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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics What is This? Explores the relationship between the text of the Bible and the development and contexts of ethical frameworks.


Habakkuk is the eighth book within the collection of the Minor Prophets. The name Habakkuk occurs nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible and here only in the superscriptions in 1:1 and 3:1, “Habakkuk the prophet.” While there is a Hebrew root composed of the same consonants (meaning something like “embrace”), the form and occurrence of the name are unique. The name also appears in later works such as Bel and the Dragon, which place the prophet in a variety of historical settings (see Sweeney, 1992; 2000). The lack of precise historical referent in the canonical book has made it open to speculation and interpretation in the later traditions.

While conventional interpretation has treated the Minor Prophets as individual pieces of literature, some recent scholars (e.g., Nogalski, 1993) consider their present context within the Book of the Twelve to be determinative for their understanding. This literary context suggests a historical context for composition in a postexilic setting.

The text of the book, especially in chapter three, is difficult. This has often led to the suggestion of textual emendation. Variations in Hebrew and Greek manuscripts show that ancient readers also struggled with meaning and interpretation. That any of these later versions had a more “original” text than that of the Masoretic Text seems questionable. Many of the difficulties with the text remain unresolved.

There has been considerable debate about the literary unity of the book. The language of the first two chapters differs from that of the third, a psalm, and there are introductory superscriptions to both chapters one and three. This has led some scholars to question the textual unity of the book. This issue was heightened with the discovery of a commentary (pesher) on Habakkuk among the Dead Sea Scrolls that did not refer to the third chapter. While it is possible that a version of the book that did not include chapter three was known at the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, other texts from the same general period (the Wȃdıˉ Murabbaʿat Scroll and the Greek scroll from Nah᷂al H᷂ever) do include the chapter as part of the book. It seems most likely that, although the psalm of chapter three may have existed prior to the time of composition, it was included in the book from the beginning.

The book has generally been recognized as consisting of three sections: 1:2—2:4/5, a series of complaints about the current situation; 2:6–19, a series of woe oracles; and 3:2–19, a psalm. It has been argued that together these constitute a complaint. The most careful examination of the genre (Floyd, 2000) has concluded that the best description is in the book’s own superscription, a massaʾ. In this he follows the suggestion of Weis who sees three elements of the massaʾ found in Habakkuk: “(1) a speech of Yahweh disclosing how his will is becoming manifest in human affairs; (2) directives concerning behavior or attitudes that are appropriate in response to what Yahweh is doing; and (3) a grounding of these directives in human acts or events that manifest Yahweh’s activity or purpose” (Floyd, 2000, p. 85).

In the past, the nature of the book’s connection to activity in the Jerusalem Temple has been disputed. This is at least in part suggested by the mention of the Temple in 2:20 and by “liturgical” language, especially in chapter three. While it would seem clear that the Temple was still in existence at the time this verse was written, no specific ritual setting has been determined for the book as a whole. Floyd concludes that while the book may contain liturgical elements, it is not in the form of a liturgy. Other studies have linked the book to Wisdom or the Deuteronomistic traditions.

The unspecific nature of the historical context has made the book available for later interpretation and reinterpretation. An example of this can be seen in the commentary provided by the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Pesher Habakkuk reinterpreted the work in light of the community’s situation in Judea. The specific text in 2:4B was also picked up and (re)used by Paul in the New Testament (cf. Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; cf. Heb 10:38–39) and by later Christian and Jewish authors. The ambiguity of the context and the referents for terms, especially the indefinite pronouns throughout the text, has made this a remarkably productive text. The difficulty of the text (and its subsequent fluidity of interpretation) may be illustrated by 2:4. This verse (at least) seems to be the focal point of the vision that is to be reported. Unfortunately, the translation and meaning of the verse are not clear. It may be translated “Behold, swollen, not smooth, will be his gullet within him, but the righteous because of its/his fidelity will live.” The ambiguity of the last pronoun frustrates any certainty at interpretation. The pronoun may refer to the vision, to the righteous one, to Yahweh, or to something else. The context does not make the referent clear.

The one reference that may allow some historical specificity is the promise of the rise of the Chaldeans in 1:6. This seems to refer to the sudden (and somewhat unexpected) appearance of the Neo-Babylonians on the scene in Judah in the late seventh century B.C.E. King Josiah’s attempts at “independence” from Assyria (leading to his death at the hands of Egypt) provide a starting point for discussions about the context.

A key element for determining the success of any proposal for the historical context rests with the identification of the Wicked and the Righteous. Most commentators have identified the Wicked with the early sixth-century Babylonians, although Assyria, Egypt, and even Greece have been suggested by other scholars. Identifying the Wicked with Babylon is plausible given the strong anti-Babylonian sentiment that followed two destructive campaigns against Judah. An original anti-Babylonian interpretation has dominated the understanding of the book (as the identification of “Babylon” with other oppressive powers throughout the years has shifted). Identifying the wicked with sixth-century Babylon, however, makes problematic Yahweh’s promise that their rise is the answer to the author’s complaint (1:6). For this reason, many have seen this book as a theodicy, dealing with the fundamental issue of God’s justice and power in the face of evil.

Others believe the book’s context to be the earlier reign of Josiah, a king who is seen by some biblical authors as a messianic figure. The judgment of the Deuteronomist that no better king ever existed in Judah (2 Kgs 23:25) certainly would make him a candidate for the Righteous One of this book. However, the suggestion is confounded by the book itself, which looks for the restoration of the Righteous One (2:4). There is no evidence that Josiah was ever in need of restoration. According to the books of Kings and Chronicles, his reign ended with his death at the hand of Neco of Egypt.

The most likely historical setting for the book is at the time of King Jehoahaz of Judah, Josiah’s son installed by “the people of the land” who followed many of Josiah’s pro-Babylonian political policies. Jehoahaz was deposed by Egypt in favor of another of Josiah’s sons, a pro-Egyptian ruler, Jehoiakim. This conflict in Judah over the correct attitude toward the neighboring superpower Egypt was arguably the central conflict leading up to Judah’s eventual destruction by the Babylonians. The ambiguity of the referents in the text made it possible for the originally pro-Babylonian book from Jehoahaz’s reign to be turned upside down when the Babylonian empire became identified as the great evil power of the next generation—an understandable reorientation of the message. In the end, the language that allows this fluidity of interpretation is what has opened this book to speak to generations of readers in diverse situations and is also what makes determination of its “original” precise historical setting problematic.

Chapter three seems closely related in language and themes of mythology to an ancient combat myth known from extrabiblical Ugaritic sources (Hiebert, 1986). In this context Yahweh is seen as coming forth from the mountains of Paran for the deliverance of “your people” and the “anointed.” Yahweh appears in a theophany, which causes the usual symptoms in those who witness it—fear in all and destruction for the enemies. Some have argued for the premonarchic origin of the psalm of chapter three (Hiebert) with a later reuse at the time of Habakkuk.

The descriptions of the righteous and the wicked in the first two chapters have clear (but general) ethical overtones. Treachery, greed, plunder, bloodshed, and violence are all characteristic of the wicked. Patience, awe of Yahweh, rejoicing are marks of the righteous. It is noteworthy that Habakkuk assumes that Yahweh is concerned with the distinction between wicked and righteous (not simply with power). The ethical question is, what sort of power is being displayed? Power, in and of itself, is not identified with evil. The overwhelming power of the Chaldeans was seen, at least at first, as an intervention by Yahweh; their power (see 1:7–12), in and of itself, did not constitute evil (contra e.g., Sweeney). If the complaints of 1:2 and 1:13 are not sequential but complaints about the same situation (contra Roberts, 1991), the identification of the powerful Chaldeans as the positive response of Yahweh to the situation is possible. The change in attitude toward Babylonian power after the destruction of Judah is understandable.

A second observation is that Habakkuk believed that none other than Yahweh would take action on behalf of the righteous. For Habakkuk, this meant Yahweh’s activity not only in the primordial past but in the complexities of the contemporary political and military situation. “How long, O Yahweh, shall I cry out but you do not hear? I call to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not deliver?” (1:2). Throughout the book, the prophet engages in conversation (even complaint) with Yahweh, who seems slow to use divine power to rescue the righteous. A similar quandary is reported by Jeremiah, whose unfulfilled message of “violence and destruction” makes him a laughingstock (Jer 20:7–10), also during Jehoiakim’s reign.

This short writing crystalizes many of the issues that are seen throughout the Hebrew scriptures and into the life of the communities that have struggled with the same issues in the time since.

[See also IMPERIALISM; and POWER.]



  • Andersen, Francis I. Habakkuk: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 25. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
  • Floyd, Michael H. Minor Prophets Part 2. The Forms of the Old Testament Literature 22. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000.
  • Haak, Robert D. Habakkuk. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 44. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1992.
  • Hiebert, Theodore. God of My Victory: The Ancient Hymn in Habakkuk 3. Harvard Semitic Monographs 38. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986.
  • Nogalski, James. Redactional Processes in the Book of the Twelve. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 218. Berlin, New York: de Gruyter, 1993.
  • Roberts, Jimmy J. M. Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1991.
  • Sweeney, Marvin A. “Habakkuk, Book of.” In Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol, edited by David Noel Freedman. 3 New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  • Sweeney, Marvin A. The Twelve Prophets. Edited by David W. Cotter. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2000.

Robert D. Haak

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