Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan got me to Habakkuk as an oracle to remember and publish, from chapter 2. You may recognize the inspiration of Bob Dylan in ‘Along the Watchtower’, covered by Jimi Hendrix even better, or U2 ‘All I got is a red guitar’.
Positioned between the Assyrian conquest of Israel, and the Babylonian exile of Judah and Jerusalem, these words work. But among the Dead Sea Scrolls is a commentary on Habakkuk that shows it worked to rage against the Romans in the century before Jesus.
The Twelve pivots in Habakkuk from a nationalist (dare I say Zionist) appeal to a stance of witnesses taking a side for the oppressed without being in a position to defeat empires themselves. It opens with a cry against domestic corruption, a litigious society of justice for the rich.
The imperial military trust in their technology of war, the ‘nets’ with which they sweep up populaces like schools of fish. Habakkuk calls that idolatry, and short-sighted understanding of what’s going on in the Chaldean or Babylonian rise.
Habakkuk 1 (NRSV)
1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgement comes forth perverted.
5 Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.
6 For I am rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own.
7 Dread and fearsome are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards, more menacing than wolves at dusk; their horses charge. Their horsemen come from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence, with faces pressing* forward; they gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. They laugh at every fortress, and heap up earth to take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind; they transgress and become guilty; their own might is their god!
12 Are you not from of old, O LORD my God, my Holy One? You* shall not die. O LORD, you have marked them for judgement; and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment.
13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?
14 You have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler.
15 The enemy* brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net, he gathers them in his seine; so he rejoices and exults.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his seine; for by them his portion is lavish, and his food is rich.
17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net, and destroying nations without mercy?