by Rose Wu
Rose is a professor of Feminist Theology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a senior friend of SCM Hong Kong. This Bible study was presented at the WSCF AP RCM in July 2008, Hong Kong.
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” – The Book of Joel and the Day of the Lord
Nothing is known with certainty about the prophet Joel. Because the cultic element in the book is pronounced, such as the solemn assembly at the Temple, invoking of the fast, and frequent mention of priests and sacrifices, some Biblical scholars regard the Book of Joel as a collection of temple liturgies and Joel as a Jerusalem priest. They also suggest that the date of Joel’s prophecy is likely between 609 to 586 B.C.E.—a late pre-exilic date. The audience for the book is the southern nation of Judah.
When Assyria fell and Babylon arose, Judah, under Josiah, removed itself from Assyria’s control and existed as an autonomous state until 609 B.C. when it lost a battle with Egypt on the plains of Megiddo.
“Lament like a virgin dressed in sackcloth for the husband of her youth. The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of the Lord. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord. The fields are devastated, the ground mourns; for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails.” (1:8-10)
Sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord. For the day of the Lord is near and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.” (1:14-15)
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and relents from punishing.” (2:12-13)
“In response to his people, the Lord said, I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and I will no more make you a mockery among the nations. I will remove the northern army far from you and drive it into a parched and desolate land.” (2:19-20a)
“Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield.” (2:21-22)
“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied and praise the name of the Lord your God who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel and that I, the Lord, am your God, and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.” (2:26-27)
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” (2:28-29)
“When I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat, and I will enter into judgment with them there, on account of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations. They have divided my land and cast lots for my people and traded boys for prostitutes and sold girls for wine and drunk it down.” (3:1-3)
“Proclaim this among the nations: prepare for war, stir up the warriors. Let all the soldiers draw near; let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.” (3:9-10)
“Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The Lord roars from Zion and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake. But the Lord is a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel. So you shall know that I, the Lord your God, dwell in Zion, my holy mountain. And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it.” (3:14-17)
“Egypt shall become a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness because of the violence done to the people of Judah in whose land they have shed innocent blood. But Judah shall be inhabited forever and Jerusalem to all generations. I will avenge their blood, and I will not clear the guilty, for the Lord dwells in Zion.” (3:19-21)
Prophecy is not future-telling but articulating moral truth. The prophets diagnose the present and point the way to a just solution. There are two sides of the prophetic proclamation: to announce judgment from God and to weep at the judgment that has been announced.
During his era, Joel regarded locusts and droughts as a sign that Yahweh is coming to sit in judgment. He therefore called his people to repent and thus avert Yahweh’s wrath. We, as Christians living in this contemporary world, can we not see many similar disastrous signs as Joel did?
According to the United Nations, 20 percent of the world’s population today lacks access to safe drinking water. This lack of access contributes to the death of 15 million children every year. Just to provide some examples from China, the Yangtze River, which holds roughly 35 percent of China’s fresh water resources, is seriously polluted due to untreated agricultural and industrial waste. As a result, the annual harvest of aquatic products from the river dropped by more than three-quarters between the 1950s and 1990s, devastating local fishing communities. Moreover, in the last decade, rivers in northern China have run dry in their lower reaches with much-needed water for irrigation. The resulting farm failures have contributed to large numbers of poor, rural people immigrating to China’s already overpopulated cities. Many other places in Asia as well as Africa and the Middle East, in fact, have already experienced violence over water. Unlike oil, water is our most basic human need. God gave the world this most precious of gifts. It is up to God’s children to preserve this gift for ourselves and for future generations.
“The gap between the privileged and non-privileged will widen. Our globalized world will eventually need to rethink what it means to live in community.”
Reading the Book of Joel gives me a strong impression that Biblical faith is marked by a dualistic worldview: the light vs. the darkness, good vs. evil, life vs. death. Yah weh is portrayed as the Almighty Lord who comes to judge the world, to call for his people’s repentance, and to restore Judah by defeating evil nations.
It is clear that, for Joel, Yahweh is the God of Judah and Jerusalem, but what about the other nations? Is there hope for them as well? It is left for other prophets to tell us more about the hope for other nations. Isaiah is certainly one prophet who does so: “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.’” (Isaiah 19:24-25)
In prophesying that “Israel will be the third,” Isaiah has bound the hope of Israel with the hope of the other nations. In Biblical literature, it is not surprise to find the hope of the nations dependent on hope for Israel. But is it also possible that Israel’s hope is dependent on hope for the other nations as well?
For Jesus, the ultimate problem of humanity is not the problem of evil but the problem of our relationship with God. As Jesus weeps over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44), it is clear that the suffering wrought by violence and hatred is real; but as Paul notes (Romans 8:18-23), the groans of the suffering are not a plea for retribution against evil but a plea for redemption, a plea that fills all of Creation. God does not will the death of mortals, whether wicked or righteous. Rather, God pronounces doom on all power that is based on violence and terror. Mercy, salvation, liberation are all part of God’s judgment. Mercy is a gift that is only experienced by passing through God’s judgment, not around it. The prophetic moments of warning and judgment are also moments of mercy in which we may choose to turn around.
In this deeply polarized world, when the majority poor and people of other faiths feel crushed and rejected, when today’s dominant worldview accords neither respect nor reciprocity to women nor to the Earth, what can religious faith teach us about the vision and practice of peace and reconciliation? Is there a consistent ethic upholding the sacredness of life that crosses national, cultural, and religious boundaries?
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit”
The following are the visions which I want to share with you based on my reflection of the prophesy of Joel.
I want to tell you a story which has circulated in many schools of Buddhism for the enlightenment of young followers.
A Buddhist monk sat with his feet resting on a statue of the Buddha. A traveler came by and demanded that the monk remove his feet from the image of the “holy Buddha.” The monk replied, “And where shall I put my feet that is not holy?”
I found this story not only simple and inspiring but also a good illustration of the non-dualistic perspective. Here the distinction between “holy” and “unholy” is illusory and, in some sense, so too is the distinction between “good” and “evil.” There is no separate “I” who can designate other beings as evil. According to the monk, there is no place to put our feet that is not holy.
“There is enough for everybody’s need but not enough for anybody’s greed.” – Mahatma Gandhi
The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities—social, cultural, and physical environments in which we can satisfy our needs and aspirations without diminishing the opportunities of future generations. Globalization—the eradication of the diversity of life through “free trade” treaties—is a single economic system threatening to encompass the entire planet.
One of the greatest obstacles on the road toward sustainability is the continuing increase in material consumption. As Jonathan Watts and David Loy write in The Religion of Consumption, “In the past, it was religion, community, or class that gave us identity. Now we are what we consume.” In spite of all the emphasis in the “new economy” on processing information, generating knowledge, and other intangibles, the main goal of these innovations is to increase productivity, which ultimately increases the flow of material goods.
As many religious leaders point out, our spiritual awakening comes from making a connection to others and to nature. This requires us to see the world within us, to experience more consciously the great interdependent web of life of which we ourselves are among the strands. Can we learn to engage the world as mindful, responsible, creative members of the community of life? I believe this is what repentance means.
Nature is a feminist issue.
According to ecological feminists, important connections exist between the treatment of women, people of color, and the underclass, on one hand, and the treatment of non-human nature, on the other. The first principle that an ecological feminist perspective highly prizes is a set of values which stress the importance of beings-in-relationship—mutual care, friendship, reciprocity, diversity, and appropriate trust. An ethics of relationship implies meaningful participation of all individuals in the life of the community. No one is to be relegated to the margins, allowed to participate only in subservient or inconsequential roles.
The second principle for ecofeminist theory is social transformation. New patterns of thought and behavior are necessary to liberate humanity and the biophysical world from all forms of oppression. We are also challenged to develop and to act in accordance with an “anticipatory utopian consciousness,” one which embodies the desired future in the present.
Central to an ecofeminist consciousness is the development of a new way of being in relation to non-human nature. Ecofeminist ethical concerns extend beyond humanity to embrace all aspects of the biophysical world. The well-being, diversity, and continuity of non-human populations and ecosystems, as well as relationships between humans and non-human elements, are accepted as worthy of moral consideration. Learning to respond to the biophysical world with responsibility and care becomes a moral imperative.
Commitment to a eco-friendly social ethic requires intensive and ongoing efforts to conserve natural resources and curb pollution, develop environmentally responsive technologies, promote the global redistribution of economic and political power, develop and utilize strategies for peaceful conflict resolution, and articulate and promote life-sustaining and life-enhancing spiritual and communal values.
To end my sharing this morning, I want to read to you a poem entitled “Please Call Me by My True Names,” which was written by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1978 during the time when the Vietnamese boat people needed help.
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive.
I am a mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am a frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up
and the door of my heart could be left open,
the door of compassion
For Christians, the day of Yahweh is about the end of the system of this world and the beginning of a new order for all things. For me, Thich Nhat Hanh’s ethic of compassion is not only found in Buddhist teaching: it is also rooted in the Judeo-Christian Biblical tradition.
To seek an alternative path to redemption, we must return to the God who is in relation with all of us, the totality of life. As Carter Heyward wrote in her book The Redemption of God, “W ithout relation, there is no God. For in the beginning is the relation, and in the relation is the power that creates the world through us, and with us, and by us, you and I, you and we, and none of us alone.”
Therefore, we must try our best to reconnect our faith by practicing our love of God and of our neighbors.
With gas and food prices on the rise and water shortages looming in the background, the gap between the privileged and non-privileged will widen. Our globalized world will eventually need to rethink what it means to live in community.