Habakkuk’s Lament

It’s only three chapters long, but the prophecy of Habakkuk packs a decent punch.

It helps, before diving into some of the gems in this book, to repeat a point made throughout this blog — if you read the Bible with pre-set assumptions, or filtered lenses, you will lose sight of what it is saying. As explained recently, in the essay Circling Back to the Text, we can easily overlook, since our assumptions prevent us from looking any deeper, that the fact Uriah is a Hittite is earth-shattering and damning to the Davidic saga. You can only “see” this if you study the text long enough to recognize the connections the authors make for us.

Because of centuries of theological training, it became the norm for people to see the prophets as people “predicting” the future, be it the coming of the Messiah or world events. Lost in this view was a more basic human concern, such as taking up a complaint with God for all the pain and injustices in the world. We tend to overlook this aspect of the prophets, but the prophets are filled with their own very real complaints about how God does things. And they want answers.

Habakkuk is a good place to look at how the authors of Scripture address human complaints against God and what they learn, and we from them, in this process of challenging God. The Book of Habakkuk is essentially the questions of a human being for why the vulnerable suffer in war.

The Complaint

Habakukk’s lament is expressed in the opening verses:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me, strife and contention arise” (1. 2-3)

Habakukk is expressing the position of being part of a people who are on the receiving end of a war, and with the violence he observes (“destruction and violence are before me”), he is calling on the Lord to answer for this. But the response, far from being an exercise in hand holding, seems to add fuel to the fire. In his retort, the Lord is admittedly proud of raising up foreign armies to punish the disobedient and wayward nations (vv. 6 – 11), including Habakkuk’s!

The Lord’s response in verses 6-11 gives the reader the impression that God relishes war. Not satisfied at all with this reply, Habakkuk continues:

“I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint” (2.1). In other words, I won’t leave from here until he gives me a decent reply.

In chapter two, verse 2, the Lord responds. What is important here is that we, along with Habakkuk, are learning that the prophet’s original question was myopic.

In his extended response in chapter two, the Lord expresses that his concern is for all the earth (2.8), something absent from Habakkuk’s original complaint: “destruction and violence are before me” (1.2). The key verse in the Lord’s response is 2.4: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”

Where are these righteous found? All over the earth (2.14).

The Lord has to teach Habakkuk to enlarge his concern. Noble as it is to lament the violence against our own people, or people like us, the Lord is educating the prophet to also be concerned about the violence against people over the face of all the earth. In other words, compassion is not ethnic, national, or geographical.

After a lengthy song of praise, the prophecy ends with the words, “God, the Lord, is my strength” (3. 19). The only hope for strength is trust in the Lord. Strength is not the number of chariots or the size of the treasury of a state.

In three short chapters, Habakkuk learns that the Lord is not a God who relishes violence. At the same time, he learns also that a human being’s concern must be for all those suffering on the earth. Human compassion must mirror that of God’s.

Poets and Canons

I recently purchased a copy of the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (translated and edited by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche, with Sinan Antoon and Amira El-Zein; UC Press, 2013; Kindle Edition). This is a collection of poems of mourning and his coming to terms with the loss of his ancestral homeland.

By no means am I a reader of poetry; but even a cursory, “first impressions” reading of the first series of poems shows how it is the author who creates a literary canon, and not the reader. What we call “canon” is simply the collection of writings by an author (or school of authors) bound by inter-textual linkages the author(s) creates intentionally.

Briefly, the first four poems in the series are: I Will Slog Over This Road; Another Road in the Road; Were It Up To Me To Begin Again; and, On This Earth.

Th first poem introduces a word or phrase that will then become the main theme of the following poem. For example, in I Will Slog Over This Road, Darwish says: “On the roof of neighing, I will cut thirty openings for meaning.”

The “neighing” (of horses) then becomes the center theme of the next poem, “Another Road in the Road.” He says, “No widow wants to return to us, there we have to go, north of the neighing horses.”

This poem then introduces the image of the rose, “I will have to throw many roses before I reach a rose in Galilee.”

In “Were It Up to Me to Begin Again,” the poet continues with the image of a rose: “”Were it up to me to begin again, I would make the same choice. Roses on the fence.” Later, he introduces the theme of love, and family:

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April’s hesitation, the aroma of bread at dawn, a woman’s point of view about men, the works of Aeschylus, the beginning of love, grass on a stone, mothers living on a flute’s sigh and the invaders’ fear of memories

In other words, the sights, smells, and memories of home and family life.

This then becomes the basis for the next poem, I Belong There.

This is an example of inter-textuality, and how only a writer can create it, never a consumer.

So, it is the author, in accomplished and serious literature, who set the tone and creates the canon. The readers are left to enjoy, study, learn, and grow from what is written. The Scriptures, then, are the literary gem of a school of writers who worked together and created an interwoven narrative across the entire story, for all ages.

Consult the Book of Armaments!

In the history of biblical interpretation, for a very long time there were two “schools” of thought on the matter. These views were named after the cities where this kind of early research, if you will, was concentrated, namely Antioch and Alexandria.

The group in Antioch took a kind of “matter of fact” view, that the Bible should be read “as is,” without a tendency to speculate about deeper meanings. This school of bible study also led to some dedicated attempts to understand the languages of the Bible (i.e., Lucian of Antioch).

The speculative aspect is what the group out of Alexandra, Egypt did, which made sense since they were disciples of neo-Platonism, and speculation is the name of the game with philosophy. So, under this scenario, the Bible has a plain meaning, but also deeper “spiritual” meanings that spiritual people can unlock. For example, the crossing of the Red Sea is a metaphor for knowing God.

Of course, either system also has its extremes. The Antiochian school can tend towards fundamentalism, while the Alexandrian tends towards mysticism and guru-like devotion (“tell me, Master, what does it mean?!”).

With all the ink spilled in battles over which way is the best of reading the Bible, have you ever wondered if there is, well, a clearly wrong way of reading the Bible? I present to you this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Behold, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch!

Was this a comedic critique of how the Middle Ages used the Scriptures (“Consult the Book of Armaments!”) or how we do it today?

More importantly, what does this scene also say about how we use the Bible as a justification to wage war on our enemies? That is, when the Bible is a weapon itself. What does this say about how we engage in false piety? The king lowered his head as the reading took place from “the Book of Armaments,” heard the directions, and still counted wrong (i.e., he was not listening).

And of this focus on seeing the Bible as a handbook for war, or as a text that needs to be “consulted.” Yes, the Bible (especially the Old Testament) is filled with battles, and presents the hearers with God as Warrior and record title holder. But the purpose of all those scenes is to tire out even the most die-hard warrior, and to show how war is ultimately a futile act. Better the silence of the cave at Horeb than the tumult of battlefield victory (1 Kings 18-19).

The other aspect of “how not to” involves the tendency to use the Bible as a generic handbook or manual. Chapters and verses become verbal weapons in our arguments with ideological Philistines. This mindset has even penetrated to the popular level, as people “see,” especially in end-times books like Revelation, which country represents which enemy of God.

How did we get here? Well, only a modern industrialized society, used to putting things together (like a new cabinet or TV stand), could have created the “Bible as Manual for Living” school of popular Bible studies. In this way of reading, the Bible becomes no different than a map for “making it to heaven.”

If we want to see the Bible for what it “really is,” and listen to what it actually says, then we need to pay attention to how we are hearing and reading it. Begin with the “how” over the “what.” The Bible has its own field of vision. We are to see what “it” sees. And that begins by foregoing the inclination to think we control the text. You can do it! It’s not too late!

The Literary Topography of the Bible

One of the ways of helping to understand the Bible, especially what is called the Old Testament, is to appreciate what I call its literary topography.

Topography is the science of the layout of the land, so to speak. It’s not just geographical boundaries, or hills, mountains, rivers, and valleys; it is also about human additions. (As an aside, it’s a fun field of study.)

In the Bible, the Old Testament story takes place in a geographic space that extends from Egypt to present day Saudi Arabia and Oman. The literary topography of this area is such that the entire Old Testament narrative takes place there. It is a large area, and in Scripture, this area is a microcosm of the entire world.

In the Book of Jeremiah, we have a detailed description of this place, which is identified as “the nations.” You can find it in Jeremiah 25: 17 – 26. Many of the ancient nations of what we call today’s Middle East are there, with their biblical names — e.g., Egypt, Uz, Babylon.

This area, where the entire narrative beginning with Genesis takes place, functions as the entire planet. It is as if one had a lens and examined this place, along with the human behaviors there. Move the lens to a different part of the globe, and the story is the same.

The literary topography of the Bible, then, is not a historical marker in that we are simply recounting names and places. Its value is that the story we read is a story of us as well.

In the next post, we will look at why you and I cannot change the names and places to make them more contemporary. That is, we will look at why the primary field of vision in this field of activity is the one the Bible gives to us.

Whose Story Is It?

One of the recurring themes of the Scriptures is a tension between what is called the will of man and the will of God. The former is also called the will according to the flesh.

There are many examples of what this entails in the Bible, from the Garden narrative to the decision of Sarah for Abraham to father a child through Hagar. God promises Abraham, who has no heir, that he will be the father of many nations, so Sarah (who is advanced in age) concocts a plan to make him a father on her own terms. She encourages Abraham to father a child through her slave girl Hagar, and in this way, the human being would move God’s plan along (Genesis 16). A child named Ishmael is born.

But God fulfills His promise to Abraham according to His plan. Sarah gives birth to a boy named Isaac. He is a miracle child. The sad state of affairs is that out of jealousy Sarah later has Hagar and her (and Abraham’s biological) son Ishmael exiled, enacting horrible abuse towards other human beings who were actually part of the same household. While not the child of promise, Ishmael is still part of Abraham’s household. Now, he becomes homeless.

The will of man in Scripture is not just a case of willful disobedience; it is more along the lines of “I know better, so we’ll do it this way.” Or, “I know better than God,” “Here, Lord, let me help.”

We see these examples in the larger narrative of Scripture (e.g., Israel ends up in Egypt for over four hundred years because of Jacob’s willfulness), but this tension between God’s will and the human will in the Bible stories also happens directly between the text and us.

An example of this is Luke 1 and what happens to Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist.

In the narrative, Zachariah encounters the angel Gabriel as he, Zachariah, is serving in the Temple. He is told by Gabriel that Elizabeth, who is Zachariah’s wife, will conceive and give birth to a son named John, and that this child will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (v. 17).

However, because Zachariah doubted the angel’s words, Gabriel makes him mute until the time the child is to be born (v. 20). Considering Elizabeth’s age, the birth of John is a miracle.

It is here where questions should arise. After all, why mute Zachariah when a miracle has happened? If it were up to us, would we not have announced this miracle for everyone to know?

We would have had the story go differently. If it were up to us. If it were up to us, Gabriel would have told Zachariah to announce the miracle, so people could believe. If it were up to us, sure, we would say, Zachariah might have made a mistake in not believing the angel, but he should have been given a pass. If it were up to us.

But it’s not our story. So it is not up to us.

One of the hardest aspects of reading or hearing the Scriptures is that we say, “well, I would have done it differently.” Or, we contort the actual story to fit a prearranged box of truths we have set up to read the Bible, kind of like having Bible Cliff Notes*. Because we are not reading it with an open mind, we miss the tension in the stories.

*These are books that summarize the major points or plot sequences, themes, and character traits found in a work of literature. If you buy and read the Cliff Notes, you can, in theory, write a serious sounding paper or test answer — without ever having read Steinbeck or struggled with The Grapes of Wrath. But the Cliff Notes miss the emotive aspect of a story.

In the same way, to the question as to why Gabriel muted Zachariah, it is because, for Luke, this is the will of God. It is His story, and this is how He chooses to tell it. Not everything that is of God needs to be publicized.

Instead of just a retelling of the birth of the Baptist, this event now becomes an opportunity for us to reflect on how our efforts as humans may not always advance the Kingdom.