue, but it would go down easy in a church.)

Glorious Chapter 4, which foretells the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem, wavers between violence and grace. Joel reverses the Bible's most famous plea for peace. The Lord incites the battle that will destroy Judah's enemies by saying: "Beat your ploughshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears."

The book ends with the restoration of Israel, peace, and still more images of natural abundance: "the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk … for the Lord dwells in Zion."

The Book of Amos

Chapter 1 and Chapter 2
The key point of Amos seems to be: Being chosen isn't a free ticket to salvation. In fact, it means that God holds you to a higher standard.

Amos predicts an earthquake that will cause fires in Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Moab, Judah, and Israel. Amos explains that in each nation, the conflagration is punishment for a particular horrific sin. Gaza and Tyre both exiled enemy populations; Edom was too merciless in battle; the Ammonites gutted pregnant women; Moab burned the Edomite king's corpse, etc. But His chosen people are punished not for crimes of violence but for crimes of faith and morals. Judah burns because it "spurned the teaching of the Lord." Israel burns because it mistreats the poor and allows drinking in the temple.

Chapter 3
The Lord strikes the same theme in the opening verses of Chapter 3, telling the Israelites that because they were the only people He "singled out" for His love, He will "call you to account for all your iniquities." When you stop to think about it, this strikes a fatal blow to the "I'm not as bad as he is" school of morality, which holds that you can claim the moral high ground simply by being a smidgen less awful than your neighbor. That doesn't work for God. He's an absolutist. So what if the Ammonites and Edomites are worshipping statues and slaughtering babies? That has nothing to do with you. God's covenant means you have to be righteous all the time, that He's always watching you, so you better be better than the rest.

(Pause to fix technical snafu—the kittens are chewing up my laptop's power cord. Go away, kittens!)

Chapter 4
Dentistry—not a divine priority. God lists all the suffering He has inflicted on His people. He says He blighted orchards, sent plagues, caused droughts, starved towns, destroyed cities, made teeth clean—excuse me? Yes, the Lord, like
the British government, considers white, cavity-free, periodontally sound chompers to be a punishment. "I … have given you cleanness of teeth in all your towns, and lack of food in all your settlements." You see? I didn't make this up!

What explains His loathing of dentists? Perhaps "clean teeth" is like "empty stomach," a phrase that signifies hunger rather than hygiene. (Incidentally, I assume He has since reversed His dental opposition, given the high Jewish representation in the American Dental Association.)

"Prepare to meet your God, O Israel!" Is this the source for "Prepare to meet your maker"?

Chapter 5
What a beautiful chapter! Three particular highlights:
1) Amos describes how awful it will be on the Day of Judgment, brilliantly capturing a world in which horrors never end: "As if a man should run from a lion and be attacked by a bear; Or if he got indoors, should lean his hand on the wall, and be bitten by a snake!" Isn't that creepy? The greatness of most horror movies is their ability to tamper with our sense of relief: Just when the heroine believes she has finally found a haven, evil strikes. That is exactly what this verse captures: You've finally escaped the bear, found shelter in the safety of home, and a snake bites you!

2) God is wickedly vicious on the subject of our superficial piety: "I loath, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. … Spare me the sound of your hymns." I love that mordant, "spare me."

3) How glorious is this invocation of justice: "Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream." I think this line appears in a common Jewish prayer. Am I remembering correctly?

Chapter 6 through Chapter 8
In a dream, Amos persuades God three times not to wipe out the Israelites. First, the dream-God is going to send a locust plague, but Amos begs Him not to. Then Amos talks Him out of unleashing fire. Finally, Amos implores Him not to wipe out Israel with a "plumb line." This is evidently a translation problem, since you couldn't wipe out a banana with a plumb line. Ah, good—my translation wonders in a footnote if plumb line is actually supposed to be pickax.

The top priest tries to exile Amos for his gloomy prophecies. Amos fights the order, insisting that he's not a priest but a humble fig farmer and cattle breeder. (He sounds a bit like the third-term senator who claims he is a just small businessman, not a professional politician. Give it up, Amos! You're a prophet.)

Chapter 9
Like all the prophetic books, Amos finishes by looking forward to God's harsh judgment, followed by the glorious restoration of Zion. There is a particularly nice passage about how you can't hide from God on the Day of Judgment. It doesn't matter if they "burrow down to Sheol" or hide on a mountaintop or swim to the bottom of the sea—"my hand shall take them."

The Book of Obadiah

Chapter 1
One chapter. Yup. The whole book is one measly chapter. Obadiah is the Ralph Ellison of prophets, the Bible's one-hit wonder. It may be only a few verses, but it completes the Esau/Jacob story that began way back in Genesis. As you may remember,
when Jacob betrays his poor, dumb brother, Esau goes off and starts the kingdom of Edom. Israel and Edom remain uneasy neighbors. Obadiah records their final breach. When Judah is invaded—by Babylon, I assume—Edom allies with the enemy to sack Jerusalem. Obadiah asks of Edom, "How could you gaze with glee on your brother that day, on his day of calamity? … How could you loudly jeer on a day of anguish?" The Edomites will pay for it, Obie promises, because they will be wiped out, not a man spared, and Esau's line will come to an end. The relationship of Jacob and Esau is one of the most tragic in the Bible, and made even more so by its grim conclusion here.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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