Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Wonders in the Heavens and on the Earth: Apocalyptic Imagery in the Old Testament

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Wonders in the Heavens and on the Earth: Apocalyptic Imagery in the Old Testament

Article excerpt

I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke.

The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD (Joel 2:30-31 [3:3-41).

The Lord's words through the prophet Joel typify the popular conception of earth's great apocalyptic climax. These and similar images are projected not only from many a pulpit but in the literature of both the religious 1 and secular realms. 2 The source of such end-time imagery is not difficult to ascertain, for it is found in several biblical texts in both testaments.

Nevertheless, the isolation of a distinctive apocalyptic genre and the question as to what properly constitutes an apocalypse has not met with universal consensus.3 While several noted study groups have contributed to the clarification of these problems, the precise identification of apocalyptic genre and literary features remains at issue.4 As for the OT, in addition to the problem of the dating of apocalyptic, questions concerning the origin and transmission of such literature have also occupied the efforts of scholars. In truth, all of the above questions have a direct bearing upon one another.

This study does not re-examine the question of the genre of apocalyptic per se but instead focuses on its imagery. In so doing, it attempts to account for the origin and transmission of prominent imagery in those OT passages deemed to be apocalyptic. Having done so, a final question as to a general hermeneutical approach to such imagery is considered.

This study began by isolating distinctive imagery that occurs repeatedly, but with varying emphases, in contexts often labeled apocalyptic. It proceeded by tracing these features backward to a point where they intersected in an extended context. The paper presents the results of the research in inverse fashion, first noting these images in their primary concatenation and then showing representative appearances of them in succeeding literature that demonstrates their transmission to the prophets for use in eschatological settings.

The thesis of this paper is that much of the imagery of OT apocalyptic appeared provisionally in the epic literature commemorating the exodus event.5 As a major covenantal theme, its familiar images provided a ready vehicle for the judgment and salvation oracles of the early pre-exilic prophets, especially as the two became intertwined in the prophetic kingdom oracles.6 Their utilization there, in turn, furnished a natural development into the more spectacular, universal, and often ethereal tone that gave impetus to an emerging apocalyptic in the prophets of the pre-exilic and exilic periods.7 The overarching rationale for the ready transmission of this imagery lies in the fact that it symbolizes the activity of Israel's Divine Warrior and Redeemer who brought her into covenant union with himself.8 Thus the employment of the imagery finds it unifying factor in the person and teleological purposes of Israel's delivering God.


Several of the features relative to the exodus event were so striking that they were repeatedly rehearsed in later OT accounts.

1. Images related to the celestial realm. The ninth plague provided the pre-climactic event in the whole series that culminated in the death of Egypt's firstborn. The three days of darkness (Exod 10:21-23; cf. Ps 105:28), as well as the darkness over the pursuing Egyptian forces (Exod 14:19-20), would prove to be a harbinger of other such times in Israel's history. For example, as the armies of Egypt pursued the fleeing Israelites, "The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side" (Exod 14:19-20).9

The poet's depiction of Joshua's later victory over the Amorites who fled after their loss at Gibeon appears to favor the idea that the shining of the sun and moon was veiled by the Lord's sending an unparalleled storm with hailstones that killed the greater part of the Amorite forces (Josh 10:915). …

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