[JPS translation and verse numbering throughout, unless otherwise noted]
Joel is a short book (just three or four chapters depending on how their broken up), rich with themes of eschatology, repentance, redemption and a very sardonic description of famine:
Awake, ye drunkards, and weep, and wail, all ye drinkers of wine,
because of the sweet wine, for it is cut off from your mouth (1:5).
As Monica Cellio points out in her answer, the text has almost no temporal anchors and is difficult to date. However, most of the Bible scholars and commentaries I've read assume that Joel was written during the Second Temple period, anywhere from 520 to 200 BCE. (See for example, Marco Treves, “The Date of Joel” Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 7, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1957), pp. 149-156.)
The Argument for Late Authorship
Many of the arguments provided for the Second Temple authorship argument are not compelling, eg: the "wall" referenced in 2:7, 9 implies that the prophecy was given after Nechemia's wall was built (Nechemiah 1:3). The three best arguments for late authorship that I'm aware of are as follows:
- “For, behold, in those days, and in that time, when I shall bring back the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem” (4:1) – implies that there was recently some exile from Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel. The Second Temple period was a time when the nation of Israel was returning to its land in Israel.
- “the children also of Judah and the children of Jerusalem have ye sold unto the sons of Jevanim [Greeks?], that ye might remove them far from their border” (4:6) – some scholars use this verse to date the book to the time of Ptolmey Soter, a Greek general who conquered much of the middle east and according to Josephus, sold many Israelites as slaves.
- In his book, Joel mentions a lot of different categories of people including: priests, elders, all inhabitants of the land, children, nursing infants, the bridegroom and the bride, but never once does he mention or make reference to an Israelite king or monarchy, implying that there wasn't a functional monarchy at the time.
The Argument for Early Authorship
I think the book was written before the destruction of the first Temple and after the exile of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, during the reign of King Menasseh.
According to this early authorship theory, the Greeks mentioned in 4:6 are the early Ionians who controlled the local trade routes at the time, and the return of exiles in 4:1 is a reference to those of the Southern kingdom who were exiled during the Assyrian conquest of Northern Israel during the reign of Hosea the son of Elah of the Northern kingdom and King Hezekiah of the Southern kingdom (the father of Menasseh):
Now in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah did Sennacherib king of
Assyria come up against all the fortified cities of Judah, and took
them (II Kings 18:13).
Prophecies of return were common around this time, see for example Jeremiah 31 and Hoshea 6:11. Prophecies of return during the reign of Chizkiyahu and Menasseh were fulfilled shortly after during the reign of Josiah (the son of Menasseh):
Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say: return, thou
backsliding Israel, saith the LORD; I will not frown upon you; for I
am merciful, saith the LORD, I will not bear grudge for ever (Jeremiah
Textually, there is strong evidence which anchors the book of Joel in the historical and literary context of other First Temple prophets. Joel loved to make allusions, references and variations on other Biblical texts. To list just some of the book's striking parallels to other First Temple prophets:
- “All faces are waxed pale” (Joel 2:6, see Nahum 2:10)
- “A day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Joel 2:2, see Zephaniah 1:15)
- “Bring back the captivity of Judah” (Joel 3:1, see Jeremiah 30:3 and 31:23)
- Joel 4:18 is parallel to Ezekiel 47:1-12
- Joel 2:3 is parallel to Ezekiel 36:35
- Isaiah 2:4 describes:
And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many
peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their
spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against
nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
In 4:10, Joel parodies this imagery:
Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears;
let the weak say: 'I am strong.'
In most cases, Joel is making reference to an earlier prophecy, in other cases, later prophets may be making reference to him. What's clear to me however, is that Joel is in direct conversation with these texts and is writing in a First Temple - Later Prophets context.
The most compelling argument I found for the early authorship of Joel is an article published by Victor Avigdor Hurowitz from Ben Gurion University, Israel in 1993 titled: “Joel's Locust Plague in Light of Sargon II's Hymn to Nanaya.” Hurowitz points to striking parallels between Joel and an Akkadian hymn, titled: “Sargon II's Hymn to Nananya” (unearthed in the early 20th century). Sargon II reigned from 721 – 705 BCE and Manasseh took thrown in the year 687 BCE (about twenty years later). The hymn:
The evil locust which destroys the crop/grain,
the wicked dwarf-locust
which dries up the orchards,
which cuts off the regular offerings of
the gods and goddesses -
(Verily) Ellil listens to you, and Tutu is
before you -
may by your command it be turned into nothing.
- The hymn gives two different names to the locust plague, “erebu” and “zirziru.” This is parallel to the four different types of locust that Joel enumerates twice in the book (1:4, 2:25):
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)
(There is some scholarly debate about how to translate the four destructive critters listed in 1:4. Ovid R. Sellers, “Stages of Locust in Joel” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Jan., 1936), pp. 81-85, makes a compelling argument that the four terms are four stages in the development of locust.)
- “Which destroys the grain” - this is parallel to Joel 1:11:
...the harvest of the field is destroyed.
- “Which dries up the orchards” - this is parallel to Joel 1:12:
The vine is withered [dried up], and the fig-tree languisheth; the
pomegranate-tree, the palm-tree also, and the apple-tree, even all the
trees of the field, are withered [dried up]; for joy is withered away
from the sons of men.
The Hebrew word “yabash,” meaning “dried up,” is found five times in the first part of Joel: 1:10, 12, 17, 20 (and three more times in the form of a pun meaning “embarrassed”).
- “Which cuts off the regular offerings” - this is directly parallel to Joel 1:13:
Gird yourselves, and lament, ye priests, wail, ye ministers of the
altar; come, lie all night in sackcloth, ye ministers of my God; for
the meal-offering and the drink-offering is withholden from the house
of your God.
The Hebrew word “karat” meaning “cut off” is found in 1:5 and 16.
- The hymn ends with a prayer for the gods to “command” the locust to disappear. This is parallel to the salvation described in Joel 2:18 – 27.
After a careful analysis of locust imagery throughout the rest of Tanakh, Hurowitz sums up:
In other words, the common images shared by Joel and other
descriptions of locust plagues (eating, huge numbers, extended
duration) are not found in the Nanaya hymn, while the rare motifs
shared by the Nanaya hymn and Joel (destroying, desiccating) are not
found in other biblical or Akkadian accounts. The correlation is thus
Joel, more than other prophets, loved to make allusions to other texts. We know that he used this technique extensively in alluding to other Biblical passages and now we see that he also alluded to contemporaneous extra-biblical texts of his time. (How the Israelites had access to this text is actually a bit mysterious, and it's possible that the people's awareness of this hymn only was indirect and second-hand.)
Why is Menasseh missing?
Assuming early authorship, the absence of king Menasseh in the book of Joel is a fundamental and important issue. “Why is Menasseh missing from Joel,” is parallel to the question: why would Joel write a book that's so difficult to date?
A careful study of all the Later Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve minor prophets) reveals a consistent historical trend: good kings get more prophets and prophecies than bad kings. For example, the vast majority of Jeremiah's prophecies are directed at Josiah who is described as a righteous king and the vast majority of Isaiah's prophecies are directed at Hezekiah who is described as a righteous king. Mediocre kings like Achaz get some prophecies. Evil kings like those in the Northern kingdom of Israel get little to none. According to the book of Kings, Menasseh was one of the worst kings in all of Israel's history:
And he did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD, after the
abominations of the nations, whom the LORD cast out before the
children of Israel. For he built again the high places which Hezekiah
his father had destroyed; and he reared up altars for Baal, and made
an Asherah, as did Ahab king of Israel, and worshiped all the host of
heaven, and served them. And he built altars in the house of the LORD,
whereof the LORD said: 'In Jerusalem will I put My name.' And he built
altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of
the LORD (2-5).
The only explicit prophecy that mentions king Menasseh in all of Tanakh is an impersonal statement of doom found in the book of Jeremiah:
And I will cause them to be a horror among all the kingdoms of the
earth, because of Manasseh the son of Hezekiah king of Judah, for that
which he did in Jerusalem (15:4).
(...and possibly one other source which is similar but escapes my memory at the moment.)
So...why do only the good kings get active prophets? Why does Joel act like Menasseh doesn't exist? Here are some possibilities:
- Wayward kings (and the wayward societies that they reflect) won't listen to a prophet anyway, so most regular types of prophecy is that society would be pointless.
- The capacity for prophecy is a reflection of the health of a society. Prophecy cannot exist in a context where the people have no relationship with God.
- The most poignant and disrespectful thing a prophet can do to a wayward king is to completely ignore his existence.
IMHO: Assuming that Joel is addressing himself to a nation steeped in idolatry, rebounding from a terrible military defeat at the hands of Assyria and sandwiched between two of the most righteous kings Israel ever had, the book's themes of repentance, war, calamity and redemption become uniquely interesting and important.