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The Book of Habakkuk

Updated on January 27, 2010

The Book of Habakkuk is one of the prophetical books of the Old Testament. The author is known only through the Biblical book bearing his name. Generally, though not universally, he is held to have acted as a prophet from about 610 to 600 B.C. The dominant literary device of his book, intercession answered by a divine oracle, points to his being a cult prophet, that is, a temple functionary with the office of presenting petitions and proclaiming God's response. The superscription of his book calls him "prophet." The term "prophet" may also point to an official cultic role. The Greek legend of Bel and the Dragon, which is attached to the Book of Daniel and is without historical value as a story, identifies Habakkuk as a Levite. That may be a fragment of an accurate tradition. Thus he was probably an official cult prophet, although some authorities believe that he only imitated familiar forms of liturgical poetry.

The contents of the Book of Habakkuk can be outlined in five sections: I-Superscription identifying the work (1:1). II-First complaint-a charge that there is no justice (1:2-4) and Yahweh's answering promise of salvation (1:5-11). Ill-Second complaint (1:12-2:4). IV-Curses (woes) on the unfaithful (2:5-20). V-Psalm of Habakkuk (3:1-19).

The superscription, the normal form introducing a prophetic book, is unusual in its lack of dates and its use of "oracle" or "burden" (Hebrew massa). This word usually, not always, refers to oracles against the Gentiles. All the following literary forms reflect the cultic origins.

Thus, forms common in the Psalter are also found in Habakkuk: the complaint with response (for example, Psalm 60) and the hymn (for example, Psalm 29, a hymn describing a theophany, that is, the coming of Yahweh in might, similar to Habakkuk 3). Cursing the lawless is found in the liturgy described in Deuteronomy 27:11-26. The massa itself is believed to have had a liturgical origin. The use of all these liturgical forms may argue that Habakkuk was a cultic official.

Message

The whole book can be read as a unity, even as a single prophetic liturgy. Although it is probably not the latter, one can find a unified progression through the whole book. If the Chaldeans (Babylonians) of 1:6 are saviors of a kind, then the complaint against injustice (1:2-4) may be taken to refer to the Assyrian empire, which the Chaldeans destroyed. Under the Chaldeans, however, oppression was worse (1:12-17). The prophet awaits an answer to this new complaint. It is simple but profound: the just man lives reassured by his complete faith in God (2:4), which means holding fast to God's law in spite of apparent inequities. (The New Testament in Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; and Hebrews 10:38, using the Greek version of Habakkuk, made the text famous with a different meaning: trust in a person.)

In the light of this insight the prophet proclaims the ultimate ruin of the unjust (the woes of 2:6-20). Positively, the value of faith is affirmed by the vision, an answer to the prophet's wish, hymned in 3:3-15. God's might will appear to assert justice. One can trust in him (3:16-19). Thus the progression: salvation through external means is found wanting; it comes only by full fidelity to Yahweh and his law. Such fidelity is difficult in the face of injustice but is justified, and it will be rewarded if one persists.

However, this is not the only interpretation of the book. Instead of Assyria some see Egypt as the object of complaint in 1:2-4. In fact, Egyptian armies were active in Palestine from 610 or 609 to 605 B.C., and Egypt was the classic oppressor from which the Exodus freed Israel, a memory that was basic to almost all later Hebrew thought. It would have been easy to see Egypt as the unjust one.

Other scholars feel it to be more in accord with the prophetic tradition to apply the complaints to the chosen people and especially the kings of Judah, for the prophets were much more concerned with these than with the shortcomings of the Gentiles. The interpretation sees the book as less of a unity-as a more or less haphazard collection of prophetic sayings.

Habakkuk's attitude should be noted. He takes the initiative. He demands a reply from God. He seeks a vision rather than awaiting a summons. He is almost aggressive, and verges on reproaching God. This is original; most of the prophets waited on the divine summons.

Date and Authenticity

Opinions about the date and authenticity of the book depend upon one's interpretation. If Assyria really is the object of 1:2-4, then the prophet's activity would go back to about 625, when the Assyrian power began to crumble. If the verses refer to Egypt, we can go back with assurance only to 609-605, when Egypt interfered in Judah (II Kings 23:29-35) until stopped by the Babylonians in the battle of Carchemish (605). If the verses refer to individuals, many think of the last kings of Judah, especially the profligate Jehoiakim (died 598 B.C.; see Jeremiah 22:13-19). If it is this king who is condemned in 1:2-11, the writing cannot be surely dated earlier than about 600.

It was once the fashion to read Kittim, "Greeks," for "Chaldeans" in 1:6 and hence to date the prophecies to the troubled times of the Hellenistic kingdoms that followed the death of Alexander (332 B.C.) and the division of his empire. A date even as late as about 200 was often indicated in this view. However, the reading Kittim is arbitrary, and unfounded in any textual tradition, and this interpretation and the late dating have been abandoned. The Habakkuk text from Qumran (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) has contributed to this revised judgment. It already reads "Chaldeans" even though the attached commentary understands Kittim. The basic Qumran texts go back toward the 2d century B.C., and this is such a text. This would mean that the Kittim reading had been lost shortly after it was written. It is improbable that the text would have been changed during the Hellenistic era from the familiar "Greeks" to the remote "Chaldeans." This is all the more unlikely since, according to the commentary, men wanted it to mean "Greek" (or "Roman," also Kittim).

The Qumran text contains a running commentary. This is a good source for Essenian ideas, but it has no value for interpreting the prophet himself. Its Hebrew text of the prophet, however, is useful for restoring some difficult passages in our standard text. It also confirms the generally held opinion that the text of chapters 1 and 2 contains practically no interpolations. Chapter 3 is another question. For a long time many scholars have considered the psalm too unlike the rest of the book to be from Habakkuk. Since the Qumran text lacks this chapter, the opinion would seem to be confirmed. On the other hand, the psalm uses some of Habakkuk's vocabulary and ideas (compare 1:4, 13 and 3:13, and note the wish for a vision in 2:1 met by chapter 3). The liturgical form is characteristic of the prophet. Therefore many, perhaps most, scholars believe that the chapter was omitted because it did not serve the Qumran commentator's purposes, but that it does come from the prophet. The common opinion, then, is that the whole Book of Habakkuk comes from a prophet active toward the end of the Davidic kingdom of Judah.

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