Things Fall Apart: The Book of Job Offers Hope in the Face of Apocalypses Big and Small

By Camille, Alice | U.S. Catholic, February 2018 | Go to article overview

Things Fall Apart: The Book of Job Offers Hope in the Face of Apocalypses Big and Small


Camille, Alice, U.S. Catholic


Apocalypse is so in right now. It's almost an essential part of the cultural landscape. It's not just sci-fi that takes us into the realm where everything falls apart. Leave aside the inundation of serials concerning a future overrun by zombies, vampires, androids, and robots. We're invariably given to understand it's the horrible humans we have to fear. This notion is reinforced in dystopian shows about deeply twisted goings-on in prisons, police departments, hospitals, and governments. The horror creeps even closer in dramas exploring the danger implicit in neighborhoods, families, and marriages. Haunted houses? These stories hint: Who doesn't live in one?

The problem with apocalypse is that it's getting harder to change the channel on it. Cable news serves up hourly global terrors that rival any fiction. Real life lived locally has its own shattering aspects. We've all answered the phone or opened emails to discover stunning news about friends and loved ones imperiled by sudden diagnoses, accidents, natural disasters, or senseless acts of violence. Things fall apart, and the free fall is often closer than we expect.

For these reasons, we may find a weird affinity with the mysterious prophet Joel, whose urgent summons to a grand assembly of repentance kick-starts the season of Lent each year. Crisis and devastation are Joel's specialty. In a few short chapters, he describes environmental catastrophe brought on by a terrifying imbalance in nature. This crisis has its origin in human behavior; turns out we're both the cause and the cure for the emergency.

Joel is not a particularly familiar prophet. Each year a single passage from his book makes the alternate reading list at the vigil mass for Pentecost--which means chances are high you didn't hear it. Which is a shame: It's a lovely ethereal forecast about how our sons and daughters will speak the truth while the elderly dream dreams (Joel 3:1-5). Joel is also read in the assembly on two consecutive weekdays every other year in October--most of us miss those segments too, which boil with apocalyptic warnings.

In fact, the only reason the average Catholic may hear Joel in church is because his is the first lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday annually: "Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning" (Joel 2:12). Joel urges us not simply to repent but to assemble. Across the generations and full spectrum of society, we need to transform our hearts--and we need to do this together.

When things fall apart, people come together. We see this in episodes of disaster--when communities are struck by hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, or shootings. As fixtures disintegrate, our instinct is to reintegrate by identifying with clan, parish, or fellow citizens. When the social order is threatened by internal divisions--racial conflict, partisan wars, blue collar vs. ivory tower--the instinct to form barricades must be overcome by the mandate to re-commune. Healing doesn't take place around a wound. First you have to close it.

So who was Joel, and how did he arrive at his vision of dissolution and the means to restoration? Scholars guess that his prophecies took shape in the 4th century BCE, at least a century after Israel returned from Babylonian exile to Jerusalem. The book has an anthology-like quality to it: Over 20 other Hebrew prophecies are referenced, which helps us date Joel later than those. By Joel's generation, Jerusalem and its Temple have been rebuilt. The Persians are in virtual command of the nation. As the former Israelite kings are not even mentioned, the monarchy is likely a dead issue for Joel's society. Priests and scribes govern the community in most ways that matter. Things have, in other words, found their new normal. But this normalcy seems to add to the prophet's disquiet. …

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