The Righteous and Their Faithfulness: Reflections on Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

Lectionary Reflections
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
November 3, 2013

I doubt that the tiny work of Habakkuk is high on your must-read Bible list. Yet, something the prophet is recorded to have said is among the most important phrases that the Bible has to offer in terms of its implications for emerging Christian theology. As we examine these prophets in the midst of the times in which they lived, it is as always crucial to attempt to make sense of their words set firmly in the milieu of their utterance.

But with Habakkuk the question of the historical context is a vexed one. The language of the book offers few direct clues concerning the specific time in which the prophet may have lived. Indeed, there is even some question about whether such a prophet actually lived at all. His peculiar name (as peculiar in Hebrew as it is in English) suggests a non-Hebrew origin, but exactly what that origin may be is obscure. Perhaps the most likely historical context is to be found in that swirling cauldron of a collapsing Israel late in the 7th and early in the 6th centuries B.C.E. Let's review briefly what was happening and thereby discover some hints at this prophet's context.

Josiah, a king that attempted some sort of Deuteronomic reform policy after his discovery of a scroll stashed away in the walls of the Temple in Jerusalem, a scroll that was something like the book we know as Deuteronomy, was killed in a foolish attempt to thwart the movement of the Egyptian army as it marched up the coast of the Mediterranean to engage the army of the Babylonians at the site of Carchemish in what is now northern Syria. The Egyptians also neutralized Josiah's eldest son, and made his younger son, Jehoiakim, king of Israel, under their complete domination. By all accounts, Jehoiakim was nothing like his reforming father, if Jeremiah's furious denunciations are to be taken seriously (see Jer. 22:17 as an example). All too soon, Jehoiakim is deposed by the now-ascendant Babylonians, who have fought Egypt to a standstill, and the last king of Israel, Zedekiah, is set on the throne as a puppet of the Babylonians. As we well remember, that king will rebel against his masters, and will suffer blindness and the murder of all of his children, leading to the Babylonian exile of Israel for the next two generations. In these disastrous years for Judah, from 609 B.C.E. to perhaps 598/597 B.C.E., the year of the first Babylonian deportation, Habakkuk's words may have been spoken.

That would mean that Habakkuk 1:1-4 were oracles delivered against the new king, Jehoiakim, Habakkuk thus adding his voice to Jeremiah's denouncing the king's disregard of the "weightier matters of the law," to use words famously spoken centuries later by another Israelite prophet.

O YHWH, for how long have I cried for help,
but you have not heard!
I cry out to you concerning violence,
but you have not delivered
(Hab. 1:2)!

The verbal tense of any Hebrew prophet's language is notoriously difficult to determine. The NRSV has read Habakkuk 1:2 as a kind of continuous present (How long shall I cry), while I have translated the verbs as a sort of continuous past tense (How long have I cried). Either reading is possible, the former suggesting that the prophet is crying out and will continue to do so, the latter saying that he has long cried out without result. Surely both are true. The more important question is the reason for the cry to YHWH. The answer is clear: violence! The Hebrew is famous: Chamas. We moderns know this word as the name for one party of the Palestinians, struggling with Israel for land and nationhood. For some of the members of that party, the word is to be taken quite literally; the struggle at times can be a violent one. So, given this modern use of the term—the same word in Hebrew and Arabic—we need to understand its ancient meaning to capture Habakkuk's central concern.

In ancient Israelite moral and theological reflection, chamas means a "cold-blooded and unscrupulous infringement of the personal rights of others, motivated by greed and hate and often making use of physical violence and brutality" (a definition from H. Haag in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament). In Israelite thought and belief, when chamas occurs, YHWH is motivated to act on the side of the oppressed. In Habakkuk 2:15-17 a political opponent (Jehoiakim?) must drink the cup of YHWH's judgment because of the chamas that he has done.

And of what does that chamas consist? Habakkuk 1:4 makes it plain. "The Torah grows numb, and justice is never fulfilled. The wicked encircle the righteous, so justice comes out perverted." The perennial cry of Israel's prophets is echoed here by Habakkuk; YHWH's Torah has become empty, quite literally "numb," ineffective, useless in the hands of king Jehoiakim. As a result, justice no longer exists; it has become perverted as the wickedness of the land surrounds the righteous ones in such a way that righteousness disappears and wickedness is triumphant.

10/27/2013 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.