The book derives its name from a Judean prophet (see 1:1; 3:1) named Habakkuk (Heb. ḥăbaqqûq) unknown from elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. A majority of modern scholars accept Friedrich Delitzsch's suggestion that the name is cognate with Akkadian ḫambaqūqu / ḫabbaqūqu, the name for a type of plant (1886, p. 84). The Masoretic Hebrew vocalization, with the unexpected doubling of the first qōp, may have arisen by analogy with other atypical Hebrew nouns which double the third of four root consonants, such as ḥăbaṣṣelet, “meadow saffron; crocus” (Song 2:1). The appearance of a Judean prophet with an East Semitic name—the only example among the Latter Prophets—produces a puzzle. Later Jewish tradition, preserved in the Zohar, would identify Habakkuk with the Shunammite woman's son whose birth Elisha announced. Elisha says to the woman, “at this season next year, you will be embracing (ḥōbeqet) a son” (2 Kgs 4:16). This identification of the Shunammite's son with Habakkuk rests on a folk etymology of the prophet's name, which early commentators derived from the root ḥbq, “to embrace.” A satisfactory explanation as to why Habakkuk, alone among prophetic books, has a non-Judean name remains for scholars to discover.
Habakkuk appears after Nahum, in eighth position, in all arrangements of the Book of the Twelve. Sirach makes reference to “the Twelve Prophets” (Sir 49:10), so a version of Habakkuk evidently appeared in the collection available to him in the early second century B.C.E. Fragments of Habakkuk appear among copies of the Book of the Twelve in scrolls from the Judean desert, including in the following texts: MurXII; 8ḤevXIIgr; and probably 4QXIIg. The Qumran pesher on Habakkuk 1–2 (1QpHab) is a justifiably famous commentary on the first two chapters of the book and dates to the first century B.C.E. (see Reception History).
No details about Habakkuk appear outside the book, and the text gives no explicit biographical details. Apocryphal compositions of the Second Temple era develop interpretive traditions that connect Habakkuk with the era of Babylonian political ascendancy, since the book mentions the rise of the Chaldeans (i.e., the Babylonians; see Hab 1:6). Thus, in the story of Bel, Habakkuk is said to have delivered food, through the agency of an angel, to Daniel and his companions when Nebuchadrezzar tortured them in Babylon (Bel 1:33–39).
The question of authorship is linked to evaluation of the book's literary structure. The book contains diverse literary forms, especially obvious in the comparison of chapters 1–2 with chapter 3—the latter a hymn celebrating God as the Divine Warrior. Scholars have expressed mixed judgments about whether the several discrete parts of the book originated with a single author, or whether it may represent diverse sources which were reworked into a whole. If the latter, then the quest for an “author” in the modern sense of a single literary genius becomes complicated. It would be more accurate to think of an individual capable of manipulating and recombining traditional literary forms known within the Judean tradition.
Scholars who have tried to date the Latter Prophets generally define three possible objects for dating: 1) the person of the prophet; 2) the context of the prophet's message, either in whole or in part; and 3) the text of the prophetic work.
The superscription of Habakkuk offers no explicit correlation with a king of Judah or other event, as most other prophetic books do. This makes assigning a date to the prophet's life difficult. By contrast, readers in antiquity already sought to define the context of the prophet's message in connection with God's announcement in Habakkuk 1:6 that he was about to raise the Chaldeans as a military force. Given the description of the Chaldeans as emerging aggressors on the world stage (Hab 1:5–11), the context for Habakkuk's oracle would be the period between 605 B.C.E., when the Babylonians defeated an Egyptian-Assyrian coalition at Carchemish (Jer 46:2), and 539, when Cyrus the Great of Persia ended native Mesopotamian rule of Babylon. During those sixty-five years, Babylon was most powerful in the reign of Nebuchadrezzar II (605–562), who decimated Judah and numerous other kingdoms of the Levant. Given the shock and surprise associated with the announcement of the Chaldean rise in Habakkuk (1:5), however, exegetes have long thought that the context for the prophet's oracle preceded Nebuchadrezzar's first invasion of Judah in 597. The reference to Yahweh's presence “in his holy Temple” in Habakkuk 2:20 could also suggest a date before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586. Thus, the last years of the seventh century or the first years of the sixth provide the most suitable context for the oracle.
It has proved much more difficult to date the final appearance of the work as we have it. The terminus ante quem for the appearance of the book must be its incorporation into the Book of the Twelve, but when this occurred is a matter of debate. As noted above, Sirach 49:10 makes reference to “the Twelve Prophets,” so a version of Habakkuk must certainly have been included in the Book of the Twelve by the early second century B.C.E. A variety of allusions to other texts within Habakkuk offer indirect evidence about its relative dating. Habakkuk evidently draws on traditions from First Isaiah and Micah, earlier representatives of the Judean prophetic tradition. The description of the prophet as lookout upon a watchtower (Hab 2:1) probably depends on an earlier expression in Isaiah (21:8). More concretely, Habakkuk 2:14, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea,” replicates, almost verbatim, Isaiah 11:9, “for the earth is filled with the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (Author's translations throughout.) In addition, a fairly clear allusion to Micah 3:10 appears in Habakkuk 2:12A (and also in Nah 3:1). In the book of Jeremiah, a near contemporary of Habakkuk, an allusion to Micah of Moresheth-Gath also appears in the elders’ defense of Jeremiah against sedition (Jer 26:17–19). Habakkuk, then, like Nahum and Jeremiah, appears to be a successor to Micah and Isaiah in the Judean tradition. Meanwhile, a later text in the anti-Babylon oracles of Jeremiah 50–51 shares a saying in common with Habakkuk: “peoples weary themselves on behalf of fire, populations exhaust themselves for nothing” (Hab 2:13) is virtually identical to “peoples weary themselves for nothing, populations exhaust themselves on behalf of fire” (Jer 51:58). Of course, such sayings may derive from a common Judean prophetic tradition, and not from direct borrowing or allusion. In either case, Habakkuk evidently partakes of a well-developed literary tradition shared among Judean prophets of the late monarchic period.
Other genres in Israel's literary repertoire also exist or have parallels in Habakkuk. After its brief superscription, the book opens in 1:2–4 with a complaint which resembles many found in the Psalter. God's announcement of the rise of the Chaldeans (1:5–11) includes a description of their military might that echoes Nahum and Jeremiah, among others. The so-called hôy oracles of Habakkuk 2:6–17 have parallels elsewhere both in and beyond the prophetic tradition. Hôy usually introduces a prophetic oracle of woe against a group or polity under divine sanction; such oracles appear often in Isaiah, but also in other Judean prophetic texts. Finally, the great hymn celebrating the Divine Warrior in chapter 3 shares numerous structural and linguistic commonalities with Israel's most archaic poetry (Albright 1950; Hiebert 1986).
All of the above evidence suggests a date during the last decades of the Judean monarchy, probably before the final assault of the Babylonians against Judah in 587.
The foregoing discussion of the date of Habakkuk (prophet, message, and scroll) recognized the numerous literary forms that appear in the book and their parallels elsewhere in the Bible. This variegated literary fabric complicates efforts to reconstruct the book's literary history. Was it assembled over a short time by a single individual, or did it come to exist though a relatively long agglutinative process under the hands of multiple individuals? Scholars have different opinions on this question. Reconstructions depend also on the investigator's assessment about whether the Book of the Twelve represents an overarching unity which was collated and edited by several redactors who shared a common purpose (Nogalski 2009; Wöhrle 2006), or a collection of twelve discrete works of independent origins (Ben Zvi 2009).
A possible indication of the book's unity and discrete origins may appear in a specific set of literary characteristics. The Hebrew of Habakkuk evinces frequent repetition of words or groups of identical or similar sounds in immediate succession. Although the technique is known elsewhere in Hebrew, it is so pervasive in Habakkuk that it seems to represent a deliberate and possibly unitary design. The following list of representative examples illustrates the phenomenon: hittammĕhû tĕmāhû, “astonish yourselves, be astounded” (1:5A); pōʿal pōʿēl, “I am performing a deed” (1:5B); hammar wĕhannimhār, “fierce and proficient” (1:6A); lōʾlô, “not its own” (1:6B; also 2:6); ûpāšû pārāšâw ûpārāšâw, “His horsemen spring and spread out; his horsemen” (1:8A); bōṣēaʿ beṣaʿ, “one who acquires loot by violence” (2:9); yōṣēr yiṣrō, “the fashioner his creation” (2:18); ʾĕlîlîm ʾillĕmîm, “mute gods” (2:18); ʿāmad waymōded, “he stood and shook [earth]” (3:6); ʿeryāh tēʿôr, “exposed and ready” (3:9).
A related literary conceit likewise may point to the unity and deliberate design that shaped the work. In numerous instances, repetition of the same or like-sounding words exists in adjacent clauses or sentences. These are often difficult to render in English, but the following are examples: yābōʾû…yābōʾ, “they come…it comes” (1:8B–9A); miśḥaq…yiśḥaq, “a joke…he scoffs” (1:10); mibṣār…yiṣbōr, “fortress…builds up” (1:10); lēʾlōhô hălôʾ…ʾĕlōhay, “his god. Are [you] not…O, my God” (1:11–12); wĕʾetyaṣṣĕbāh ʿal māṣôr waʾăṣappeh, “Let me station myself upon a watchtower that I may watch” (2:1); šallôtā…yĕšāllûkā, “you plundered…they will plunder you” (2:8); qālôn mikkābôd…qîqālôn ʿal-kĕbôdekā, “shame rather than honor…disgrace upon your glory” (2:16); ḥămas lĕbānôn…wĕḥămasʾereṣ, “violence to the Lebanon…violence to a land” (2:17); pesel kî pĕsālô yāṣĕrô, “[how can] an idol profit its maker” (2:18); bĕqereb šānîm ḥayyêhû bĕqereb šānîm tôdîaʿ, “with the approach of years, renew it; with the approach of years, make [it] known” (3:2); ʿôlām… ʿôlām, “eternity…eternity” (3:6); binĕhārîm…bannĕhārîm, “against River…against River” (3:8A).
Among other things, the fact that these literary characteristics appear throughout the book (with the exception of the opening complaint in 1:2–4), including the hymn of chapter 3, may suggest a deliberate and overarching literary technique for the book. If this is correct, it may further suggest that the book is the product of a singular design. Thus, the inclusion of many different literary forms known from elsewhere in the Judean literary tradition, including the techniques just discussed, indicates that Habakkuk is a composition designed to communicate a coherent argument (see Interpretation).
Structure and Contents.
Whether or not Habakkuk has a coherent structure, the contents of the book may be outlined as follows:
- I. 1:1 Superscription
- II.i. 1:2–4 Prophetic complaint
- II.ii. 1:5–11 Divine announcement of impending doom at the hands of Chaldeans
- II.iii. 1:12–17 Prophetic remonstrance of God condemning his decision to raise the oppressor
- III.i. 2:1 Prophetic preparation for divine response to the remonstrance
- III.ii. 2:2–4 Divine response to the remonstrance: promise of a reliable vision
- IV.i. 2:5 Divine statement about aggressor's perfidy
- IV.ii. 2:6a Divine rationale for the nations’ taunt of the aggressor
- V. 2:6b–17 Four successive hôy oracles condemning the aggressor's perfidy
- V.i. 2:6b–8 First hôy
- V.ii. 2:9–11 Second hôy
- V.iii. 2:12–14 Third hôy
- V.iv. 2:15–17 Fourth hôy
- VI.i. 2:18 Reflection on futility of idols
- VI.ii. 2:19 Reflection on foolishness of idol-makers
- VI.iii. 2:20 Contrasting assertion of Yahweh's presence in his Temple
- VII.i. 3:1 Superscription to chapter 3
- VII.ii. 3:2–15 Prophetic perception and poetic celebration of the Divine Warrior
- VII.ii.a 3:2 Statement about Yahweh's past and future deeds
- VII.ii.b 3:3–7 The Divine Warrior's march and its effects
- VI.ii.c 3:8–15 The Divine Warrior's assault on the forces of chaos on behalf of his people
- VIII.i 3:16–17 Prophetic statement of dismay and perception of languishing nature
- VIII.ii.3:18–19 Prophetic affirmation of confidence in Yahweh
The book as a whole treats the causes and consequences of Chaldean military dominance not just over Judah, but over the earth. After the superscription, the prophet's complaint begins with a question about how long God will tolerate violence and evil. The prophet excoriates God's inaction in response to “violence” (1:2, 3) and the dissolution of “justice” (1:4). God's inaction permits the perversion of Torah and the predations of the wicked against the righteous (1:4).
After the prophet's complaint comes God's astonishing announcement in 1:5–11: for unstated reasons, God announces that he is now raising up the fearsome Chaldeans, who terrorize populations, take captives, and depose kings and rulers. As Heschel (1962) wrote of God's announcement: “The Voice does not explain why God should rouse the terrible Chaldeans to march through the breadth of the earth. On the contrary, the message represents another assault upon Habakkuk's understanding, adding mystery to amazement” (1:141).
In 1:12–17, Habakkuk therefore addresses God again, in the style of Moses, now leveling a harsh accusation against him. After describing God's characteristics—“primordial,” “too pure of eyes to look upon evil,” and “incapable of looking upon wrong”—the prophet then asks why God is silent when “the wicked swallows one more righteous than he” (1:13). Chapter 1 ends with the prophet describing the conqueror as a remorseless fisherman and his victims as the catch, circumstances that eradicate God's carefully ordered creation and humanity's place within it.
Chapter 2 opens with the prophet ascending a lookout's post to await a divine response to his accusation. The response consists of God's instruction to transcribe a vision, which will come even if it is delayed. The content of the vision is not obvious, but God says of the vision that “the righteous one will live by its reliability” (2:4). Janzen (1980) carefully demonstrated in connection with this famous verse that the reference is to the vision's reliability, not to the righteous one's faithfulness. A description of the international oppressor is followed by four hôy oracles to be uttered by the nations warning the oppressor of his inevitable fall.
Chapter 3 is a magisterial hymn celebrating the awe-inspiring deeds of the Divine Warrior, whose cosmic conflict with the forces of chaos, River and Sea (3:8), echoes the most archaic formulations of the Chaoskampf in the Israelite tradition (e.g., Exod 15; Judg 5; Cross 1973), not to mention the Ugaritic epic of Baal (Hiebert). Several scholars have affirmed the linguistically archaic nature of the hymn (Albright; Cross; Hiebert), suggesting its antiquity and once independent status. While this is no doubt correct, the hymn's incorporation into the book fulfills a purpose in respect of the total argument of the book. Chapters 1–2 argue that God ought not to unleash the forces of chaos, namely the Chaldeans, contrary to the position advocated by the majority of prophetic voices that foreign invasion could represent God's just punishment of his people. Chapter 3, however, proleptically expresses Habakkuk's vision of the Lord's restoration of the cosmos.
As a whole, Habakkuk treats a fundamental problem, one familiar from other Judean prophetic writings: the causes and consequences of foreign invasion. The book's argument in response to this problem, however, is anomalous in the Judean prophetic tradition. It argues that God is complicit in impending invasion by an implacable foe, and that his decision to raise up the feared Chaldeans is unacceptable. Habakkuk does not address God's people, does not contain a prophetic messenger formula (e.g., “Thus says the LORD”), and does not warn the Judeans of the error of their ways. Habakkuk, rather, presents an argument very much in opposition, for example, to his more voluble contemporary, Jeremiah (e.g., Jer 27:5–8), not to mention their predecessor, Isaiah of Jerusalem (e.g., Isa 10). For these prophets, foreign conquest was punishment for the nation's sins.
The breakthrough evinced in Habakkuk's oracle, and what defines him as a contrarian within the Judean prophetic tradition, is precisely that he summons diverse resources from the Judean literary tradition to reject the principle encapsulated in this perspective, despite its pervasive appeal in then-contemporary and previous Judean prophecy. The emphasis in Habakkuk 1 and 2 was on the Chaldean conqueror and the consequences of his actions, with allusions to their cosmic significance—the dissolution of the social order and of creation itself. In chapter 1, the prophet rails at God because of the chaos unleashed by the conqueror. At the end of chapter 2, the reader learns that the conqueror is marked out for punishment and that God is in his holy Temple, but God had promised a vision which has not yet been reported. The hymn of chapter 3, which may well constitute the content of the promised vision (or that was included to suggest as much), reverses the focus and concentrates on the Divine Warrior's primordial defeat of cosmic threats, with only passing allusions to human agents. God has defeated evil before; he must do it again. The prophet affirms his confidence in the Lord's response to chaos (3:18). The central concern throughout the book, therefore, is the necessity for God to establish a just, well-ordered realm for his people to inhabit.
The sectarian writings from Qumran include numerous pesharim, or commentaries on biblical books. The pesher on the first two chapters of Habakkuk (1QpHab) has an important place in understanding the sect and its hermeneutics. The pesher interprets Habakkuk 1–2 within the context of the community's experiences during the first century B.C.E. Two main issues come to the fore in the pesher: first, the conflict between the Teacher of Righteousness (the sect's iconic figure) and the “Wicked Priest” (perhaps the High Priest, the Teacher's nemesis); second, the appearance of the Kittim (Romans) in Palestine (Brownlee 1979). The interpretation assumes that the words of the ancient prophet Habakkuk had significance for the sectarians’ present, which the original prophet could not foresee (1QpHab VII,2). Rather, God made known to the Teacher “the mysteries of the words of his servants the Prophets” as these pertain to eschatological realities (VII,5). Habakkuk's contrast between the wicked and righteous becomes a template for understanding the eschatological conflict between the righteous sectarians and those Jews inimical to the Teacher. Meanwhile, the foreign foes of Habakkuk are now understood as the Romans. This form of “updating” the ancient prophecies would have a long life in later Jewish and Christian interpretation.
Another chapter in Habakkuk's reception history would have a profound impact on Christian thought. The apostle Paul cited the concluding phrase of
Habakkuk 2:4, rendering it “the one who is righteous will live by faith” (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11). The translation deviates slightly from the Septuagint Greek Paul likely knew, as well as from the Hebrew (Fitzmyer 1981). The author of Hebrews also cites a version of this verse—“my righteous one will live by faith” (10:38)—again in a form slightly different from either the Septuagint or its Hebrew antecedent. Paul places the citation in the opening precis to Romans, where it anticipates the extended discussion in the book on the concept of justification through faith in connection with the Christ event. Luther's later interpretation of Paul's soteriology would enshrine Paul's version of the saying from Habakkuk at the core of Protestant theology. Luther's own commentary on Habakkuk credited Paul as follows: “[He] quotes this verse in Rom. 1:17, and very pertinently. For this is a general saying applicable to all of God's words. These must be believed, whether spoken at the beginning, middle, or end of the world” (Works XIX, 394–395). Thus, for Luther, the object of the faith invoked by Habakkuk and emphasized by Paul is the Word of God. In this way, the saying of Habakkuk as interpreted by Paul supported Luther's idea of justification.
Habakkuk figured much less prominently in Western art than other Judean prophets. The early Renaissance artist Donatello produced an important fifteenth century sculpture of the prophet, one that exemplified the naturalistic inclinations of artists of the period. The baroque Italian sculptor Bernini fashioned perhaps the best known image of the prophet, now in the Vatican Museum, between 1655–1661. In it, an angel grips Habakkuk by the hair and prepares to transport the prophet, who in turn grips a basket of food, to Babylon, where the prophet was to feed Daniel and his friends in the lion's den. Bernini drew his inspiration for the scene not from the canonical book, but from the more dramatic tale of Bel (Bel 1:33–39).
From its contrarian beginnings in the Judean prophetic tradition through its reception in Judaism, reinterpretation by Paul, influence on Luther, and beyond, the book of Habakkuk has played a much larger role in Jewish and Christian thought than its brevity might have suggested.
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David S. Vanderhooft