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In the first two chapters, Joel seems to be talking about an ecological disaster.
Joel 1:20 (NJPS):

The very beasts of the field
Cry out to You;
For the watercourses are dried up,
And fire has consumed
The pastures in the wilderness.

The resolution seems to be in terms of returned agricultural productivity. Joel 2:22 (NJPS):

Fear not, O beasts of the field,
For the pastures in the wilderness
Are clothed with grass.
The trees have borne their fruit;
Fig tree and vine
Have yielded their strength.

There is militaristic imagery, but that seems to refer to the invasion of locusts associated with, and perhaps the cause of, the destruction. Starting with chapter 3 and continued in chapter 4, Joel seems to shift to prophesy about the eventual downfall of the nations that were oppressing Judah and the restoration of the political and religious influence of Jerusalem.

Should we therefore read the first two chapters of Joel as allegorical descriptions of the nations mentioned in the last chapter or is the book of Joel covering two distinct times of tragedy? If it's multiple calamities, must we infer multiple "Days of the Lord" in Joel 2:1, 3:3, and 4:14?

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Note: Joel has only 3 chapters in most English translations as the short, 5-verse chapter 3 in the NJPS is appended to chapter 2. (I just so happened to be listening to Joel today or I would not have noticed.) –  Jon Ericson Nov 23 '11 at 6:18
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1 Answer

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[JPS translation and verse numbering throughout, unless otherwise noted]

Chapters 1 and 2 - Locust

Chapters 1 and 2 describe a plague of locust:

What the locust swarm has left the great locusts have eaten;
what the great locusts have left the young locusts have eaten;
what the young locusts have left other locusts have eaten (1:4).
(NIV translation here)

Toward the end of chapter 2, these locust get expelled from the land:

But I will remove far off from you the northern one, and will drive him into a land barren and desolate, with his face toward the eastern sea, and his hinder part toward the western sea; that his foulness may come up, and his ill savour may come up (2:20).

Prior to that expulsion, the locust are personified as an enemy on horseback and God is described as leading the locust into battle against Israel:

The appearance of them is as the appearance of horses; and as horsemen, so do they run. Like the noise of chariots, on the tops of the mountains do they leap, like the noise of a flame of fire that devoureth the stubble, as a mighty people set in battle array (2:4, 5).

The question at hand:

Should we read the first two chapters of Joel as allegorical descriptions of the nations mentioned in the last chapter?

Short answer: no.

Here's a good explanation why not (From Marco Treves, "The Date of Joel" in Vetus Testamentum, April 1957):

The locust are compared to lions (1:6), horses (2:4), warriors (2:5,7) and thieves (2:9). It would be very strange if they were allegorical, for we should have similes within a simile, which would be awkward and confusing and would defeat the very purposes of allegory. Moreover, the prophet tells us that he saw the calamity with his own eyes (1:16).

Personally, I see no reason not to take this prophecy describing a plague of locust both literally and seriously. If you don't think locust are a big deal, you probably never had a swarm complete ravage your crop. See:

Chapters 3 and 4

Chapter 3 starts with: "And it shall come to pass afterward...." This transition doesn't say much about the relationship between the two parts of the book.

Unlike chapters 1 and 2, chapters 3 and 4 are almost definitely describing real warfare between real nations. We have a description of “The day of Lord” (3:4) which involves a lot of nations coming to Jerusalem (4:2), God punishing these nations (4:4), and then some big war in the end:

Proclaim ye this among the nations, prepare war; stir up the mighty men; let all the men of war draw near, let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears; let the weak say: 'I am strong.' Haste ye, and come, all ye nations round about, and gather yourselves together; thither cause Thy mighty ones to come down, O LORD! Let the nations be stirred up, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there will I sit to judge all the nations round about. Put ye in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe; come, tread ye, for the winepress is full, the vats overflow; for their wickedness is great...And the LORD shall roar from Zion, and utter His voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shall shake; but the LORD will be a refuge unto His people, and a stronghold to the children of Israel (4:9-16).

Days of the Lord

If it's multiple calamities, must we infer multiple "Days of the Lord"?

We can. "Days of the Lord" in Joel 2:1, 3:3, and 4:14, need not be understood as a single eschatological moment, but rather any time that God's judgement is manifest in history. See for example Amos 5:18 who is talking to the northern kingdom of Israel at a completely different time period:

Woe unto you that desire the day of the LORD! Wherefore would ye have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light.

To understand the thematic and theological significance of these two prophecies and how they relate to other stories in Tanakh, it's necessary to figure out when this prophecy was given. For that question, see here.

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Obviously, I'm very excited about this answer. Not only is it jam-packed with interesting ideas, it spawned another interesting question! It seems the most appropriate imagery for locusts are military motifs, even in a BBC documentary. –  Jon Ericson Dec 14 '11 at 20:33
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