Arguing with God: Deuteronomic Paradox and Habakkukian Critiques

The prophet Habakkuk was active sometime around 605 BC. He was most likely a contemporary of Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Zephaniah. The context within which Habakkuk issued forth his complaints against YHWH is essential to understanding his message. Twenty-four years prior to Habukkuk’s complaints against YHWH, the prophet Jeremiah began his own similar activities in 629 BC. It was not until a few years later, in 621 BC, that the “book of the Torah” was found and brought to the attention of the youthful king of Judah, Josiah. The “book of the Torah,” usually identified with (probably) Deuteronomy 12-26, was brought to the prophetess Huldah. She exclaimed that the curses within the “book of the Torah,” which faithless Israel had brought upon herself, would come upon Jerusalem (2 Kings 22:15-20).[1] Josiah responded by seeking to go back to a more conservative and less “modern” Mosaic religion. “[T]he paganism against which Zephaniah had protested (Zeph. 1:4-6) was abolished…”[2] Moreover, “[t]he practices of sacred prostitution, child sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom, and the consultation of mediums and wizards were discontinued.”[3] The most novel response being the centralization of YHWHistic worship in the Jerusalem Temple. While Josiah was on a rampage to restore primitive Mosaic faith, Assyria was losing its clutch on power; in a decisive battle, Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was overthrown by the combined forces of Babylon, Scythia, and Media in 612 BC.[4] Three years later, Necho, the ruler of Egypt, seeing an opportunity to help out Assyria, sent his troops in 609 BC. On their way north to Assyria, Josiah decided to play dice and come to Babylon’s rescue—he attempted to prevent the passage of Egyptian troops. Ultimately, he ended up dying and Judah would become a temporary vassal of Egypt.[5] For roughly another four miserable years, Judah is a slave to Egypt. Then, in 605 BC, the epic battle of Carchemish takes place, in which Babylonian troops put to waste Egyptian troops. In a matter of time, Judah is made a vassal of Babylon, and would remain so until its utter destruction in 587/6 BC. Thus, within a mere twenty years of Josiah’s initial reform, Judah is once again a slave to evil empires.

The theology of this period has been dubbed by modern scholarship “deuteronomic.”[6] It is a very retributive theology that is cut-and-dried: if you obey YHWH, good will follow; if you disobey YHWH, evil will follow. “In the popular view, Yahweh’s justice meant that good consequences would came from good actions, that obedience would result in security on the land, victory against foes, and abundant life. But the cruel facts of history seemed to contradict this belief.”[7] Within a matter of years, Jeremiah’s hopeful approach towards Josiah’s reform and deuteronomic theology withered away and became a bittersweet song; “[h]e came to see that  it did not result in a circumcision of the heart or a breaking up of fallow ground.”[8] Habakkuk, likewise, was greatly frustrated by this “health and wealth gospel.” How could it be that the children of YHWH, who did commit righteous acts, be visited by an utterly evil nation? Where was the deuteronomic righteousness of YHWH? Within these profound, paradoxical turmoils were born the complaints of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk wrote his complaints just after the battle of Carchemish.[9] “No one living in Jerusalem about the year 600 could fail to see that world-shaping events were already in preparation.”[10] Yes, he probably did witness the collapse of an evil Assyria—but that evil empire was soon replaced by one no different than it: Babylon. Habakkuk was not sure how one could approach this deuteronomic God. If evil is the result of disobeying YHWH, is it possible that those who were deemed “righteous” were somehow deceived? Maybe evil followed them precisely because they unknowingly sinned. But such thinking surely fled Habakkuk’s mind; he knew that the righteous were righteous—and, yet, they were being punished by the unrighteous. This deuteronomic paradox forced Habakkuk to cry out to YHWH: “How long, YHWH, will I call out and you will not listen? Or when I shout to you ‘Violence!’ and you do not save?” (1:2). Habakkuk expects a message from YHWH precisely because he knows that he is righteous. His contemporary, Jeremiah, likewise reiterated this fact: “When these people, or a prophet or a priest, ask you, ‘What is the message[11] from the LORD?’ say to them, ‘What message? I will forsake you, declares the LORD’” (23:33 NIV). Habakkuk had received a “message” and knew that, for whatever reason, he was not yet forsaken by YHWH. In the same vein, Job would cry out:

               הֵ֤ן אֶצְעַ֣ק חָ֭מָס וְלֹ֣א אֵעָנֶ֑ה אֲ֝שַׁוַּ֗ע וְאֵ֣ין מִשְׁפָּֽט

“Though I cry out ‘Violence!’ I get no reply; I cry out for help and there is no justice.”

Virtually the same language is used in both verses. Habakkuk cries חָמָ֖ס (“violence”) and so does Job; Habakkuk later (1:4) sees this as an attack on מִשְׁפָּ֑ט (“justice”) as does Job.[12] Job, it is presumed, was a righteous man.[13] Like Habakkuk, he too could not understand why YHWH would allow such a thing. How could it be that righteous men of YHWH could not get a response from YHWH?

Habakkuk was surely confused: isn’t YHWH too holy to behold any atrocities being committed against the righteous? “Why do you make me look at wickedness and trouble? Why do you make me gaze at death and at the violence before me? A dispute and a quarreling go up (to you)…” (1:3). Surely, YHWH was aware that “dispute and quarreling” were “going up” (i.e., being witnessed) by him. Habakkuk then calls to YHWH’s mind his own torah (“teachings”): “Therefore, the torah is paralyzed. Will justice never prevail? For the wicked siege the righteous; on this account, justice is perverted” (1:4). Habakkuk is directing his anger at YHWH, using his own torah, “Your very own laws, YHWH, are now paralyzed. They are no more. They are ineffective. You who defined yourself as just[14] have let justice fail. Justice has been perverted!” In what seems to be a statement vis-a-vis Deuteronomy 32:4, Habakkuk exclaims: “(Your) eyes are too pure to look at evil—they cannot gaze at trouble. Why, then, do you gaze at those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous (צַדִּ֥יק) than him?” (1:13).  The YHWH who defined himself as being “righteous” (צַדִּ֥יק) in Deut. 32:4 has allowed those who are like him to perish.

Out of this “doom and gloom,” in contrast to the “health and wealth gospel” of Habakkuk’s day, YHWH revealed something entirely new. “Behold,” YHWH tells Habakkuk, “I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe (לֹ֥א תַאֲמִ֖ינוּ) even if you were told” (1:5). The root for “believe” being used here is אָמַן. (It is the same root word that is being used to describe the “righteous” in Habakkuk 2:4.) What YHWH tells Habakkuk shocks him. YHWH is the very one who is raising up the Babylonians (1:6). For what is he raising them up? To execute justice? We are never told. All that Habakkuk gets in reply is this: “Behold! The soul of the unrighteous is puffed up in him; but the righteous will live by faithfulness (בֶּאֱמוּנָתֹ֥ו) in it (i.e., the vision/revelation of YHWH)” (2:4). Habakkuk was given a חָזֹ֔ון (“vision,” “revelation”) and YHWH expects Habakkuk to simply place his faith in it.

While it is true that an explicit answer is never given to Habakkuk as to what exactly YHWH would be doing that people would “not believe,” there are some clues in the text that may suggest a slightly different version of events. Some scholars argue that the answer to Habakkuk’s critiques lies in the fact that the first part of the book is addressing internal problems, while later passages address external (i.e., Babylon) problems. Because Habakkuk uses such words as חָמָ֖ס (“violence”), אָ֨וֶן֙ וְעָמָ֣ל (“iniquity and trouble”), and שֹׁ֥ד (“death” or “pillage”), some think that this indicates “native oppression and not a foreign invader.”[15] In other words, it may be that the “revelation” which Habakkuk is receiving from YHWH is that YHWH will destroy internal evil, within the gates of Jerusalem, by the hands of external—and more evil—Babylonians. Even if this may be the case, the problem still remains for Habakkuk: will YHWH punish the righteous along with the wicked? And even if justice will come, how long must one wait for that to happen?

In the most critical time of his life, Habakkuk was told by YHWH what would come to pass. Against all expectations, Habakkuk received what appears to be a “non-answer answer”: simply put faith in my revelation. Later on in the book, Habakkuk reminds YHWH of his previous deeds and actions. He wants YHWH to act as he had acted in the past. “YHWH, I have heard of your fame, I have feared your deeds; make them come to life in our day…” (3:2a). He is attempting one last try, one last argument he is offering YHWH. This one is an argument of old; it was used so many times, YHWH was probably tired of hearing it. “Do what you have done in the past,” begs Habakkuk, “Please!” The author of Psalm 44:2 used a similar technique:

                        אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ בְּאָזְנֵ֬ינוּ שָׁמַ֗עְנוּ אֲבֹותֵ֥ינוּ סִפְּרוּ־לָ֑נוּ פֹּ֥עַל פָּעַ֥לְתָּ בִֽ֝ימֵיהֶ֗ם בִּ֣ימֵי קֶֽדֶם

“Oh God, with our ears we have heard, and our fathers have recounted to us deeds which you have done in their days, in the days of old.”

The ability to remind YHWH of his previous actions was founded on the assumption that YHWH was “reliable.” He was, as Deut. 32:4 put it, אֱמוּנָה֙. Anything that was not אֱמוּנָה֙ was not constant nor reliable. It is precisely because of this that Jeremiah likewise could say (15:18):

                        תִֽהְיֶ֥ה לִי֙ כְּמֹ֣ו אַכְזָ֔ב מַ֖יִם לֹ֥א נֶאֱמָֽנוּ

“Will you be to me like deceptive waters that are not reliable?”

The word for “unreliable” is the same root (and derivatives) we have seen being used before; it is the Niphal stem of the root אָמַן. In this particular case, the waters are not “reliable” in the sense that they are not “continual” or “lasting.” The expectation is that the spring or creek would have water whenever one would approach it; for Jeremiah, it is this “un-lastingness” that makes the waters “unreliable”—at one time there’s water, at another there isn’t. Like Jeremiah and the Psalmist, Habakkuk expects YHWH to be reliable (אֱמוּנָה֙). A derivative of this root אָמַן is the noun/adverb אֱמֶת, which basically translates as “true” or “trustworthy.” In Psalm 119:43, the Psalmist exclaims:

                        אַל־תַּצֵּ֬ל מִפִּ֣י דְבַר־אֱמֶ֣ת עַד־מְאֹ֑ד כִּ֖י לְמִשְׁפָּטֶָ֣ יִחָֽלְתִּי

“Do not utterly take/rescue from my mouth the word of truth, for in your judgments I have hoped.”

When the Psalmist uses this particular word, he “celebrates Yahweh’s torah and commandments as [אֱמֶת]…he does not just mean that they are true as opposed to false, but that they also have the character of being trustworthy and reliable for people to base their lives on.”[16] To be a trustworthy God is to be אֱמֶת. In fact, this particular derivative of אֱמוּנָה֙ is used in reference to God quite often. One can see the use of this word in one of the most divine statements in all of Scripture, Exodus 34:5-7, where God himself reveals his character and describes himself as וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת (“abounding in love and faithfulness”). To fully appreciate the moral uprightness of this word, one can look at its synonyms and antonyms, as found in the Hebrew Bible. The word is used in conjunction with חֶ֫סֶד (“covenantal faithfulness,” “love”), as was seen in the Exodus passage cited, צֶ֫דֶק (“righteousness”), and מִשְׁפָּט (“judgment,” “justice”) [e.g., Jer. 4:2, Ps. 15:2]. Its Hiphil form appears in parallelism with another Hebrew word בָּטַח (“trust”) [Micah 7:5]. The word is contrasted with שֶׁ֫קֶר (“lie,” “deception”) in Proverbs 12:22. The word אֱמוּנָה֙ (and its derivative noun אֱמֶת) has quite a moral character in the Hebrew Bible! It is no wonder, then, that Habakkuk could place such great faith in YHWH. If YHWH is the opposite of “deception,” if YHWH is equated with “reliability” and “steadfast love,” how could he allow a righteous person’s prayer go unheard? “Israel assigns to (or recognizes in) Yahweh elements of constancy and substance that make Yahweh in some ways knowable and available to Israel.”[17] And, yet, the strange thing about Habakkuk’s message is that YHWH does not really work in a way that seems, at least to Habakkuk, consistent with his character. In the words of the Psalmist, the deeds that YHWH had done were done (past tense) “in the days of old.” And that, precisely, is where they remained.

Habakkuk is no different than any one of us today. We are, to be blunt, all in the same boat. The fact that Pentecostals pray all day long, exceeding the volume of a rock concert, virtually does nothing to the way things really are. Even the good people are still falling prey to cancer at age thirty, dying in car accidents committed by drunk fools, or simply losing their jobs to more ruthlessly conniving individuals. The “faithful” people today still see the loud mouth, die-hard atheists using their vocal cords to cast curses upon YHWH. Just as in Habakkuk’s time, we still have our deuteronomic theologies—though they go by fancy names like “health and wealth gospel” or “success theology”—which teach people that, if one follows God, one will inherit the pearls of the Kingdom right here and right now. We still have our Joel Osteens, Joyce Meyers, Benny Hinns, regurgitating a worn-out theology; a theology of mere cut-and-dried retribution. Whether we like it or not, this sort of thinking was accepted by Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Moses, and a thousand others. It is the initial theology of all school children. But then we all grow up. Like Ecclesiastes, we shed our teenage mentality and we see that “things are not so.” Maybe along with his version of the categorical imperative—אַל־תְּהִ֤י צַדִּיק֙ הַרְבֵּ֔ה (“Do not be righteous too much!” [7:16])—we, too, will find rest in knowing that, no matter what you do, you will suffer. You can be good or bad, fat or thin, American or Russian, white or black, believer or atheist, you will still probably get cancer at some point in your life, and you may, or may not, live to see your grandchildren. One could relate to a lament made by people within Zephaniah’s time, a contemporary of Habakkuk’s, who had the audacity to say that YHWH “does neither good nor evil” (1:12). Von Rad makes the following remark about Zephaniah’s contemporaries, “[T]hese were no atheists, but they no longer reckoned with divine action in the present day; and when the storm broke, and the Southern Kingdom suffered the same fate as had the Northern, and saw its upper class deported to Babylon [in 586/7 BC], the question of Jahweh’s relationship to his people became completely uncertain.”[18] In Habakkuk’s time, deuteronomic theology became a theology of paradox—it could not even stand on its own two feet. And when the Babylonian captivity took place, after Habakkuk’s time, it completely fell beneath the weight of human experience. As I’ve stated earlier, even in the time of severe personal crisis and doubt, YHWH gave Habakkuk no real answer. “[T]he answer to the question why there should be such great and mysterious suffering is so remarkably veiled and obscure that it makes one feel as if Jahweh were retreating before the question, and withdrawing into ever deeper seclusion.”[19]

Habakkuk’s three-chapter book is one long sustained argument with YHWH, with a number of interjections made by YHWH. The prophet attempts to get YHWH to recognize that justice must be served at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner. YHWH responds by making Habakkuk aware of, what appears to be, an uncertainty principle. Habakkuk is to trust that YHWH is, essentially, in control. All one has to do is trust in YHWH despite any given circumstances. No longer must one judge oneself as good or bad in relation to what one has or does not have. YHWH is not really about rewarding the righteous people, after all—at least not on planet earth. The methods Habakkuk uses to argue with YHWH are standard Old Testament methods that sometimes work (Moses and the Children of Israel in Exodus 32) and sometimes do not (Abraham and Sodom in Genesis18-19). We can plead with YHWH all we want, but Habakkuk is right, “the righteous will live by placing their faith in YHWH’s vision.” In the end, YHWH wins and you lose. You can either be on YHWH’s side or you can hold a sustained argument against YHWH, but it will be faith that gets you through on either side. As Paul once remarked, “Everything not done in faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). To argue or not to argue, to use Kierkegaardian language, “you will regret both.”


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



Translation and Textual Notes

עַד־אָ֧נָה יְהוָ֛ה שִׁוַּ֖עְתִּי וְלֹ֣א תִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶזְעַ֥ק אֵלֶ֛יךָ חָמָ֖ס וְלֹ֥א תֹושִֽׁיעַ׃

לָ֣מָּה תַרְאֵ֤נִי אָ֨וֶן֙ וְעָמָ֣ל תַּבִּ֔יט וְשֹׁ֥ד וְחָמָ֖ס לְנֶגְדִּ֑י וַיְהִ֧י רִ֦יב וּמָדֹ֖ון יִשָּֽׂא׃

עַל־כֵּן֙ תָּפ֣וּג תֹּורָ֔ה וְלֹֽא־יֵצֵ֥א לָנֶ֖צַח מִשְׁפָּ֑ט כִּ֤י רָשָׁע֙ מַכְתִּ֣יר אֶת־הַצַּדִּ֔יק עַל־כֵּ֛ן יֵצֵ֥א מִשְׁפָּ֖ט


טְהֹ֤ור עֵינַ֨יִם֙ מֵרְאֹ֣ות רָ֔ע וְהַבִּ֥יט אֶל־עָמָ֖ל לֹ֣א תוּכָ֑ל לָ֤מָּה תַבִּיט֙ בֹּֽוגְדִ֔ים תַּחֲרִ֕ישׁ בְּבַלַּ֥ע רָשָׁ֖ע

צַדִּ֥יק מִמֶּֽנּוּ

הִנֵּ֣ה עֻפְּלָ֔ה[20] לֹא־יָשְׁרָ֥ה נַפְשֹׁ֖ו בֹּ֑ו וְצַדִּ֖יק בֶּאֱמוּנָתֹ֥ו יִחְיֶֽה

יְהוָ֗ה שָׁמַ֣עְתִּי שִׁמְעֲךָ֮ יָרֵאתִי֒ יְהוָ֗ה פָּֽעָלְךָ֙ בְּקֶ֤רֶב שָׁנִים֙ חַיֵּ֔יהוּ

How long, YHWH, will I call out and you will not listen? Or when I shout to you ‘Violence!’ and you do not save?

Why do you make me look at wickedness and trouble? Why do you make me gaze at death and at the violence before me? A dispute and a quarreling go up (to you)…

Therefore, the torah is paralyzed. Will justice never prevail? For the wicked siege the righteous; on this account, justice is perverted.

(Your) eyes are too pure to look at evil—they cannot gaze at trouble. Why, then, do you gaze at those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than him?

Behold! The soul of the unrighteous is puffed up in him; but the righteous will live by faithfulness in it (i.e., the vision/revelation of YHWH).

YHWH, I have heard of your fame, I have feared your deeds; make them come to life in our day…

(Habakkuk 1:2-4, 13; 2:4, 3:2a)


Bibliography and Works Cited

Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975.

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life. Vol. 3. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.

Janzen, J. Gerald. Habakkuk 2:2-4 in the Light of Recent Philological Advances. Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2. (January 1, 1980).

Moberly, R. W. L. “אָמַן,“ in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Ed. Willem A. von Gemeren. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

Rad, Gerhard von. Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israels Prophetic Traditions. Trans. D. M. G. Stalker. Vol. 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Ward, William Hayes. “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Habakkuk,” in The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Eds. C. A. Briggs, S. R. Driver, and Alfred Plummer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911.



[1] Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975), 348-349.

[2] Ibid., 349.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 362.

[5] Ibid., 363.

[6] Ibid., 362-364.

[7] Ibid., 363.

[8] Ibid., 360.

[9] Ibid., 364.

[10] Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions, trans. D. M. G. Stalker, vol. 2. (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 263.

[11] The word for “message” here is מַשָּׂ֖א. This is the same word which is used to introduce Habakkuk’s prophecy (1:1); it is a מַשָּׂ֖א (“message,” “pronouncement,” or “revelation”).

[12] Another interesting parallel is that both use the same word for “crying out,” צָעַק.

[13] Though the technical word for “the righteous” (הַצַּדִּ֔יק) is not used in relation to Job, similar adjectives are applied to him. He is called “pure and upright, fearing God” (תָּ֧ם וְיָשָׁ֛ר וִירֵ֥א אֱלֹהִ֖ים).

[14] Deut. 32:4 defines YHWH’s actions as “all just”: הַצּוּר֙ תָּמִ֣ים פָּעֳלֹ֔ו כִּ֥י כָל־דְּרָכָ֖יו מִשְׁפָּ֑ט אֵ֤ל אֱמוּנָה֙ וְאֵ֣ין עָ֔וֶל צַדִּ֥יק ויָשָׁ֖ר הֽוּא. YHWH is called “pure” (תָּמִ֣ים), “just” (מִשְׁפָּ֑ט), “faithful” (אֱמוּנָה֙) and “righteous” (צַדִּ֥יק).

[15] William Hayes Ward, “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Habakkuk,” in The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, eds. C. A. Briggs, S. R. Driver, and Alfred Plummer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), 4. For a similar line of argument, see John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, vol. 3 (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 786-792.

[16] R. W. L. Moberly, “אָמַן,“ in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. von Gemeren, vol. 1. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 428.

[17] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 229.

[18] Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 263.

[19] Ibid., 267.

[20] The Pual imperfect 3rd person feminine singular verb עֻפְּלָ֔ה (“she/it is puffed up, proud”) has been taken to be, by some, as corrupted. Janzen offers the suggestion that it be reconstructed to a noun to read עָצֵ֑ל (“sluggard”). I do not think that such a change would greatly impact my reading of the text, which is why I have not bothered to emend the Masoretic Text. See J. Gerald Janzen, Habakkuk 2:2-4 in the Light of Recent Philological Advances, Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2 (January 1, 1980): 67-70. Numerous other, somewhat ingenious, emendations have been proposed by virtually any scholar who knows Hebrew, for those guesses, I refer the reader to any critical commentary on Habakkuk. As a rule, for every scholar there is an idiosyncratic emendation.

May 6, 2014

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