Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Toffelmire, Colin, A Discourse and Register Analysis of the Prophetic Book of Joel (SSN, 66; Leiden: Brill, 2016). Pp. x + 231. Hardcover. US$135.00. ISBN: 978-90-04-31456-6.

Philology's two-pronged question is: What does a text mean and how does it mean it? Toffelmire's opening sentence signals his focus on the latter, declaring his intent “to demonstrate the value of discourse and register analysis grounded in Systemic Functional Linguistics” (SFL), particularly in service of “the so-called new form criticism” (p. 1). Joel's uncomplicated text-critical history provides a stable base (p. 9) to demonstrate “the potential value of SFL theories of register and context” (p. 46).

“Register” measures a text's relationship to “its socio-semiotic environment” (p.28) by mapping its discourse “Field” (“participants, processes, objects, goals, and time”), “Tenor” (“interpersonal relationships”), and “Mode” (p. 29). Joel's “mode” is defined by its use of a graphic form to mediate “the sense of a virtual conversation” (p. 48). Although “register” is similar to “genre,” insofar as both “refer to a typology of language based on a typology of social situation,” “register” assesses a text's linguistic function rather than its place in a taxonomy of text types (p. 32).

Toffelmire sets out “to build a picture of the register of the various sub-sections of the book, and of the book as a whole” (pp. 22–23). SFL helps him describe how language creates a “context of situation” that is “not a material or historical reality, but a semiotic reality” (p. 27), so as “to describe the likely social context of the book of Joel as it has been inscribed linguistically” (p. 28).

Using the criteria of “co-reference” (linguistic markers referring to the same situation), “co-classification” (multiple participants belonging to the same class) and “co-extension” (semantically linked references), he elucidates sets of participants in a common situation (“identity chains”) who belong to the same class and whose identities are semantically akin (“similarity chains”) (p. 49). Although linguistic shifts mark four subunits that have “a higher degree of cohesion than the primary text” (1:1–20, 2:1–17, 2:18–3:5, 4:1–21), their identity and similarity chains entail sets of participants that overlap these boundaries, creating cohesion (p. 82).

Toffelmire identifies five participant sets in Joel 1: YHWH/prophet, addressees, locusts, cult, and land. Its discourse location is rural and it is set primarily in the past. The tenor is largely monologic and hierarchical, with the prophet's voice identified with YHWH, except in vv. 15–20, where it aligns with the addressees. 2:1–17 has six participant sets, with “city” and “cosmos” dislodging “land,” corresponding to which Zion becomes the primary location. Nevertheless, because the events of 1:1–20 and 2:1–17 are “identical in referential terms,” he identifies the time frame of the field as the past (p. 109). Its tenor carries “a façade of dialogue,” since the priests' imploration of YHWH is “modally irreal” (p. 122), but its register is “decidedly…similar” to the first chapter (p. 129).

2:18–3:5 includes many of the same participants as the first two units (YHWH/prophet, addressees, the land, and the cosmos), although new participants appear briefly, such as the “northerner” (2:20), the locusts (2:25), those who prophesy and see dreams (3:1), those who call on the name of YHWH and are called by him (3:5), and Zion/Jerusalem (pp. 130–32). The discourse “is tied rather strongly to Zion/Jerusalem,” with other locations defined by their exclusion from it (p. 133). The temporal markers in 2:18–27 make them “a kind of “present” for this section” (p. 133), even though 3:1–5 are set in “the indeterminate future” (p. 138). Although the set YHWH/prophet dominates this unit more than the prior two, there is a virtual eclipse of the prophet as mediator. The primary addressee set also “has a more unified composition” (p. 133), but its tension with the YHWH/prophet is ameliorated through positive expectations vouchsafed to them (p. 148). Although this sub-text is similar to the preceding two, these differences create “a different register” (p. 150).

The participants in 4:1–21 include the set YHWH/prophet, which again dominates the passage, and Judah/Jerusalem, as well as the nations in the roles of subject/actor and addressees, while the people of YHWH play “a subsidiary role to the nations set and the YHWH/prophet set” (p. 153). The discourse location includes the positively described space Judah/Jerusalem/Zion, the negatively depicted space of the nations, and the plain of judgment, “the location of the principle action” (p. 157). The passage has the same “relative present for the speaking voice” established in 2:18, with references to past actions of the nations providing “grounds for the future action of YHWH” (p. 160). The unit's tenor emphasizes YHWH's supremacy and the subjugation of the “utterly passive” nations, while “[t]he people of YHWH are also generally passive participants” (p. 181). This unit belongs to a “prophetic register” (p. 181), but its field and tenor compels summarizing it “as a description of YHWH's coming triumph over the enemies of the people of YHWH” (p. 184).

The book comprises “a more or less unified concept” of the Day of YHWH that is refracted through “shifts in register, which re-orient one to the nature of the Day as the book progresses” (p. 186), while “overlapping identity and similarity chains” give cohesion to the whole “as a single text: a book” (p. 188). Temporal cohesion is rooted in 2:18–31 as “the discourse present of the entire book,” although talk of past and future events provides “a critical dynamic” (p. 191). 2:18 introduces the key shift in tenor, with the appearance of an encouraging tone for the prophetic voice that replaces the earlier tone of estrangement (p. 196). Locative cohesion is the product of tension between “positive internal space and negative external space,” with Zion/Jerusalem and its environs constituting its positive pole (p. 192). By the book's end, the agent role is devoted to YHWH as actor, while the people of YHWH watch “from the sidelines as YHWH destroys their enemies” (p. 195).

Since genre and form are fluid (p. 197), analysis must move from “inter- and intra-clausal relationships…to the higher level of relationships and patterns” that reveal “larger patterns that suggest an identifiable type of text” (p. 198). Joel's sub-texts cohesively represent divine communication “to be read especially by those who self-identify with the people of YHWH set” (p. 207). Because the figure of Joel is a virtual shell (p. 202), “the context of situation includes some person or group able to step into the role of the prophetic voice, thus mediating the relationship between YHWH and his people” and giving “the book a high degree of flexibility with regard to re-appropriation and re-application” (pp. 207–8). The Day of YHWH “functions simultaneously as threat and promise” so as to serve “as either a call to repentance or a divine promise of salvation, or as both of these simultaneously” (p. 208). This constitutes the book's form.

Toffelmire's writing, while theory intensive, is generally lucid. He provides well-marked previews and summaries of main sections, and his linguistic analysis is meticulous. His use of theory has the salutary effect of forcing close reading through exacting linguistic, rhetorical, and inter-relational analyses. Nevertheless, there is an occasional slippage in his use of “register.” For instance, despite early differentiating register from “genre” as a case of language function (p. 32), he explains his judgment that “although Joel 2:18–3:5 belongs to the same genre as Joel 1:1–20 and Joel 2:1–17, it represents a different register” by suggesting that one might “classify them both as “prophetic literature” but differentiate between them as to the kinds of prophetic literature they represent” (p. 150). The reference to genre in talking of register confuses the analysis.

Similarly, in introducing his analysis of the register of 4:1–21, he characterizes all sub-texts of the book “as examples of a ‘prophetic register’” (p. 181), and yet concludes by summarizing the register of the final chapter as “a description of YHWH's coming triumph over the enemies of the people of YHWH” (p. 184). This equation of “register” with theme beclouds his assignment of all sub-texts to “a prophetic register.”

Toffelmire's use of Joel illustrates the problems inherent in his acknowledgement that “the application of a particular theoretical framework represents a “top-down” decision” that determines “to a degree which patterns of features were observed or given significance” (p. 198). A case in point is his use of the criterion of “co-referential” for chapters 1 and 2, based on their descriptions of the event as unique (1:2; 2:2), the dependence of chapter two's similes on the chapter one's locust plague, the similar movement of destruction from the countryside into the city and its temple (p. 109), and the assignment of the Day of the YHWH to the near future (p. 110). Accordingly, he concedes that the division between 1:20 and 2:1 is “artificial” (although he prefers the label “pragmatic”) (p. 57) and identifies the time frame of 2:1–17 as the past, as in chapter one (p. 109). In doing so, he overlooks significant, countervailing disruptions.

Although he identifies the imperatives in 2:1 as “important points of difference” from chapter one, he treats them as little more than a formal marker. However, 2:1 calls for actions that are not merely responses to devastation of the land, as in chapter one, but prophylactic acts that culminate in the people's petition for deliverance at the temple (vv. 14–17). In exploiting the military metaphor hinted in 1:6, the warning against impending invasion differs from the already realized event of chapter 1.

Toffelmire seeks to designate a rhetorical justification for this distinct subunit through analysis of the QTL and YQTL forms in 2:3–11. Although the alternating verbal forms could be “a case of syntactically parallel poetic structure,” he posits that they retain their semantic functions, with clauses containing QTL verbs describing the event holistically, while those containing YQTL forms depict “the internal action of the event” (p. 110). Despite his claim that this analysis offers “[t]he simplest explanation of this opposition” in v. 3, it fails to account for the implied shift in temporal perspective in v. 1. Moreover, there are no linguistic markers that אכלה in v. 3 describes “the consumption or destruction of the plague as a whole,” while תלהט describes “flames burning (imperfective aspect) behind the advancing ‘invaders’” (p. 110).

An allied difficulty with overlooking the different time perspective implied in v. 1 is the claim that וגם עתה in v. 12 signals “the immediate possibility of repentance” (p. 111). וגם עתה introduces a call for deep repentance, with וגם stressing the time (עתה) and, given the required profundity of the action, most likely its urgency. Suggesting that “עתה is explicitly opposed to יום יהוה in temporal terms” (p. 117) equates them as temporal phrases, whereas יום יהוה is described as a unique event (2:2). Although וגם עתה is disjunctive temporally, it is so because the approach of the יום יהוה stands under the call to sound warnings in v. 2, elaborated by sounding the שׁופר to summon an assembly in vv. 15–17.

At issue is not whether chapters one and two envision two distinct Days of YHWH, as Toffelmire supposes (p. 56 n. 25); 1:15 and 2:1 envision a single Day of YHWH. The difference between the two chapters is that, whereas the first recalls an event redolent of the expected Day, the second announces events that are immediate precursors of the Day.

Despite these disagreements with Toffelmire's application of method to Joel and questions about his use of “register,” I consider his monograph a significant contribution to a revised methodology for form criticism, while his detailed assessment of linguistic patterns in Joel offers substantial clarification of the structures that compose the book.

Ronald L. Troxel, University of Wisconsin-Madison