If the ancient world had had the equivalent of a spelling bee, the name ‘Habakkuk’ would have been one of the trickiest questions. It is quite unlike any other biblical personal name; the Greek translators came up with ‘Ambaqoum’, and one might suppose that it is of little importance.
What do we know of the book? Habakkuk is the eighth of a group of twelve books commonly called the Minor Prophets. Usually they have been treated as distinct collections, dating from the 8th to the 5th or 4th centuries BCE; some recent scholars have argued that it is right to see ‘the Twelve’ as one book, drawing out particular themes or literary links. But this approach has not yielded much new insight into Habakkuk and it will be best to start from the more traditional understanding.
It is noteworthy from the first verse that the book is set out in terms of a vision which Habakkuk saw. Most of the prophetic collections are introduced in terms of words being spoken; there is little in the body of the book which would suggest that this difference of expression is itself significant.
Our usual image of a biblical prophet is of a man (there were female prophets, but they rarely received editorial approval) sent by God to condemn some particular human wickedness. There are passages in Habakkuk of this kind, particularly in chapter 2, but much more prominent is the dialogue in chapter 1 between God and the prophet, in which the power of the enemy, envisaged as carrying out God’s commands, is described. The Dead Sea scroll has kittim here, suggesting a reference to the impending Roman conquest of Palestine; and this should warn us that many biblical texts down the ages have been applied to whatever commentators regarded as the appropriate contemporary interpretations, rather than being required to seek out an ‘original’ meaning.
It is at once clear, from the sub-heading at 3:1, that chapter 3 stands somewhat apart from what has preceded, and it has often been argued that it is a later addition. This view was strengthened by the fact that the Qumran text contained only the first two chapters. On the other hand there are early texts (e.g., Septuagint) which do include chapter 3, and in any case we know very little of the process by which the prophetic books reached their final shape. A final decision on this is therefore not possible.
Date and authorship
Despite the interest shown in Habakkuk as an individual in ‘Bel and the Dragon’ and the fact that various medieval sculptures claim to represent him, we know nothing of him, his background or other distinctive features, and even in the period of modern scholarship when the ‘personalities’ of figures in the Hebrew Bible provided a main focus of interest Habakkuk was largely ignored. It is only through the book that we can deepen our knowledge.
The reference to ‘the Chaldeans’ (kasdim) at 1:6 has usually been taken to imply that Habakkuk was active at the time of the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadrezzar and should be dated in the 7th or 6th century BCE; this may indeed be so, though there is little in what follows to strengthen that view, and it is not universally agreed that the reference is indeed to the Babylonians; a variety of corrections has been proposed. Much more likely is the suggestion that much of the material (whatever its origins) was re-applied in the changing circumstances of the people’s experience.
With so little background to work on one way to explore Habakkuk is to see him as a man of God who feels trapped, caught between contemporary evil and corruption and faith in a God who seems to do nothing about it. Like many before and since he asks, ‘Where is God . . . and what is he doing?’ Prayer brings no satisfaction. All possible explanations seem only to leave him with greater problems. All he hears is a word telling him to ‘wait’, so he uses his waiting time creatively (Positive Waiting) until one day, worshipping in the temple, it dawns on him that no answer is going to come in the form in which he is looking for it. Only then does he receive the reassurance he is hoping for.
There is one verse which has been much discussed. Habakkuk 2:2 has commonly been understood to imply that YHWH’s message is so clear that even someone running by could still read it. That may be so, but it is also possible to understand it as implying that anyone reading the message will be impelled to run and spread the news as quickly and widely as possible. Both understandings lend themselves very readily to later, edifying interpretations which they have received in poems and hymns. But perhaps the verse really means that a runner, a messenger, is to go round reading out the message.
The—admittedly scattered—evidence from the turn of the eras suggests that the collection gathered under this name was highly regarded.
‘Bel and the Dragon’, an addition to the book of Daniel found in the Apocrypha, picks out Habakkuk as the one destined to help Daniel after his adventure in the lions’ den. One of the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at Qumran was a commentary on Habakkuk 1–2. And most important of all for later history: the apostle Paul, in his epistles to the Romans and Galatians, uses a text from Habakkuk 2:4, as the basis of his teaching concerning justification. (The same theme is found also in the Epistle to the Hebrews 10:38 [not by Paul], which suggests that Habakkuk was influential at the time of the New Testament.) It proved to be crucial for Martin Luther in the 16th century CE, and has been prominent in inter-church disputes ever since.