Havakuk

The book of Havakuk contains essentially no information about its author, other than his being a prophet.  Even the meaning of the prophet’s name is questionable.  Some argue that it is related to the Hebrew word meaning “to embrace”, while others argue it is an Akkadian name referring to a fragrant flower.  Either way, the book consists of two parts:  first, a Q&A session with HaShem about the Chaldean (Babylonian) Conquest, and second (in the third chapter) a song attributed to Havakuk.  While English translations imply the poem was taken down by someone named Shigionot (3:1),  that verse refers to Havakuk’s impassioned state of mind when he wrote the poem and is not the name of a person.

Because Havakuk refers so specifically to the Chaldean Conquest–first to impending invasion, and then to the Chaldean’s taking of captives into exile (like fish caught in a net)–he is believed to be roughly contemporary with Yeremyahu (Jeremiah), who also prophesied conquest and recorded his observations and experiences of it.  I would argue, however, that Havakuk is more closely contemporary with Yeshaiyahu (Isaiah).  Whereas Yeremyahu assures us that the time of judgment is at hand, Havakuk says the “appointed time” is still a little ways off:

And the Lord answered me:

“Write the vision;
    make it plain on tablets,
    so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
    it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
    it will surely come; it will not delay.

Nonetheless, he was writing for the people of his own time, not the distant future.  Havakuk’s use of specifics (Chaldea, the conquest of Lebanon) and the urgency of his writing indicate that the events he describes are very near to his own time.  He is clearly after the time of Yoel, whose work he also seems to reference, and after the early parts of Yeshaiyahu.

Note the passage “make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.”  Havakuk here not only indicates the urgency of his message, but that what he is writing is simple to understand.  This is an “emergency transmission” that must be easily understood.  He is not writing in difficult metaphors about the obscure. Indeed, he is writing about something immediately and urgently relevant to his own time that may be understood by its plain meaning.   In this regard, Havakuk harkens back to the words of Devarim (Deuteronomy) 30:12-14:

It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend into the sky for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

Havakuk frequently employs imagery also used by Yeshaiyahu.  For example, Yeshaiyahu describes waiting for the fall of Babylon, made inevitable by Chaldea’s brutality to the nations it invaded (21:6-9):

For thus the Lord said to me:
“Go, set a watchman;
    let him announce what he sees.
When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs,
    riders on donkeys, riders on camels,
let him listen diligently,
    very diligently.”
Then he who saw cried out:
“Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord,
    continually by day,
and at my post I am stationed
    whole nights.
And behold, here come riders,
    horsemen in pairs!”
And he answered,
    “Fallen, fallen is Babylon;
and all the carved images of her gods
    he has shattered to the ground.”

Before Babylon can fall, though, history must witness HaShem’s punishment of his people.  Therefore Havakuk turns the imagery around (1:8-9 and 2:1):

Their horses are swifter than leopards,
    more fierce than the evening wolves;
    their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
    they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
They all come for violence,
    all their faces forward.
    They gather captives like sand.

and

I will take my stand at my watchpost
    and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
    and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

Havakuk’s description of the horses is also reminiscent of the metaphor used by Yoel comparing the horses and siege forces of the Chaldeans to a wildfire (2:3-9):

Fire devours before them,
    and behind them a flame burns.
The land is like the garden of Eden before them,
    but behind them a desolate wilderness,
    and nothing escapes them.

Their appearance is like the appearance of horses,
    and like war horses they run.
As with the rumbling of chariots,
    they leap on the tops of the mountains,
like the crackling of a flame of fire
    devouring the stubble,
like a powerful army
    drawn up for battle.
Before them peoples are in anguish;
    all faces grow pale.
Like warriors they charge;
    like soldiers they scale the wall.
They march each on his way;
    they do not swerve from their paths.
They do not jostle one another;
    each marches in his path;
they burst through the weapons
    and are not halted.
They leap upon the city,
    they run upon the walls,
they climb up into the houses,
    they enter through the windows like a thief.

Here’s another point of comparison.  Yeremyahu appears to refer back to Havakuk’s description of HaShem’s condemnation of Chaldea’s bloodlust while acknowledging that Chaldean success is due to HaShem choosing them as an instrument of His wrath.  Compare Hakakuk 2:15-17:

“Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—
    you pour out your wrath and make them drunk,
    in order to gaze at their nakedness!
You will have your fill of shame instead of glory.
    Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision!
The cup in the Lord‘s right hand
    will come around to you,
    and utter shame will come upon your glory!
The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you,
    as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them,
for the blood of man and violence to the earth,
    to cities and all who dwell in them.

With Yeremyahu 51:7-8:

Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord‘s hand,
    making all the earth drunken;
the nations drank of her wine;
    therefore the nations went mad.
Suddenly Babylon has fallen and been broken;
    wail for her!
Take balm for her pain;
    perhaps she may be healed. 

We have in these two comparisons (Havakuk to Yeshaiyahu and Havakuk to Yeremyahu) circumstantial evidence placing Havakuk between the other two in time.

Havakuk and Yeremyahu’s use of drunkenness as a metaphor for conquest mixed with hubris also seems to be a reference to Mishle (Proverbs) 23:20-21, suggesting that Mishle does in fact predate the canonical prophets:

Be not among drunkards
    or among gluttonous eaters of meat,
for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty,
    and slumber will clothe them with rags.

When it comes to idolatry, Havakuk (2:18-20) also reflects Yeshaiyahu (44:14-17):

“What profit is an idol
    when its maker has shaped it,
    a metal image, a teacher of lies?
For its maker trusts in his own creation
    when he makes speechless idols!
Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake;
    to a silent stone, Arise!
Can this teach?
Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver,
    and there is no breath at all in it.
But the Lord is in his holy temple;
    let all the earth keep silence before him.”

 Versus

He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” 

Then Yeremyahu expands on Havakuk’s rendition of the theme (2:26-28):

“As a thief is shamed when caught,
    so the house of Israel shall be shamed:
they, their kings, their officials,
    their priests, and their prophets,
who say to a tree, ‘You are my father,’
    and to a stone, ‘You gave me birth.’
For they have turned their back to me,
    and not their face.
But in the time of their trouble they say,
    ‘Arise and save us!’
But where are your gods
    that you made for yourself?
Let them arise, if they can save you,
    in your time of trouble;
for as many as your cities
    are your gods, O Judah.

Overall, Havakuk contributes little new material, but provides a sense of continuity, connecting various points in the narrative outlined by the other prophets.  As with the others, he refers specifically to events in his present or near future.  The song recorded in chapter three does not contain prophetic material, but is beautiful and impassioned–an excellent example of Israelite liturgical poetry.


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