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Habbakuk 2006

The Book of Habbakuk

I have always been puzzled by the selection of the Haftarot for Shavuot. At two previous Leil Limmuds I have spoken about the Book of Ezekiel, which constitutes the Haftara for the first day. Now I would like to turn to the Haftara for the second day, which comes from the Book of Habbakuk.

Who, you may ask, was Habbakuk? You may well have never heard of him. The Shavuot Haftara is the only occasion in the year when we read

"Haftarah for second day Shavuot"

from his book, and the Book itself would rarely feature in any collection of Bible stories or mainstream commentaries on the Tenach. Habbakuk is one of the Twelve Minor Prophets whose books appear in the Tenach: his book comprises only three short chapters, with a total of 56 verses. It is hardly well known. Indeed, even on the internet I could find only one Jewish source that comments at any length on the Book of Habbakuk. So the essence of my talk is distilled from a variety of sources, not only Jewish ones but commentaries from other faith traditions.

First of all, what is known about Habbakuk? There is not much biographical information on the prophet Habakkuk; in fact less is known about this prophet than any other. Due to the liturgical nature of the book of Habakkuk, there have been some scholars who think that Habakkuk may have been a temple prophet. Temple prophets are described in 1 Chronicles 25:1 as using lyres, harps and cymbals. Some feel that this may be echoed in the final verse of the book, which concludes: 'Lamnatzeach binginotai', ie 'For the Leader, on my stringed instruments or with my string music'. The name Habbakuk comes either from the Hebrew word ??? habhak meaning "embrace" or else from an Akkadian word hambakuku for a kind of plant. Jewish tradition favours the former interpretation, some Rabbinic sources identifying him with the son of the Shunammite woman whom Elisha restored to life (2 Kings 4:16).The prophet Habakkuk is also mentioned in the apocryphal book Bel and the Dragon. In the superscription of the Old Greek version Habakkuk is called the son of Joshua of the tribe of Levi. In this book Habakkuk is lifted by an angel to Babylon to provide Daniel with some food while he is in the lion's den.

Historical Context

It is unknown when Habakkuk lived and preached, but the reference to the rise and advance of the Chaldeans in 1:6-11 places him in the last quarter of the 7th century BCE. The most likely period is thought to be during the reign of Jehoiakim, the son of the good king Josiah. Josiah was killed during the battle of Carchemish in 605, when he foolishly allied himself with Egypt in a vain attempt to halt the Babylonian advance. After his death in battle, Josiah was succeeded by his weak and corrupt son Jehoiakim, who reigned until 597. It was during his reign that the Babylonians grew immensely in power and now threatened the Kingdom of Judah. The Babylonians marched against Jerusalem in 597, when Jehoiakim was killed, and there is a sense of an intimate knowledge of the Babylonian brutality in 1:12-17.

Overview of Contents

The book of Habakkuk stands eighth in a section known as the 12 Minor Prophets in the Masoretic and Greek texts. It follows Nahum and precedes Zephaniah, who are considered to be his contemporaries.
Apart from its short title (i, 1), the Book of Habakkuk is commonly divided into two parts: the one (i,2-ii, 20) reads like a dramatic dialogue between God and His prophet; the other (chap. iii) is a lyric ode, with the usual characteristics of a psalm. The first part opens with Habakkuk's lament to God over the protracted iniquity of the land, and the persistent oppression of the just by the wicked, so that there is neither law nor justice in Judah. He asks G-d how long is the wicked thus destined to prosper? (i, 2-4). Hashem replies (i, 5-11) that a new and startling display of His justice is about to take place: already the Chaldeans -- that swift, rapacious, terrible, race -- are being raised up, and they shall put an end to the wrongs of which the prophet has complained. Then Habakkuk remonstrates with Hashem, the eternal and righteous Ruler of the world, over the cruelties in which He allows the Chaldeans to indulge (i, 12-17). How can the Lord, who is of purer eyes than to behold evil, permit the righteous to suffer at the hands of the wicked? Why should the evil annihilate the Lord?s people?  
Habbakuk confidently waits for a response to his pleading (ii, 1). God's answer (ii, 2-4) is in the form of a short oracle (verse 4), which the prophet is bidden to write down on a tablet that all may read it, and which foretells the ultimate doom of the Chaldean invader. Content with this message, Habakkuk utters a taunting song, triumphantly made up of five "woes" which he places with dramatic vividness on the lips of the nations whom the Chaldean has conquered and desolated (ii, 5-20).

The second part of the book (chap. iii) bears the title: "A prayer of Habakkuk, the prophet, to the music of Shigionot." It is this prayer that constitutes the Haftara for the second day of Shavuot. Strictly speaking, only the second verse of this chapter has the form of a prayer. The verses following (3-16) amount to a hymn of praise in which G-d appears for no other purpose than the salvation of His people and the ruin of His enemies. The ode concludes with the declaration that even though the blessings of nature should fail in the day of dearth, the singer will rejoice in Hashem (17-19). Appended to chap. iii is the statement: "For the chief musician, on my stringed instruments."

Analysis of structure

A somewhat more detailed analysis would break down the book's structure this way:
I. Title (1:1)
II. The Problem of Unpunished wickedness (1:2 ? 4)
III. God's first response (1:5 ? 11)
IV. The problem of excessive punishment (1:12 ? 17)
V. Awaiting an Answer (2:1)
VI. God's second response (2:2 ? 20)
A. A vision (2:2 -5)
i. Announcement (2:2 -3)
ii. Life and Death (2:4 -5)
B. Taunting woes (2:6 ? 20)
i. The pillager (2: 6 -8)
ii. The plotter (2:9 ? 11)
iii. The promoter of violence (2:12 -14)
iv. The debaucher (2:15 -17)
v. The pagan idolator (2:18 -20)

VII. Habakkuk's Psalm (3:1 -19)
A. Musical notes (3:1, 19b)
B. Petition (3:2)
C. God's powerful presence in history (3:3 ? 15)
i. God's coming (3:3 -7)
ii. God's combat (3:8 ? 15)
D. Fear and Faith (3:16 ? 19a)


The major theme of Habakkuk is that of trying to grow from a faith of perplexity and doubt to the height of absolute trust in God. Habakkuk addresses his concerns over the fact that the punishment for Judah's sins is going to be executed by what was thought to be a sinful nation in Habakkuk's eyes.

Habakkuk is unique among the prophets in that he openly questions the wisdom of God. In the first part of the first chapter, the Prophet sees the injustice among his people and asks why God does not take action. "1:2Hashem, how long will I cry, and you will not hear? I cry out to you ?Violence!? and will you not save?"

Only a hundred years previous to this, God had indeed miraculously delivered Jerusalem from the invading Assyrians; but since that time rather than Judah responding in sincere repentance it instead increased in wickedness. The people of Jerusalem began to believe that God would not allow Jerusalem to fall for the sake of the Temple that was there, regardless of the faithfulness of the people.

The Prophet Jeremiah was responding to this false belief when he stood in the gateway of the Temple and prophesied: ?Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Trust ye not in lying words, saying, "the Temple of the Lord," "the Temple of the Lord," "the Temple of the Lord are these." For if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor; If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, "We are delivered to do all these abominations"?

Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it, saith the Lord.... Therefore will I do unto this house, which is called by my name, wherein ye trust, and unto the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh. [Note: a reference to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, which had happened only a hundred years previous at the hands of the Assyrians] And I will cast you out of my sight, as I have cast out all your brethren, even the whole seed of Ephraim" [again, the Northern Kingdom is referred to] (Jeremiah 7:3-11, 14-15).

Though the people believed that God was obligated to deliver them, God was not under the same impression. Had they responded to the preaching of the Prophets in repentance, they would have been delivered as before, but instead their hearts were hardened and they only increased in wickedness -- and even persecuted the prophets of God and listened instead to the false prophets that promised deliverance.

In the middle part of Chapter 1, God explains that he will send the Chaldeans to punish his people. 1:5 ?Look among the nations, watch, and wonder marvelously; for I am working a work in your days, which you will not believe though it is told you. 1:6 For, behold, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, that march through the breadth of the earth, to possess dwelling places that are not theirs.

In the final part of the first chapter, the prophet expresses shock at God's choice of instrument for judgement. 1:13 You who have purer eyes than to see evil, and who cannot look on perversity, why do you tolerate those who deal treacherously, and keep silent when the wicked swallows up the man who is more righteous than he? The Babylonians were indeed an evil nation, but God was using them as a rod of chastening to bring His people to repentance. It was the arrogance of their sin that brought about God's wrath -- it would have to be their sincere repentance and true faith in God that would deliver them. Judah had shed innocent blood, it had worshipped false gods, and it had oppressed the poor. Their worship of God had become a sinful mockery and an abomination, and the Law of God was flaunted. Despite the attempts at reform of the righteous King Josiah, the people themselves had not repented -- and so he was taken from them at a young age (killed in battle) and Judah was instead given weak and wicked rulers who hastened their downfall.

As the Babylonians began burning down the cities of Judah, raping and robbing, and began leading the people into exile, no doubt many of them began to cry out to God for help. Why did God not then deliver them? What would have happened had he then done so? No doubt their arrogance and sin would just as quickly have resumed as it had stopped. Instead God allowed Jerusalem to fall, the Temple to be destroyed and the people to remain in bitter captivity for 70 years.
In Chapter 2, the prophet awaits God's response to his challenge as to why He would allow a nation even more wicked than the people of Judah to triumph over His people. God explains that He will also judge the Chaldeans, and much more harshly. 2:8 Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples will plunder you, because of men?s blood, and for the violence done to the land, to the city and to all who dwell in it. He goes on to pour down woe on the Chaldean for his rapacious violence (verses 6-8), his covetousness (verses 9-11), the cruel way in which he establishes his kingdom (verses 12, 13), the barbarous pleasure he takes in intoxicating his neighbor (verses 15-17), and his gross idolatry (verses 18, 19). These shall compass his own overthrow; "but Hashem is in His holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before Him" (verse 20); where the Lord is worshiped, there dwells His love with its power to impart peace upon earth to people of good will.

Finally, in Chapter 3, Habakkuk expresses his ultimate faith in God, even if he doesn't fully understand. 3:17 For though the fig tree does not flourish, nor fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive fails, the fields yield no food; the flocks are cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls: 3:18 yet I will rejoice in Hashem. I will be joyful in the God of my salvation.
Because of the final chapter of his book, which is a poetic praise of God, it has been assumed that Habakkuk may well have been a member of the Levitical choir in the Temple. Contemporary scholars point out, however, that this chapter is missing from the Dead Sea Scrolls and has some similarities with texts found in the Book of Daniel. They therefore suggest that it is a later interpolation which influenced the authors of Daniel, and that it is impossible to make the assumption of Habakkuk's background based on it. All things considered, it seems that the question whether chapter 3 is an original portion of the prophecy of Habakkuk, or an independent poem appended to it at a later date, cannot be answered with certainty: too little is known in a positive manner concerning the actual circumstances in which Habakkuk composed his work, to enable one to feel confident that this portion of it must or must not be ascribed to the same author as the rest of the book.

Prophetical Teaching

Most of the religious and moral truths that can be noticed in this short prophecy are not peculiar to it. They form part of the common message which the prophets of old were charged to convey to God's chosen people. Like the other prophets, Habakkuk is the champion of ethical monotheism. For him, as for them, Hashem alone is the living God (ii, 18-20); He is the Eternal and Holy One (i, 12), the Supreme Ruler of the Universe (i, 6, 17; ii, 5 sqq.; iii, 2-16), Whose word cannot fail to obtain its effect (ii, 3), and Whose glory will be acknowledged by all nations (ii, 14). In his eyes, as in those of the other prophets, Israel is God's chosen people whose sinfulness He is bound to visit with a signal punishment (i, 2-4). The special people, whom it was Habakkuk's own mission to announce to his contemporaries as the instruments of G-d's judgment, were the Chaldeans, who will overthrow everything, even Judah and Jerusalem, in their victorious march (i, 6 sqq.). This was indeed at the time an incredible prediction (i, 5), for Judah was regarded as God's kingdom and the Chaldean a world-power characterized by overweening pride and tyranny? Was not therefore Judah the "just", who should be saved, and the Chaldean really the "wicked" to be destroyed?

The answer to this difficulty is found in the verse (ii, 4) which contains the central and distinctive teaching of the book. Referring to the Babylonians, the verse reads: ?Behold, his soul is puffed up, it is not upright in him; but the righteous shall live by his faith.? This verse has proved extremely potent, not least in Christian history. Its oracular form bespeaks a principle of wider import than the actual circumstances in the midst of which it was revealed to the prophet, a general law, as we would say, of God's providence in the government of the world: the wicked carries in himself the germs of his own destruction; the believer, on the contrary, those of eternal life. It is because of this, that Habakkuk applies the oracle not only to the Chaldeans of his time, who are threatening the existence of God's kingdom on earth, but also to all the nations opposed to that kingdom, who will likewise be reduced to naught (ii, 5-13), and solemnly declares that "the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of Yahweh, as the waters cover the sea" (ii, 15). It is because of this truly Messianic import that the writings of Habbakuk still have their resonance in Jewish teaching. But the phrase 'The righteous shall live by his faith' was seized upon by Paul in the New Testament and became the theological foundation for the Reformation. When Luther and Calvin formulated their doctrine of justification by faith, they interpreted this verse in Habbakuk as meaning that man shall live by faith alone and rejected the traditional Catholic doctrine that man could also find salvation through good deeds.

The Link with Shavuot

At first glance, the association of this haftarah with the festival of Shavuot seems strange. Habbakuk's prophecy ostensibly is a prayer for redemption from the oppressive hands of the Chaldeans. It begins with a prayer by the prophet to revive His redemptive powers and to recall His compassion for His people. Then the prophet presents an exalted vision of how God will conquer Israel's enemies.

This vision of God as an exalted redeemer is radically transformed by the rabbinic tradition from its peshat (simple) meaning and becomes for the rabbis a portrayal of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This is especially evident in the following midrash taken from Shir Hashirim Rabba:

'The Rabbis told the following parable: There was a king who wanted to marry his daughter to someone from a foreign country. The citizens of his country said to the king: 'Our master, the king, it would be more praiseworthy and appropriate that your daughter should stay near you within the realm of the kingdom.' The king replied to them: 'What does it matter to you?' They answered: 'Perhaps you will go to visit her and go to live near her in the other kingdom because of your love for her [and we will be without our beloved king]. The king said to them; 'I will nevertheless marry my daughter to someone from another kingdom, but I promise you that I will continue to dwell among you in this kingdom.' So too, when the Holy One Blessed be He decided to give the Torah to [the children of] Israel, the ministering angels said to Him: 'Master of the Universe, whose glory [the Torah] is in the heavens (see Psalms 8:2). Is it not a joy, is it not glorious, is it not praiseworthy to you that the Torah stay in heaven.' God asked them: 'What does it matter to you?' They responded: 'Perhaps tomorrow You will cause the Shechinah [Your divine presence] to dwell in the world [together with Your beloved Torah, leaving the heavens without the divine presence].' God said to them: 'I intend to give My Torah to those who dwell in the world, but I shall continue to dwell in the heavens. I intend to give my daughter [the Torah] with her ketubah - her wedding contract [Israel's guarantee to observe the Torah] - to someone in another country [the children of Israel who dwell in the world] so that she [the Torah] will be honored together with her husband [the children of Israel] for her beauty and for her loveliness, for she is the king?' daughter and they will honor her [for this reason], but I [God] will continue to dwell with you in the heavens.' Who explained this? The prophet Habbakuk, as it is written: 'His [God's] glory remained in the heavens, but His praise [the Torah] filled the earth' (Habbakuk 3:3)

The transformed interpretation of this verse provides the impetus for this midrash to express an important message for Shavuot. The Torah, God's most precious possession, is His gift to us so that we constantly share His presence. Our commitment to a life of Torah is the greatest gift that we can give God in return.

The key to the book, for Jewish interpreters, lies in the last few verses of the third chapter. Although alarmed at G-d's coming to deal out judgement, Habbakuk is full of confidence in the ultimate salvation of Israel. In contrast to prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who dwelt on the sins of their people, Habbakuk directs his attack upon the sins of the oppressor, contrasted with which the backslidings of Israel, however deplorable, pale into comparative insignificance. The Book of Habbakuk has been described by one of the foremost Bible scholars as a 'lyric ode which, for sublimity of poetic conception and splendour of diction, ranks with the finest which Hebrew poetry has produced.'(S R Driver). Notable throughout is the prophet?s sense of humanity. The Chaldeans are condemned for their cruelty not only towards Israel but towards their other victims. In the words of the late Rabbi Dr Lehrman,   'Habbakuk's ringing statement that the righteous shall live by his faith constitutes a challenge to all future generations, the force of which is unanswerable. It serves as a beacon from which love, faith and justice stream as much today as when the message was first uttered.' If we view the book in this context, we can see that it truly parallels in concept that ringing de4claration of faith uttered by Habbakuk's (and our) forebears at Sinai, 'Naaseh venishma: we will do and then we will listen'. In other words, we will place our faith ahead of our reason. Perhaps now, in the light of these ideas, we can better understand the wisdom of choosing this book and this song as the Haftara for Shavuot.

Neville Nagler        Shavuot 2006