The Book of the Twelve for Lent 2016
Divine Parenting - Joel (1)
In the construction of the Book of the Twelve Joel sits between Hosea and Amos, serving as a kind of bridge from the one to the other and introducing a major note, “the Day of the Lord,” not present in Hosea. Rendtorff calls Joel “a sort of collection of texts about the ‘Day of the Lord’” (The Canonical Hebrew Bible, 277). It also includes an account of the national repentance of the people that is now used in many Ash Wednesday services to kick off Lent (1:12; 2:15-17).
The end of Hosea (14:8-9) counsels wisdom so the people can clearly understand why their relationship with their God has been so rocky. In Hosea the answer is unambiguous: spiritual adultery/I-dolatry. Apparently such wisdom has not been heeded. Joel begins with the people under assault from a massive army of locusts. They strip the land bare of all the goodness God had promised to his restored people. This movement into judgment continues that pattern of judgment-restoration we noted in Hosea. All these calamities are curses for covenant breaking in Deuteronomy 28.
One of the issues that often hamstrings our relationship to God as churches and persons is God’s role in judging his people. Does this not reflect the popular “God with a Scowl” image we discussed earlier in this series? Is he not a quick-tempered vengeful deity as often alleged? Does God keep short accounts with us and punish us when we fail?
The answers are no, no, and no. The only way to faithfully understand this dynamic, I believe, is in terms of family. God’s family. God is the parent who is raising his children, Israel, to maturity, which is bearing and demonstrating the family characteristics. His fatherly love includes discipline as an aspect of that love. At the extremes, to which Israel often pushed God, he exercises the terrible “tough love” of judgment and exile. I remember hearing an Old Testament scholar say that when he reads through the books of 1-2 Kings, what surprises him is not God’s short fuse in raining judgment down on a disobedient people but, on the contrary, how much he put up with and how long it took to push him to judgment!
Responsible parenting always includes discipline. God has already declared that Israel is his family, his son (Exodus 4:22). That relationship is established and secure (remember Hosea 11:8-9!). Discipline, therefore, is not punishment or retribution. Such tit-for-tat thinking does not come into view here. Rather, discipline, even tough love, is about family, about growth and maturity, about becoming who we, in fact, are, about becoming fit to play our roles in our Father’s business (Luke 2:49). Such discipline, and especially tough love, is God’s “strange or “alien” work (Isaiah 28:21). It is not something God eagerly or willingly does (Lamentations 3:33). Discipline is not God’s characteristic or desired role in Israel’s (or our) life. But it is necessary work for our good and our growth and God does it.
Responsible parenting is aimed at raising response-able children. So it is with God too. He is raising his people to respond to his love, to learn to love as he does, and show the world the way of life God intends and promises for human life. We, however, like Israel, learn neither quickly or well. We need discipline, and on occasion, even tough love. And God will not withhold such love from us out of the sentimentality and softness that often afflicts human parents.
God is administering parental tough love to Israel as the book Joel opens. Yet there is much more to this story and we will continue our reflections on it tomorrow.