Saturday, May 20, 2023

Mining the Minors: Habakkuk (6)

Our sloppy, modern online English dictionaries define an apocalypse as some version of a Jewish or Christian end-of-world scenario described in words. That popular usage is close enough for our purposes.

You can read this next portion of Habakkuk a number of ways. It is called a “prayer” (or more likely a “psalm” — psalms are usually prayers anyway), but it is also pretty clearly the substance of the “oracle” the prophet says he saw in 1:1. Everything else in the book could easily have been revealed to Habakkuk by the Lord verbally, and probably was; the earlier portions scan best as a dialogue or an argument rather than as a vision.

This chapter, on the other hand, is an optical feast. You would need a top notch Hollywood special effects crew or a lot of CGI to make it happen convincingly onscreen.

According to Shigionoth

This portion of the book was intended to be sung or recited by the faithful over the ensuing centuries. The words “according to Shigionoth” suggest some kind of musical arrangement (a “rambling poem” or song, to quote Strong’s, as in Psalm 7, where a variant of the word is also used), and the final verse addresses “the choirmaster: with stringed instruments”.

Strictly speaking, the early verses of this chapter do not address the question Habakkuk posed in 1:1-4 and more or less reiterated in 1:12-17 concerning injustice, and why God uses bad men to discipline better men. They do not have anything obvious to do with Babylon or its fate. They are simply a revelation of the glory of God coming to earth in his wrath. I read it as an apocalypse, and that is an answer of sorts in itself.

That said, some folks don’t think so. Ready for a deep dive into the wacky findings of OT scholarship? Let’s have some fun with chapter 3.

A Stand-Alone Psalm Repurposed?

As I pointed out in earlier posts, there is considerable evidence that verses 2-15 of chapter 3 were once some kind of stand-alone psalm that may have already existed as early as 1,000 BC, and with which Habakkuk’s audience may have been familiar. That claim initially seems at odds with 3:1, which declares this passage to be “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet”, placing the version we have here within the lifetime of Habakkuk. The key is in my words “the version we have here”. There is no reason whatsoever that the prophet could not have rewritten existing material to convey his specific purpose in his own day.

We can find plenty of instances of this sort of thing in- and outside of scripture. Numerous New Testament passages repurpose Old Testament texts with which their audiences were extremely familiar in ways that, to a Western, literal mindset, simply do not add up if we try to process them as direct quotations. They are too far off the mark for that. A classic example is Paul’s rewriting of the text of Deuteronomy in Romans 10. He is using a familiar OT structure to communicate new, relevant truth. He is not, strictly speaking, quoting the Old Testament (not even the Septuagint version), but actually writing new scripture in a recognizable style. Even the secular world is currently rewriting and re-editing all kinds of classics to bring them into conformity with the current PC narrative, so the concept should not be unfamiliar to us.

This sort of thing happens whether or not we are comfortable with it. And if God wants to do it, why wouldn’t we be okay with it?

So What Was Habakkuk Up To?

I believe there’s a good chance Habakkuk was doing something similar here with an older piece of poetry (perhaps even theologically correcting a Canaanite hymn to other gods), so that the structure and familiar tropes would resonate with his audience. However, by changing a few words and sentences, he has recast the entire original piece as an apocalypse of YHWH.

So let’s look at the text first, as translated by the ESV team. The English version below is a solid, modern attempt to make sense of a number of words in this hymn that create all kinds of issues, theological and otherwise, since they seem to refer to Canaanite gods and come from a much earlier time than the period in which Habakkuk appears to have been written. The obvious solution for the orthodox Christian translators is to minimize the apparent references to false gods by using generic nouns and verbs for their names wherever they are legitimate possibilities, effectively masking the weirdness of the passage.

I give them full credit, it’s pretty well buried in their rendering.

Habakkuk 3:1-15 — Habakkuk’s Apocalypse?

In the ESV

Standard ESV reading of the first fifteen verses of Habakkuk 3, not wildly dissimilar to most modern translations:

“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.

‘O Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy. God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah

His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power. Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels. He stood and measured the earth; he looked and shook the nations; then the eternal mountains were scattered; the everlasting hills sank low. His were the everlasting ways. I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord? Was your anger against the rivers, or your indignation against the sea, when you rode on your horses, on your chariot of salvation? You stripped the sheath from your bow, calling for many arrows. Selah

You split the earth with rivers. The mountains saw you and writhed; the raging waters swept on; the deep gave forth its voice; it lifted its hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear. You marched through the earth in fury; you threshed the nations in anger. You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed. You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from thigh to neck. Selah

You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors, who came like a whirlwind to scatter me, rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret. You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters.’ ”

Orthodox enough, if a little scary and apocalyptic.

The Tabick Translation

Now check out this version of verses 2-15, translated by Jeremy Tabick, with anything for which there is even the most tenuous Hebrew basis to consider a proper name of a divine being directly transliterated instead of turned into generic nouns and verbs:

“YHVH, I have heard your report, YHVH, I fear your deed; with the approach of Shanim — let him live! — With the approach of Shanim, proclaim! In the shaking of the womb, remember! A god will come from Teiman, a holy one from Mount Paran. (Selah)

His majesty covers Shamayim, his glory fills Eretz, Nogah will be like light — he has horns from his hand — there is Hevyon, his strength. As his vanguard walks Dever, as his footman goes Reshef. He stands — Eretz shakes! He looks — Goyim tremble! Ancient mountains are shattered, Eternal hills sink low, eternal pathways are surely crushed. I see the tents of Cushan — they shake! — the pavilions of the land of Midian. Is it with Neharim that YHVH burns? Is your anger with Neharim? Is your fury with Yam? Because you ride on your horse, your chariot of victory. You awake your bow, the shafts of speaking are sworn. (Selah)

[With] rivers you split Eretz. Harim sees you and writhes! Pouring Mayim floods, T’hom raises his voice. Shemesh lifts up his hands, Yareiah stands on high. To Or your arrows go! To Nogah your spear flashes! In rage, you tread Eretz, In anger, you trample Goyim. You go forth to save your people, to save your anointed. You strike the head of the wicked house, make bare from foundation to neck. (Selah)

You pierce by his shafts the head of his warriors. They storm in order to scatter me. He causes exaltation. You bring them low because of the devouring of the poor in secret. You tread Yam with your horses, Mayim Rabim foams.”

Whoa, Nelly! Let’s stop and process this lot.

Divine Beings Other Than YHWH

First, the references to various would-be deities (or “demons”, as some scholars have them) beyond the double reference to YHWH in verse 2 are definitely there in the text. There’s way, way too many of these for it to be accidental, and way too many scholars who see them there. (I count thirteen, discarding a few of Tabick’s as legitimately generic rather than intentionally referential, but that’s more than enough to agree with Jeremy Tabick and others about the general trend.) Tabick’s essay on the subject references all kinds of work done by other scholars on the passage. He’s not an outlier, and he doesn’t seem to have any kind of evil, secularist agenda, though he is probably not a believer. I disagree with a bunch of his conclusions about the passage (for example, that it may be a polytheistic psalm), but only because I have different ways of explaining the passage than he does.

Tabick does not claim the version above is the most likely “correct” translation of the passage (the transliterations make it all but unreadable), but simply that it covers every possible intended reference in the passage to divine beings other than YHWH. He admits some, like shamayim and eretz [“heaven” and “earth”] are stretches, and that a generic reading is probably better in these cases.

But even if all these apparent references to other gods are better translated generically rather than as proper names, we would have to concede that at the very least they are deliberate Hebrew puns. It’s impossible to do this sort of thing accidentally. The writer has some purpose here that a generic translation does not make obvious, and being aware of this may help us understand what Habakkuk is trying to say on a deeper level than is immediately apparent to the English reader.

Let’s look at that in greater detail tomorrow, because who can wait for next week? Not me.

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