Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Habakkuk 2: "Wait for it"

Well, this summer excursion through the Bible’s byways has turned into a regular minor-prophet-fest, hasn’t it? But I’m finding that these diminutive books are filled with hidden delights, and catastrophes. Today, then, I turn to Habakkuk, a prophet writing twenty or thirty years before the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. A date I frequently return to in my musings—perhaps it deserves its own entry soon.

Habakkuk, like other Bible books (Job, especially), deals with the frustrating qualities of divine justice, and asks that thorniest of questions, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The answer it provides, unfortunately, is literally maddening.

Unlike Job—who is a good person to whom very bad things happen—Habakkuk is forced to watch violence enacted upon the righteous: “Why do you make me see wrongdoing / and look at trouble? / Destruction and violence are before me; / strife and contention arise. / So the law becomes slack / and justice never prevails. / The wicked surround the righteous— / therefore judgment comes forth perverted” (1:3-4).

Little translation is necessary here: in Habakkuk’s world, justice has been “perverted,” because the wicked thrive while the righteous are “surrounded” by “strife and contention.” The prophet needs to know why.

Now, unlike us—who can only weep at the world’s evils—Habakkuk receives a response from God (one of the few perks associated with the drab job of prophecy). By way of reply, God asks Habakkuk to observe the raging Chaldeans—a Biblical name for Babylon—whom He will shortly use as an instrument of divine justice. More bluntly, God tells Habakkuk to look at the big-ass thugs he’s rounded up to punish the wicked.

Thankfully, Habakkuk is unconvinced—frankly, this feels a like mob justice, not God’s righteousness. He cannot but admit that the Chaldeans have powerful armies—indeed, they will sack Jerusalem in just a couple decades’ time. But two wrongs, as the truism goes, do not make a right, and Habakkuk hopefully (or is it desperately) holds his God to a higher standard: “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing” (1:13).

God, a bit surprisingly, is actually silent on this point, and though Habakkuk may hope that God is “too pure to behold evil,” he cannot confirm it. So God must try another tack, while the Chaldeans remain off in the shadows, sharpening their knives and chomping at the bit.

God relents, and claims that He will eventually punish the wicked. But the operative word here is “eventually”. Says the Delay-er-in-Chief: “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; / it will surely come, it will not delay.”

Really? “Wait for it”? That’s God’s answer to the evils of the world? Hold on … I’ll get to it … the check’s in the mail. An exasperating response to a crucial question, if you ask me.

Now, we can articulate God’s response in prettier terms: Divine justice works on a divine timeline; the scales of fairness are balanced in centuries, not in days; after millennia, the evils of the world will pale in comparison to the compassion of God. But what use are these to the mourning mother who loses an infant? To the family of a murder victim whose attacker goes unpunished? “Wait for it” will be scant comfort.

But here, once again, is where we find the Bible’s genius. For Habakkuk does not walk away singing, his head held high, his “good Jew” badge burnished and pinned to his lapel. He knows—as must we—that this version of divine justice will often look like moral bankruptcy.

So his acceptance of this “plan”—if we can call it that—is full of self-loathing: “I hear, and I tremble within; / my lips quiver at the sound. / Rottenness enters into my bones, / and my steps tremble beneath me. / I wait quietly for the day of calamity / to come upon the people who attack us” (3:16). Fully digested, God’s advice—“Wait for it”—leaves him shaking in his boots.

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