-Did the prophet Yoel contradict the Torah?
The seventh of the ten plagues in Egypt was that of arbeh - locusts. Of this plague, the Torah (Exodus 10:14) tells us "The locusts ascended over the entire land of Egypt and it rested in the entire border of Egypt, very severely; before it there was never a locust-swarm like it and after it there will not be its equal." This plague of locusts was unequalled in history.
However, centuries later the prophet Yoel spoke of an unparalleled plague of locusts in Israel as punishment for Jewish sins. He describes it as follows: "Its like has not been from eternity, and after it there will never again be, until the years of generation after generation."
The Torah said that the plague of locusts in Egypt was the worst that ever was and ever will be. Yoel seemed to contradict this by saying that the plague of locusts in his day was the worst that ever was and ever will be. How could a prophet of G-d disagree with something written in the Torah? Does this mean that prophets were free to contradict the Torah or that this part of the Torah had not been written in Yoel's time?
The latter is certainly not true. If this part of the Torah had been written after Yoel's prophecy then the author would have made sure not to contradict Yoel. Moreover, there is no indication from this that prophets could disagree with the Torah.
The simple explanation is that given by Abarbanel in his commentary to the Torah. The Torah was saying that in Egypt there never was and never will be a swarm of locusts like that in the seventh plague. The statement was about Egypt and remains true to this day. Yoel was speaking about locusts in Israel. Never before and never after his time was there a locust-swarm of similar proportions. This explanation is also implied in the commentary of Rabbi J. H. Hertz to the Torah.
Surprisingly, the main commentators do not give this explanation. Rashi (Ex. 10:14; Yoel 2:2) explains that the plague in Egypt was with only one species of locust while the plague in Yoel's time was with four species of locust. Of one-species locust swarms, the one in Egypt remains unparalleled. Of four-species swarms, the one in Yoel's time remains unduplicated. They were both unique but different. Ibn Ezra (Yoel ad loc.), Radak (ibid.), and Mahari Karo (ibid.) all offer this same explanation.
Ramban offers another explanation. Modern historians have offered many theories of how the plagues could have occured within the laws of nature. The plague of blood could have been algie turning the water red and this would have caused frogs to leave the water and seek refuge on land etc. However, all of these explanations require deviations from the literal words of the Bible. The only plague that can be totally and literally explained based on the laws of nature is that of locusts. Historian and archaeologist James K. Hoffmeier wrote, "The eighth plague offers no particular problem from a phenomenological perspective since locust plagues were known throughout the ancient Near East and Africa as a particularly feared bane, even in modern times" (Israel in Egypt, p. 148). Swarms of locust are common in Egypt and Israel. Ramban says that this is what the verses in Exodus and Yoel are referring to. Both the plague in Egypt and in Yoel's time were being compared to normal, natural swarms of locust. The verse in Exodus was saying that the plague was unparalleled among natural swarms. No natural swarm before or after that time matched the super-natural swarm of the plague. Similarly, Yoel was saying that no natural swarm before or after his time could compare to the fierce divinely initiated locust-swarm of his time.
It is certainly clear that Yoel never contradicted the Torah. However, it remains a mystery why the simple commentators of the Bible neglected the most simple explanation of this apparent contradiction. We welcome an explanation to this minor problem.
Contributor(s): Gil Student
Last revised: 1/20/02
© Aishdas 2002