Acts 2:16-21 (Joel 2:28-32)
This week’s study, in celebration of Pentecost, will focus on the use of the Joel 2:28-32 (Heb 3:1-5a) oracle in the Pentecost sermon-speech by Peter (Acts 2:14-40). This is one of three Scriptures cited in the speech, and the second of two major citations (the other being Psalm 16:8-11) that anchor the speech and frame the kerygma (Gospel proclamation) in verses 22-24.
In examining the use of Joel 2:28-32 (both by Peter and by the author of Acts) several factors must be considered:
- The original context of the passage
- How this was applied to the early Christian context (of Peter’s speech), and
- How the author of Acts adapted the text to fit this application (at the literary level, within the narrative setting)
The first point will be discussed in this study; the second and third will be addressed in a follow-up study next week.
The original context of Joel 2:28-32
The work is comprised of four distinct oracles—1:2-20, 2:1-17, 2:18-32[3:5], and 3:1-21 [4:1-21]. The first two oracles focus on the coming invasion, with a call to repentance, and mourning in light of the destruction that this judgment will bring (as devastating to the people as a massive locust-attack on the crops). In the last two oracles, the focus shifts to the promise of restoration/renewal—the onset of a period of peace and prosperity—along with the ultimate judgment on the nations.
The dating of the book has varied considerably, and there continue to be differences of opinion among commentators. The (military) invasion by a foreign power (1:6ff), compared to a locust-attack (v. 4, cf. Judg 6:5; 7:12; Prov 30:27; Nah 3:15-16; Jer 46:23), would naturally focus the context on the campaigns and conquests of either the Assyrian or Babylonian forces. In the case of an invasion threatening Judah/Jerusalem, this would mean a time-frame corresponding to either 701 or 598/588 B.C., respectively. The apocalyptic and eschatological elements in the oracles of chapters 2 and 3 make a 6th century setting much more likely.
A basic outline of the book is as follows:
- Joel 1:2-20: A lamentation for the land which has been desolated by a locust invasion (probably symbolic of a enemy military invasion)
- Joel 2:1-11: Announcement to Judah/Jerusalem of an impending enemy invasion, with eschatological characteristics—it is God’s own judgment on the land, signifying the “day of YHWH” (verse 11)
- Joel 2:12-17: A call to repentance for all the people in the land
- Joel 2:18-27: A declaration that God will restore the fertility and bounty of the land, bringing blessing back to the people (described in material terms, as recovery from the locust attack)
- Joel 2:28-32 [3:1-5 Heb]: A promise of spiritual blessing (i.e. the pouring out of God’s own Spirit) upon the all the people in the land—this will follow after the material blessing and restoration mentioned previously, and relates specifically to the survivors (i.e. the remnant) of the judgment (v. 32 [3:5]).
- Joel 3:1-16 [4:1-16 Heb]: Announcement of God’s judgment on the Nations (following the restoration of Judah/Jerusalem, v. 1)—again this signifies the eschatological “day of YHWH” (v. 14, cf. 2:11).
- Joel 3:17-21 [4:17-21 Heb]: The future fates of Judah/Jerusalem and the Nations are contrasted.
It could also be outlined more simply as:
Even though the context implies that the restoration indicated in 2:18-32 will be reasonably soon (not left for the indefinite future), it is not specified precisely when it will occur. Even today, there is a considerable divergence of views among commentators as to how such passages should be interpreted.
The oracles in 2:18-3:21 demonstrate a strong apocalyptic and eschatological emphasis, typical of a tendency that developed in the Prophetic writings of the exilic and post-exilic period. The trauma of the Exile (both for the northern and southern Kingdoms) led to this emphasis on a future hope—when Israel would be restored, and there would be a reversal of fortune, whereby the people of Israel would flourish in a ‘golden age’ of peace and prosperity, while the nations (collectively) would face judgment. Joel 3 is one of the few passages in the Old Testament—and perhaps the earliest of these—where the “day of YHWH” motif, and the nation-oracle message of judgment (against individual nations), was broadened to apply to all the nations together.
The oracle of 2:18-32 [Heb 2:18-3:5] itself can be divided into three parts:
- Vv. 18-20—A promise of salvation, in terms of the defeat/removal of the invading forces (from the north)
- Vv. 21-27—A time of peace and prosperity—especially in terms of the fertility and (agricultural) fruitfulness of the land
- Vv. 28-32 [3:1-5]—The manifestation of YHWH’s presence among His people, as part of a powerful theophany that anticipates the judgment of the nations (chap. 3)
- Blessing on the land—water poured out on it, irrigating the fields and making them fertile again
- Blessing on the people—the spirit poured out on them, stimulating the people and making them fertile (in a religious, ethical, and spiritual sense)
The second aspect—the pouring out of the spirit [rûaµ] of God—is expressed in vv. 28-29. What is especially notable, however, is the way that the idea of the spirit coming upon all the people is defined in such precise detail. Here is a translation of vv. 28-29 from the Hebrew (3:1-2):
“And it will be, following this, (that)
I will pour out my spirit [rûaµ] upon all flesh,
and your sons and daughters will act as n¹»î°,
and your older (one)s will dream dreams,
and your choice (young one)s will see visions;
and even upon the servants and upon the (serv)ing maids,
will I pour out my spirit in those days.”
The term n¹»î° is key, and has been left untranslated above. In the ancient Near Eastern religious setting, a n¹»î° was essentially a spokesperson for God—that is, one who communicates the word and will of God to the people. The term is translated in Greek as proph¢¡t¢s, and again into English as “prophet”. Such a person was chosen and gifted, by the Spirit of God, to function in that leadership role.
In ancient Israel, the ideal of charismatic, Spirit-empowered leadership very much dominated the early tradition. The people were governed by an inspired n¹»î° (or ‘prophet’), beginning with Moses and his successor Joshua, followed by the Judges and the great prophet-figure of Samuel. The early kingship (Saul and David) continued to exhibit this same charismatic-prophetic character, though gradually the prophetic role evolved into a separate office employed by the royal court. In any case, only certain individuals were chosen and gifted (by God) to serve as a genuine n¹»î°.
An important theme, found theme found at a number of points in the Prophetic writings reflects what we might call a ‘democratization’ of the ancient principle of spirit-inspired leadership. That is to say, the Spirit of God comes upon the land and its people as a whole, rather than on select individuals. This idea seems to have developed among the later Prophets, likely as a reaction (at least in part) to the trauma of the Exile. The collapse of the Israelite/Judean kingdoms, and the loss of the monarchy, left a void for the principle of spirit-inspired leadership. Two separate, distinct concepts took root during the exile, in response to this void.
On the one hand, the hope for a future ruler from the line of David, who would restore the fortunes of Israel, became an important component of Messianic thought; the roots of this tradition can be found in the exilic Prophetic writings of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. At the same time, an entirely different line of thought took shape—that of the anointed/inspired Community. Both of these lines of tradition coalesced in the Qumran Community, and, somewhat similarly, among the early Christians as well.
This ‘new’ manifestation of the Spirit can be seen, for example, in the Deutero-Isaian passage of Isa 44:1-5 (v. 3); other relevant passages can be found in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. In some respects, however, these Prophetic texts are simply drawing upon much earlier aspects of Israelite historical tradition. Consider the Moses tradition(s) in Numbers 11:10-30, which I examined in a prior study in the series “The Spirit of God in the Old Testament”. By all accounts, these have to be at least as old as the historical traditions in Judges and Samuel, with their striking record of the ancient principle of charismatic (spirit-inspired) leadership at work.
In the Numbers passage, the inspired status of Moses—as the spokesperson (n¹»î°) and intermediary between YHWH and the people—is broadened out to include 70 chosen/appointed elders (vv. 16-17ff). The wording to describe this process is most significant:
(YHWH speaking) “And I will lay aside (something) from (the) spirit [rûaµ] that is upon you, and I will set (it) upon them…”
When this occurs in the narrative (vv. 25ff), the 70 elders begin to “act as a n¹»î°” , just like Moses—i.e., they become active, inspired (prophetic) leaders, who communicate the word and will of God to the people. When Moses’ young attendant Joshua becomes alarmed at this, the great leader utters an extraordinary statement that broadens the prophetic/inspired gift even further:
“Who would (not) give (that) all (the) people of YHWH (would be) n®»î°îm, (and) that YHWH would give His spirit [rûaµ] upon them!” (v. 29)
Ideally, all the people would function as inspired leaders/spokespersons, gifted to know and understand the word and will of YHWH directly from Him. This doubtless relates to the broader tradition of Israel as a holy, chosen people, a nation made up entirely of anointed/inspired priests and kings, etc (Exod 19:6). The ideal could not be maintained initially, as reflected by the people’s response to hearing and experiencing the voice of God at Sinai (20:18-21). Moses came to be designated as the spokesperson (n¹»î°), and, similarly, certain individuals (and only they) were selected to function as priests.
In the time of Israel’s restoration, a new covenant will be established between God and His people (see Jeremiah 31:31-34, etc). It marks the beginning of a New Age, and oracles such as Joel 2:28-32 are thus eschatological, describing the things that will happen at the end of the current Age (judgment of the nations, etc) and the beginning of the new.
How does the reference to the Spirit in vv. 28-29 fit into this eschatological framework, in light of our discussion above? We may gain a better sense of this by considering the thematic structure of the oracle chiastically, as follows:
- Promise of salvation for the land and its people (vv. 18-20)
- Promise of salvation for Jerusalem (Zion) and its people (v. 32)
The spirit (rûaµ) of YHWH essentially refers to His presence, reflecting a manner of expression well-established in Old Testament tradition, going back to the Creation narratives. Thus the “pouring out” of His Spirit is a symbolic expression related to the presence of YHWH among His people. The era of the restored Israel essentially marks a return to the initial moment of the Sinai theophany, when the people collectively stood in God’s presence, prior to the designation of Moses as the spokesperson (n¹»î°) who would stand in their place (Exod 20:18-21). Now all the people are such spokespersons or ‘prophets’ (n®»î°îm), no longer requiring any select individual to serve as intermediary. Now the entire Community is inspired, with the Spirit coming upon them even as it once did the king (at his anointing), or upon the person gifted to function as a n¹»î°.
With this background of Joel 2:28-32 in view—especially the eschatological aspect of the promise of God’s Spirit (the prophetic Spirit) coming upon all of the people—we may now turn to the application this prophecy in the book of Acts. This we will do in next week’s study.