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Old Testament: Habakkuk

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Summary

JerusalemHabakkuk opens by protesting God's inaction in the face of injustice and violence: the wicked thrive at the expense of the righteous. God responds by announcing the invasion of the Babylonians to exact punishment. Habakkuk protests that God's use of the Babylonians is an injustice worse than the injustice they are to punish. God responds by announcing a future judgment of the Babylonians for their own unrighteous acts. Habakkuk, while poised to wait for the eventual judgment of Babylon, receives a vision that evokes memories of past deliverance, both historic and cosmic. The vision engenders a resolve to endure based on God's past and promised character.

So What?

The book asserts that oppressive violence is not enduring in the face of God's opposition to it. God is involved in the ebb and flow of history to provide refuge, even from God's own wrath. The book is conscious that God's action on behalf of the righteous is often not immediate or apparent. The disruptiveness of God's acting is frightful when it is anticipated in vision and occurs in history. That same disruptiveness is the source of life that will endure. Thus, the frightfulness is paralleled by an even stronger confidence and exultation.

Where Do I Find It?

Habakkuk is the thirty-fifth book of the Old Testament. It is the eighth of the so-called "minor" (or shorter) prophets, the twelve books that make up the final portion of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles.

Who Wrote It?

The opening verse of the book attributes the book to Habakkuk, a prophet. The name and designation are repeated in 3:1. No other information is given.

When Was It Written?

The Chaldeans (Babylonians) remain a threat, even in the final, edited form of the book. Thus, a date between the invasion of 597 B.C.E. and the destruction of 587 B.C.E. is the likely historical period for the origin of the book of Habakkuk.

What's It About?

The book is about God's relationship to the present experience of violence and injustice. Unlike most other prophetic books, it does not directly address an audience. Instead, Habakkuk takes up the question of the attentiveness of God to the demise of righteous sufferers and the free range that the wicked have over against them. Through dialogue with God, Habakkuk embodies a way to live in the time between present suffering and future deliverance. Lamenting, petitioning, and trembling are coupled with confident rejoicing in God's commitment to deliver.

How Do I Read It?

This book is best read as a dialogue. There is no direct exhortation to the reader. The reader can take up the role of Habakkuk in the dialogue to ask questions about God's attention to the contemporary world. Given its placement in the prophetic collection (unlike Job, with its similar concerns), readers may find themselves indirectly indicted as they hear echoes of the conduct of the oppressor in their own actions, individual or communal. For example, "setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm" (2:9) might characterize the conduct of the more privileged in our world. If readers find themselves in that position, the book operates differently: it assumes that if God is attentive to injustice, readers will not be able to use injustice to secure a place "safe from the reach of harm."

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

I. Habakkuk's Dialogue with God (Habakkuk 1:1-2:20)

A. Superscription (Habakkuk 1:1)
The introduction to part one of the book.

B. Habakkuk's First Lament: The Wicked Oppress the Righteous! (Habakkuk 1:2-4)

Habakkuk confronts God, assuming that, if God hears the cry of the righteous, God saves the righteous. Currently, the righteous experience violence, so apparently God is not listening. Habakkuk demands God's attention.

C. God's Response: The Chaldeans Will Punish the Wicked (Habakkuk 1:5-11)

God is at work employing Chaldean (Babylonian) expansion as a means to clear out the corrupters of justice within Habakkuk's community.

D. Habakkuk's Second Lament: Why Use Wickedness to Punish Wickedness? (Habakkuk 1:12-2:1)

The (Babylonian) invader causes more injustice than the injustice it sweeps out. God's justice cannot be established with unjust means, argues Habakkuk. The "cure" is worse than the "illness." The extensive violence unleashed in response to the violence against the righteous threatens to destroy even the righteous (1:13, 15, 17).

E. God's Response: The Punisher's Own Injustice Will Not Endure (Habakkuk 2:2-20)
The perpetrators of violence will not endure; they are not the end of God's work. Violence will finally overwhelm the perpetrators who will turn frightful and frantic. They will drink the cup of the Lord and their idols will fail them. This upheaval calls for all the earth to keep silence.

II. Habakkuk's Prayer (Habakkuk 3:1-19)

A. Superscription (Habakkuk 3:1)
The introduction to part two of the book.

B. Habakkuk's Prayer (Habakkuk 3:2)
Habakkuk pleads: God, make what has been heard and told about your past deliverances into a present, lived reality in the midst of violent judgment of wickedness.

C. God's Response: Past Deliverance/Future Hope (Habakkuk 3:3-15)
Old hymns celebrating God's past deliverance instill hope for future deliverance; God will again be "in character." Past historic deliverance was so deeply reordering that cosmic reordering accompanied it in hymnic description.

D. Waiting for God's Action (Habakkuk 3:16-19)

The promise heard in the old hymnic affirmations of God's work in behalf of the people of God reshapes the world for Habakkuk. His reaction is first one of fear paralleling the call for silence in 2:20: he trembles within and his lips quiver (3:16). He will wait (3:16, compare 2:3). His second reaction is confidence expressed in praise to God even if nature itself fails (3:17-19).

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

Habakkuk's questions about God's interaction with the world center on internal community injustice and foreign invasion, but those two conditions could characterize several periods since the time of Amos. The book offers no dates and mentions no kings or other officials by name. Dating is therefore completely dependent on resonance with more datable biblical material. In his opening complaint to God (1:2-4), Habakkuk describes a slackness of the law and a lack of justice along with ensuing violence. That general portrait fits with the period between 609 B.C.E. (death of Josiah) and 587 B.C.E. (the Babylonian destruction of the temple and Jerusalem) as described in 2 Kings and reflected in Jeremiah.

Although the Babylonians (Chaldeans) were on the ascent from 626 B.C.E. onward, it is likely that they were not a source of terror for Judeans until they defeat the Egyptians at Carchemish in 605 B.C.E. In 597 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem for the first time and deported a portion of its leadership. For the next decade the Babylonians remained a threat. When Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., the threat of destruction became an experienced fact. The Babylonians remain a threat, even in the final, edited form of the book. Thus, a date between the invasion of 597 and the destruction of 587 is the likely historical period for the origin of the book of Habakkuk.

Compounding the difficulty of determining the historical point of composition is the lack of an addressed human audience. Habakkuk has a dialogue with God and reports his reaction to the interchange. The book does not report any preaching to a contemporary audience, unlike Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and others.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

Divine justice and attentiveness. Habakkuk calls on God to be attentive to injustice in the world, both local and international. If God hears the cry of the righteous, God saves the righteous. That is the theological assumption at the base of Habakkuk's faith, and it is the basis of his laments.

The prophetic call for judgment did not mean indiscriminate approval of the means of judgment. Questions of God's justice emerge both with regard to injustice within the community and forms of addressing that injustice. The righteous experience violence both from oppressors within the community and from foreign invaders. The former pervert the Torah. Even though the latter are construed as the agents of God's judgment, they know no bounds, and the righteous are swept up in their self-aggrandizing violence. Habakkuk demands God's attentiveness to both sources of violent suffering.

The book does not resolve the theodicy question that it raises. Rather, the book puts forth a model for waiting in the time between the promises of God to deliver the righteous and the actual time of deliverance. Waiting does not silence the lament. Lament and exultation are coupled through candid speech about the present and a recognition of the heritage of deliverance witnessed in the received tradition.

The oppressor in 1:2-4. The perpetrators of the injustice mentioned in the opening lament are not identified explicitly. Most interpreters have concluded that the reference is to internal Judean injustice such as that described in Jeremiah. The coming of the Chaldeans (Babylonians) named in 1:6 is then understood to be the shape of divine judgment on those perverting the law in Judea. But the wicked who swallow the righteous in 1:13 are clearly the invaders and consequently some interpreters conclude that 1:2-4 also refers to the Babylonians. The flow of the book favors the first interpretation.

References to prior events in chapter three. Habakkuk prays for contemporary deliverance (3:2) based on received testimony to God's power to deliver (3:3-15). Proper names such as Teman and Mount Paran (3:3) prompt attempts to correlate the action in the hymn to events in Israel's redemptive history, especially the accounts of the exodus from Egypt through the entry into Canaan. The attempted correlations, however, have not reached the point of consensus. As with other hymnic material that is equally illusive (compare Deuteronomy 33; Judges 5; and Psalm 68), the data that historians need to reconstruct events is lacking.

In addition, terms like sea and river may even be deliberately ambiguous. They may refer simply to physical realities or they may be personifications that reference cosmic chaos figures. The reader is allowed to hear both in the text. The hymn does more than report in an elusive fashion; it celebrates the significance of deliverance and expresses the limitlessness of God's action on behalf of oppressed victims of violence. Deliverance both restores the victims and reorders life itself.

Relationship of 3:1-19 to 1:1-2:20. The liturgical notes in 3:1 and 19b tend to separate the third chapter from the rest of the book. The notes could indicate that the third chapter has been appended secondarily to chapters one and two. Or, the chapter could have been original to the book but subsequently used independently in worship, thereby accruing the liturgical notations. The rare words and grammar suggest a separate author in the view of many interpreters, but those features could also be part of a deliberate attempt to write in an archaic style or they could be the result of reworking an older hymn. The chief argument for understanding the chapter as integral to the book comes from following the pattern of dialogue. Habakkuk laments (1:2-4) and God responds (1:5-11). Habakkuk laments again (1:12-2:1) and God responds (2:2-20). The latter response both points to a future vision and announces the demise of the immediate oppressor. Habakkuk then petitions God to act now (3:2) based on past action. The vision, in the form of an old or deliberately archaic hymn, is God's response. Habakkuk responds with both trembling and confidence, the latter expressing trust and exultation. Habakkuk moves from sharp lament to fervent petition, to waiting. God moves from promises of near-term fixes to a promise of final deliverance and cosmic reordering that will echo past acts of redemption. Despite the potentially disruptive effect of the liturgical notes and the shift in style in the hymn, the third chapter is integral to the flow of the book. The exhortation to silence at the end of chapter two is not a sufficient endpoint for the flow of the dialogue up to that point.

Text. Most scholars agree that, once the book was shaped, there was little subsequent emendation. Rather, the textual difficulties in the book involve translation. Chapter three, in particular, has expressions and terms that elude modern translators. The overall flow is usually clear, but exactness remains a matter of debate. Grammatical constructions and lexical terms occur that seldom appear elsewhere. Modern readers should be cautious not to overinterpret specific verses where the translation remains unclear.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament

Justice of God. Short-term and long-term, the justice of God is the core theological theme. Habakkuk rejects a "the end justifies the means" argument; the violence of the Babylonians (1:12-17) cannot be the solution to the violence of the wicked versus the righteous (1:2-4). The book embodies a form of waiting for God's promised future beyond a cyclical use of violence to punish violence. Waiting includes lament, petition, trembling, and, most of all, rejoicing. The joy is anticipatory of a sure future, but it does not preclude suffering in the present. Waiting for God's future addresses questions about God's justice in the present, but it also leaves them open for lament and petition.

AUTHOR: Richard W. Nysse, Professor of Old Testament