Sunday, May 21, 2023

Mining the Minors: Habakkuk (7)

As we discovered in yesterday’s discussion of Habakkuk 3, there are (at least) two legitimate ways to read verses 2 through 15.

The “surface” level is obvious in most of our English Bibles, and for most Christians is a perfectly sufficient, useful way to interpret the text: as an affirmation of God’s ability to dominate and control the natural world and the nations he made, even destroying them at will. The mountains, rivers, seas and empires of the world look impressive to human beings, who come and go like the grass of the field, but they are nothing to the Almighty. YHWH rules over all. Watching him dominate the natural world in this passage reads like an apocalypse. He is astoundingly powerful.

Those who interpret the passage on this level get a good meal out of it. The way they read it is entirely sound. But there is a second level to the passage, as Hebrew scholar Jeremy Tabick points out. This “second level” is concerned with the personal, spiritual forces behind the natural world and the empires and nations that inhabit it.

Christians and the Supernatural

Now, some Christians are uncomfortable with too much of the supernatural world cropping up in their Bibles. For these, I would say don’t worry too much about it. As long as you are not outright denying the existence of the “cosmic powers over this present darkness” or the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” that Paul refers to in Ephesians, your lack of interest in exploring what scripture says about them will probably not greatly affect your Christian walk or your ultimate reward. If, for instance, you are inclined to understand references to the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1-4 and elsewhere in the OT as denoting the godly human line of Seth, Adam’s son, then what follows here is probably not your cup of tea, and that’s fine too.

On the other hand, if you understand the “sons of God” as powerful spirit beings granted authority over the nations of the world by the Almighty, as 'ĕlōhîm — members of the divine council Asaph talks about in Psalm 82 — then you will have no difficulty with this second level of interpretation in Habakkuk 3.

In fact, you might have a better idea what the second level of Habakkuk 3 implies and how to understand it than the scholars who discovered it and wrote about it.

Tabick Gets Confused

Poor Jeremy Tabick. His essay on Habakkuk 3 is entitled “A Polytheistic Psalm?” If you cannot read it in its entirety at the link from Scribd I’ve supplied and want to, email me and I will send you the PDF. It’s a useful analysis of the passage from the point of view of a man who understands a great deal about it in a technical sense without having all the biblical pieces of the puzzle in place to properly analyze it.

Like many other Bible scholars and theologians, I’m not sure whether Tabick’s interest is personal and spiritual, or merely intellectual. Certainly, his early dating of verses 2-15 (around 1000 BC or thereabouts) leads me to wonder about his views on the inspiration of scripture. He’s a Jew with a PhD in Talmud, so he’s bound to come at the passage from a different point of view than you or me, and I disagree with many of his conclusions about it. Still, “A Polytheistic Psalm?” is an extremely helpful piece in analyzing Habakkuk 3 from a Christian perspective, and definitely from the perspective of a divine council worldview (DCW for short).

The Divine Council Worldview

The DCW was popularized among Christians by the late Michael Heiser, whose work I have written about here, here, here and here. Benjamin Noonan describes it as follows:

“Heiser’s theology of the unseen world is founded on the premise that God presides over a council of lesser divine beings (cf. Ps 82). The members of this ‘divine council’ accomplish God’s purposes in the supernatural realm, therefore functioning as the heavenly counterpart of humanity on earth. Although he refers to these divine beings as ‘gods’ (elohim in Hebrew), Heiser rejects the notion that God is subordinate or co-equal with them in the polytheistic sense and instead contends that ‘there is no warrant for concluding that plural elohim produces a pantheon of interchangeable deities’.”

Heiser believes Genesis 6:1-4 and other scriptures describe the rebellion of some of these divine council members. Being spirit doesn’t make you spiritual in any sense that matters.

We need not get into all that at any great length. From a Christian perspective, all we really need to know is that when Paul talks about “cosmic powers over this present darkness”, this group of spirit beings exercising divinely-granted authority over the nations are probably near the top of the list. The divine council worldview looks at Bible history as a series of moves and counter-moves between YHWH and those members of the divine council who stand in opposition to him using groups of (willing) human beings as their proxies on this planet. YHWH first chose the nation of Israel to represent his interests on earth, and later the church. The members of his divine council rule over the nations of the world whose interests may be either for or against God’s interests at any given moment in time.

Ah, Polytheism!

Yesterday’s post compared the ESV translation of Habakkuk 3:2-15 with Tabick’s own retranslation, which takes all the proper nouns that might be the names of ancient deities and plugs them in for the generic nouns we find in the ESV (“earth”, “heavens”, “water”, “horns”, etc.) as direct transliterations. It can easily be seen that both translations “work”, in the sense that they are coherent and describe lines of biblical truth related to the glory of God. Jeremy Tabick has obviously never encountered the OT or NT scriptures that point toward a divine council worldview, so when he encounters the names of Ugarit “deities” in Habakkuk 3, he immediately thinks “Ah, polytheism!” That is not where my mind goes. However, Tabick’s retranslation also has the virtue of bringing out the personal spiritual intelligences behind the forces of nature and the workings of the political world, and he doesn’t quite know what to make of them.

Christians with a DCW view of scripture do. We see the passage as a description of YHWH’s supremacy in comparison with all other beings our world might erroneously view as gods; as something akin to an early draft of the book of Hebrews, which spells out this truth more explicitly. Is the Son superior to angels? You betcha.

Habakkuk 3:1-15 — Habakkuk’s Apocalypse? (continued)

Back to Habakkuk. So then, what is this mini-psalm in the middle of his prophecy about? As I suggested in yesterday’s post, it’s quite possible this is a rewritten, repurposed independent earlier work which Habakkuk includes in order to correct errant, polytheistic thinking and paint an accurate portrait of the God who will allow Babylon to overwhelm his own people, but only for a short time, as the rest of Habakkuk’s prophecy reveals. The gods of Babylon will also come face to face with YHWH, and will find themselves subject to his righteous judgments.

Tabick on Habakkuk 3

Jeremy Tabick has his own thoughts. He puts forward three suggestions offered by other scholars as interpretations of the passage:

“1. As a description of the theophany at Mount Sinai (Rashi and other traditional Jewish commentators);

2. As referring only to the combat myth, and associating this with smiting the Babylonians in the present day (Roberts); and

3. As a vision of the end-times (Del Olmo Lete).”

Tabick quickly dismisses the first two possibilities: “After all, there is no mention of Sinai or the giving of law in the psalm” and “Clearly we are not dealing with the combat myth, we are dealing with a case that looks like it from an observer’s perspective, but in fact is not it.” He is also not entirely happy with the third: “There is no sense of the ‘Day of the Lord’ in the psalm that would prepare you for eschatological themes.” So he proposes a solution of his own:

“It seems to me, then, that the best interpretation of Habakkuk 3 is that it’s a hymn commemorating YHVH’s ascension to the chief god of Judah.”

He goes on to give evidence for his opinion, but the best he can do is to look at the psalm as an ancient struggle between gods that results in the ascension of a God to the top of the pantheon, which Habakkuk then adapts to his own purposes to describe YHWH’s eventual triumph over Babylon. Tabick’s conclusion is as follows:

“If this interpretation were correct, it would be a very exciting discovery, of an extremely ancient text, predating Judahite monolatry, that survived until the end of the 7th century BCE and was incorporated into the Bible post-exile with very few changes, only a few garbled verses.”

In short, a polytheistic interpretation.

A Christian Modification

Can the Christian (or even a monotheistic Jew) embrace that interpretation? Obviously not. But a divine council worldview of scripture doesn’t require it. Not at all. If we see YHWH, as Michael Heiser did, on a wholly different level than the “gods” of the nations, as orders of magnitude above all that, as the Creator God who delegated these beings their limited authority, we have no difficulty with the passage, even (and especially) with its obvious references to ancient “deities” and powers. Our God is far superior to all these created “cosmic powers”, and the passage demonstrates it. “His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise.” These so-called lesser gods are absolutely eclipsed by his coming. That is the Supreme Being with whom Habakkuk presents us.

This “coming” is obviously not historical. When has God arrived to “march through the earth in fury” or “thresh the nations in his anger”? Any attempt to assign these events to a hyperbolic description of the conquest of Canaan falls remarkably short of the language used here. Nor is it sufficient to suggest Habakkuk is simply seeing the spiritual aspects of God’s eventual judgment of Babylon illustrated for him in pictorial form. There is not one member of the divine council being trashed here, but many. It is repeatedly “the earth” and “the nations” which are in view. Nothing in the history of this earth corresponds to what the prophet is seeing in this vision. Moreover, the final victory of Israel over its enemies is also forecast here: “You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed.”

The Second Coming?

I prefer to think Habakkuk glimpsed the Second Coming through a glass darkly, that future day when all the members of the divine council who stand in opposition to God and his Christ will gather against the nation of Israel, and therefore against God himself. All will be devastated. At that time, both possible levels of interpretation of the passage will meet their complete fulfillment; the generic version in which YHWH scatters the eternal mountains and reorders the geography of the Middle East, and the more specific “second level” interpretation in which YHWH vanquishes forever the spiritual powers behind the nations of the world in opposition to him.

Did that glimpse of the glory of Christ give Habakkuk confidence about the ultimate fate of Judah’s oppressors? Did it answer his original question? We will see next week.

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