Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Francis I. Andersen, Habakkuk: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible, 25; New York: Doubleday, 2001), Pp. xxii + 387. $45.00. ISBN: 0-385-08396-3.

Andersen's commentary on Habakkuk provides readers with a new English translation of the book and a supporting commentary. Andersen correctly maintains that he does not want to write a commentary on the commentaries, but but he wants to focus on interpretation of the book of Habakkuk itself. Although full citation of other works does not always appear in relation to each point, his commentary is clearly based in an informed and active dialogue with prior scholarship. His translation is based in a thorough treatment of Habakkuk's linguistic and literary features in conversation with its presumed historical setting and its various textual traditions. It is especially strong in its philological and poetic analysis of the text. It is relatively thorough in its treatment of literary and textual issues, although there are certainly questions that can be raised in relation to Andersen's own proposals. It provides less attention to theological treatment of the book, which should not cause alarm given the focus of the Anchor Bible series. Although some will be heartened by Andersen's dogmatic statement that "every creature and event. . .comes from the sovereign determination of the one and only actual G-d (rendition mine), who is to be identified as none other than YHWH (rendition mine), the G-d of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ" (p. 13), most readers will recognize this as a statement of Andersen's own theological position rather than a necessary conclusion concerning Habakkuk's viewpoint. Readers will want to consult this volume for its strengths, but they will also want to consult the recently published commentaries by Michael H. Floyd (Forms of the Old Testament Literature) and the present reviewer (Berit Olam) for treatment of form-critical, literary, and theological issues. A full, contemporary treatment of textual issues, including texts from the Judean wilderness, the various Greek versions, the Targum, and the Syriac and Latin versions, of Habakkuk begins in this volume, but still remains a desideratum.

Andersen maintains that his main aim is to understand the prophecy of Habakkuk as a book, although it is very clear that he views the book as an expression of the experience and struggles of Habakkuk the man. He argues that the book arose from the agony of Habakkuk's struggle to reconcile a good, strong, compassionate, wise, and just G-d with the realities of a disintegrating world in which evil prevails and G-d appears detached and uninvolved. In the face of G-d's silence, Habakkuk survives and perseveres by his faith. The book comprises two basic parts, Habakkuk's interchange with YHWH (Habakkuk 1-2) in which the prophet demands a response from G-d, and the Prayer-Hymn of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3) in which the prophet relates his vision of YHWH's response. When read in its present form, the vision attempts to reconcile the discrepancy between the world and G-d by portaying YHWH's self-disclosure. In this manner, YHWH puts an end to divine hiddenness by pointing to past divine achievements in human history together with the promise of present and future action. Although this reading functions primarily on the synchronic plane, Andersen also attempts to account for its diachronic dimensions by pointing to three basic components of the book that represent potentially distinct generic compositions: the dialogue between the prophet and G-d in Hab 1:1-2:6a; the woe oracles in Hab 2:6b-20; and the psalm of Habakkuk in Hab 3:1-19. He qualifies this contention, however, by pointing to linguistic and other literary relationships between the three parts of the book. Altogether, this points to a thematic unity throughout the book. He therefore contends that it is anachronistic to place much faith in form criticism long after Muilenburg pointed an age "beyond form criticism" (pp. 21-22). Based upon three contentions, i.e., 1) that "the righteous" in the book must represent the prophet; 2) that "the wicked" must be subject to punishment by the Babylonians; and 3) that the reference to the Chaldeans in Hab 1:6 must be read as a prediction, Andersen maintains that the book dates to some point in the years 605-575 B.C.E. when the Babylonians threatened and ultimately destroyed Judah. Two further underlying assumptions inform Andersen's analysis: 1) that wickedness in Judah must be attributed to the failure of Josiah's reform, and 2) that Habakkuk's viewpoint, i.e., that the Babylonians will bring punishment to Judah, corresponds to that of Jeremiah.

Indeed, a number of Andersen's assumptions provide bases for questioning his construction of the man and the book. The problem is evident in his treatment of Hab 1:12-17, in which Andersen recognizes the prophet's perplexity at YHWH's willingness to tolerate the excessive cruelty of the Babylonians in executing punishment against Judah. Ultimately, Andersen is forced to fall back on a contention that Habakkuk's faith prompts him to accept YHWH's sovereignty and righteousness as the basis for the contention that there must be some divine purpose to YHWH's action. In this model, both Judah and Babylon must be reckoned as wicked and both must be punished. And yet both the woe oracles of Hab 2:6b-20 and the psalm of Hab 3:1-19 focus on YHWH's punishment of the Babylonian oppressor; the punishment of Judah receives relatively little attention in the overall construction of the book. It is only inferred in Habakkuk's dialog with G-d as part of the scenario that prompts Habakkuk's complaint, and hardly constitutes an element of Habakkuk's vision of YHWH's impending action. Indeed, Andersen's contention that the punishment of Babylon somehow represents a vindication of YHWH hardly addresses the question posed by the prophet in Hab 1:12-17, "why wast Thou silent when the wicked swallowed someone more righteous than himself?" (Andersen's translation, p. 4). The punishment of Babylon hardly addresses the problem of evil raised by Habakkuk's question. It would seem instead that "the wicked/evil" throughout the book refer not to Judeans, but to the Babylonians from the outset; indeed, there is no signal within the book that the term shifts in its understanding of the identity of "the wicked" as many contend. Habakkuk can hardly be subsumed to Jeremiah, i.e., Jeremiah condemned Jerusalem/Judah and argued that the Babylonians would bring about YHWH's punishment against them. Habakkuk raises a very different question from that of his junior but better-known colleague, i.e., why are the Babylonians here to begin with? The book of Jeremiah is fully conscious of the Babylonian exile and its consequences, and this recognition informs his book's view of Judah's guilt and punishment at the hands of the Babylonians. But Habakkuk lacks such indicators, and his question to G-d allows for no certain or easy answers other than the contention that G-d will ultimately act against the Babylonians. Habakkuk's question is pertinent in a context that knows of no Babylonian exile and that presumes Judean righteousness before G-d. It is this presumption that informs the prophet's question to G-d as well as his faith that a just and righteous G-d will act against the oppressor.

In sum, Andersen's commentary is well worth reading in assessing the book. Nevertheless, by implicitly reading the book in relation to a canonical context in which the Babylonian exile forms a foundational basis for a "biblical" world view, it does not answer the question that Habakkuk poses to G-d and to its readers.

Marvin A. Sweeney, Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University