The prophetic book of Joel is all about disasters.
It is kicked off dramatically by a huge locust invasion:
(1:4) What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.
The first response is mourning for the loss of agricultural produce.
(1:5) Wake up, you drunkards, and weep;
and wail, all you wine-drinkers,
over the sweet wine,
for it is cut off from your mouth.
And even mourning on the part of the land:
(1:10) The fields are devastated,
the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
the wine dries up,
the oil fails.
Just as the plants themselves wither, so does the joy of the people, shrunk to a bare ghost of itself. They cry, they wail, they mourn loudly as if to get God’s attention. Then they appeal to God’s kindness. The people do this first, calling for a solemn assembly (1:14), and then so do the animals:
(1:20) Even the wild animals cry to you
because the watercourses are dried up,
and fire has devoured
the pastures of the wilderness.
The locusts appear to attack again (or maybe Joel’s just being poetically repetitive) and then finally Joel reports God’s response to the frantic pleas for help, with words of consolation.
(2:21-23) Do not fear, O soil;
be glad and rejoice,
for YWHW 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.
O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in YHWH your God;
for God has given the early rain for your vindication,
and poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
God’s blessing and consolation is seen in the return of things to their “natural order,” the seasonal rains as expected. God’s word is in the disruption, and God’s word is in the reconciliation.
The reconciliation part is easy to “get.” God loves us and wants to heal our world.
But it’s hard to get your mind around the idea that God may have deliberately SENT the army of locusts…(Joel doesn’t say why)… especially in a world recently rocked by natural disasters, where people say earthquakes are God’s punishment on our sins. I believe it is offensive and wrong to claim God punishes us like this, but nonetheless the idea is represented in scripture: Joel calls the locusts “God’s army.”
I think it is important to listen for God’s word in the world around us. We all know how to learn from experience, and that may be the best way to listen for God’s word. I mourn the tragic events in Japan without calling them divine punishment, but I still hope that perhaps we can hear God’s wake-up call that asks us to question the safety of nuclear power.
One lesson I think we can always learn from the major disasters of the earth is humility – knowing that the world doesn’t revolve around humanity. I kayak in Tomales Bay, which lies right on top of the San Andreas fault. If that fault were to open, the bay water (creatures & kayaks and all) would go cascading down right into it. This is a risk I take on my kayaking days. Although it is scary to think about, I know that my life is, cosmically speaking, smaller than the importance of the continental plates maintaining balance against one another. The continental plates are important, too. The ocean is important, and Good, even when it hurls vast quantities of water up our shorelines. Even Joel’s villain, the locust, is God’s own creature, and treasured in God’s sight. We live in fragile co-existence with many natural powers greater than ourselves – from locusts to tectonic plates. May we learn to live within our limits, to keep ourselves (and others) from perching on those risky edges, and to honor the goodness in all created things.