Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 16 (2016) - Review

Ko, Grace, Theodicy in Habakkuk (Paternoster Biblical Monographs; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2014). Pp. xiv + 202. Paperback. £24.99. ISBN 978-1-84227-850-5.

The issue of theodicy never ceases to be hotly disputed across the range of theological disciplines. Grace Ko's Theodicy in Habakkuk (a reworking of her 2009 University of St. Michael's College doctoral dissertation) intends not only to deal with how the problem of God's apparent silence in the face of evil is addressed in Habakkuk, but to compare and contrast Habakkuk's treatment of theodicy with other passages discussing this topic in the Hebrew Bible in order to bring this book's unique contribution into sharper focus.

In Chapter 1, “Introduction,” Ko lays out a taxonomy of major trends in Habakkuk research and delineates the guiding questions and boundaries of her study. She begins by noting how Habakkuk is seemingly out of step with many of the other prophets, as he boldly challenges God's justice instead of proclaiming judgement and repentance. Not only is the typical theme of Israel's culpability absent, he finds the punishment of foreign oppression to be unacceptable. Ko outlines the disputed topic of the identity of the “righteous” and “wicked” within the book before addressing the date of the book, which she places during the reign of Jehoiakim (609–598 b.c.e.). She then summarizes the various schools of thought concerning Habakkuk's literary history, including the controversies over whether Hab 3 is a late addition to the book. Textual criticism, and particularly the degree to which the text of the MT requires emendation, has been another field of inquiry. Less debate exists over the structure of the book, although its genre has been variously classified as liturgy, prophetic vision, wisdom, and lament. Ko finds it most helpful to view the book as assembling various literary styles under the broader category of prophetic complaint. At this point, Ko clearly articulates her intention: “The purpose of this book is to explain the resolution of the issue of theodicy in the book of Habakkuk…by engaging in a close reading of the text…[to] uncover literary clues in the text that demonstrate the dynamic transformation of the prophet's faith—from doubt to triumph in faith, and that we can glean insight on how to resolve this universal human experience” (p. 30). She identifies her methodology as a fusion of rhetorical criticism (following Muilenburg),[1] literary criticism, and inner-biblical exegesis. The chapter closes with a notice stating that the importance of the final form of the text and its unity will be presupposed.

Chapter 2, “Close Reading of the Book of Habakkuk,” offers a linear reading of the book that focuses on its literary devices and intends to demonstrate that, as a unity, it conveys a cohesive and coherent message. At a macro level, Ko divides Habakkuk into three scenes. The superscriptions of 1:1 and 3:1 provide the two main boundary markers, while the interlude indicated in 2:1 functions as the start of the second scene. Within each of these three scenes, Ko further isolates a threefold dialogical structure that contains a word from Yahweh or theophany in the middle panel. On these grounds, Ko believes it is viable to read the divine speech of 2:2–5 as the center of the entire book. After this discussion of the book's structure, Ko provides her “idiomatic” (p. 40) translation of the text of the MT. Her translation is to be commended for its exceptional clarity as well as faithfulness to the Hebrew, no small task given the difficult constructions at hand. The remainder of the chapter gives something of a condensed commentary on Habakkuk. The utility of this section is clear enough, as it provides the necessary exegetical groundwork for the investigation of theodicy in the book to follow. However, at times the resultant interpretive comments come uncomfortably close to simply summarizing the text itself. Some further observations are necessary regarding the linguistic work throughout. In particular, it is not always clear that the best resources available have been consulted. While the lexical resources BDB and TDOT are frequently cited, these works, while remaining valuable, have been largely superseded by HALOT and DCH. References to these two newer Hebrew dictionaries are strangely absent. BHRG likewise does not appear (although IBHS is used). Additionally, linguistically questionably assertions can be found, such as when the connection between the Akkadian nabû (“to call, proclaim”) and the Hebrew נָבִיא (“prophet”) is said to not only be determinative for the meaning of the latter but also that the meaning of the latter conflates both senses of the former, as one who is “‘called’ by God to ‘proclaim’” (p. 53). In a post-Barr scholarly climate,[2] these kinds of claims involving heavy reliance on comparative Semitics (to say nothing of using a verb to gloss a noun) are problematic. Syntactical discussion is also sometimes lacking. An example would be found in the treatment of 1:2; a consultation of the various translations found in the commentaries and English versions demonstrates that a wide variance exists in how many of the subsequent clauses the opening interrogative עַד־אָנָה (“how long”) is thought to modify. Ko does not even mention this disputed issue, even though the choice of whether to render the clauses of 1:2 as questions or statements significantly affects the meaning of the text. The concluding section of this chapter provides a brief overview of the structure and contents of the chosen stanza divisions of the book, as well as a discussion of the literary forms of the book in light of the close reading. Ko argues that the three scenes of the book utilize lament, woe oracles, and a song of victory respectively.

Chapter 3, “Habakkuk and Theodicy,” examines the theme of theodicy in Habakkuk and also compares it to other passages in the Hebrew Bible that address this topic. Ko begins by summarizing the tripartite plot of the book, emphasizing how the lament raises the question of justice and human suffering, Yahweh's answer emphasizes hope for the righteous and retribution for the wicked, and the theophanic vision reminds the prophet of previous miraculous interventions. Next, the characterization of the Chaldeans, Yahweh, and Habakkuk is laid out, as well as how these participants contribute to the larger message of the book. Certain key themes are identified in Habakkuk: “theodicy,” “the righteous shall live by his faithfulness,” “reap what you sow,” and “the sovereignty of God” (pp. 110–13). The main discussion of the issue of theodicy focuses on the inevitability of God's future judgement (2:3–5), God's destruction of Israel's enemies (2:6–20), a display of divine action (3:3–7), the divine warrior (3:8–15), and the “song of triumph” (p. 120) (3:16–19). Like Habakkuk, Job questioned God's justice and experienced a vision of God which quells his doubts. Another similar text is Ps 73, which notes the apparent prosperity of the wicked but resolves the pain by resting in the sanctuary. Psalm 77 expresses concern over being abandoned by God but remembers the Exodus for hope. The last text compared to Habakkuk is Jeremiah, who also brought accusations before God and pleaded for his intervention. Ko finds that the common denominator of these passages is that “through theophany and divine revelation” (p. 145) the protagonists are comforted and freshly enlightened concerning God's sovereignty.

Chapter 4, “Habakkuk in Prophetic Literature,” sets out to examine how theodicy is handled in the rest of the prophetic literature, and analyzes how this information affects Habakkuk's place in the plot of the Book of the Twelve. While most of the other prophets inform the people that their sins have made them deserving of God's punishment, Habakkuk is unique in his boldness to confront God. Following House's U-shaped schema for the plot of the minor prophets as a whole,[3] Ko locates Habakkuk in the very bottom of the “U,” as it deals with the “national catastrophe” of Israel's “darkest hour” (pp. 165–66). Chapter 5 provides a helpful summary of the contents of each chapter in the book, along with a concise overview of Habakkuk's presentation and resolution of the issue of theodicy.

At all points throughout Ko is to be praised for clarity and readability. At no point does the discussion descend into the kind of obscurantist jargon so endemic to scholarly writing. Unfortunately, the reading experience is slightly stained by the presence of several prominent editing mistakes. The font used for the footnote numbers is not entirely consistent throughout, and some Hebrew words appearing in parentheses suffer from unnecessary spaces inside the brackets. The presence of phrases like “the purpose of this paper” (p. 39) (apparently referring to an earlier recension of the chapter) suggest that the book may have benefited from a more stringent copyediting procedure. However, none of these blemishes detract from the general value of this study, and the contribution it makes to the burgeoning field of research on the Book of the Twelve.

David J. Fuller, McMaster Divinity College

[1] James Muilenburg, “Form Criticism and Beyond,” JBL 88 (1969), 1–18. reference

[2] James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University, 1961). reference

[3] Paul R. House, The Unity of the Twelve (JSOTS, 97; Sheffield: Almond, 1988). reference