Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Habakkuk

We know less about Habakkuk than just about any of the other biblical prophets. We have no idea about his surname, his place of birth or his career, apart from some vague traditions that he might have been a musician or Levite attached to a shrine somewhere. Someone with his name (which seems to be Akkadian rather than Hebrew) is mentioned in the apocryphal book of Bel and the Dragon, but that’s about as much as we know.

What we do know, though, is that he was a brave man. Many of us experience times of doubt, often when we believe God to be acting out of character and causing us suffering, But few of us dare to stand up to God as Habakkuk does, and tell him off because of his behaviour. Job can have a bit of a moan from time to time, but Habakkuk really goes for it. It looks as though he is prophesying in the South, not long before the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem. The nation had seen their northern neighbours in Israel carried off by the Assyrians 100 or so years earlier, and the signs were that their fate was heading in a similar direction. Habakkuk begins by complaining that in spite of his intercessions God has done nothing to halt the violence and corruption of the nation. God responds by saying ‘Just you wait and see!’, and promises swift and furious destruction of the wicked at the hands of Babylon.

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But this only makes things worse. How can a righteous God, who cannot even look at evil, use a nation even more wicked that Judah as the instruments of his punishment? Habakkuk poses this question, and then stations himself on his watchtower to wait for a convincing answer. You can just see him there with his arms defiantly folded. Again God answers, and it is basically the same message, ‘Just you wait and see!’ Babylon is eventually going to be punished herself, this time, history tells us, at the hands of Persia. It isn’t that God is allowing them to get away with it, any more than he is Judah. Fortunately Habakkuk decides not to push it by demanding who is going to punish Persia: he has got the point, and reaches the conclusion in chapter 3 that God pretty much has the right to do what he likes. In the one purple passage of this book he stakes his faith that whatever the state of things God is worthy of our praise. He seems to be aware that a time of great tribulation is shortly to come upon the nation, but that through it all God’s purposes are going to be worked out, and that he is to be worshipped come what may.

This book tells us two things, one about us and one about God. God is big enough to cope with our rants, and Habakkuk validates the human desire to argue back when things seem unjust. Simple compliant trust and acceptance of God’s will are often held up as virtues in good Christian circles, and they may well be, but for some of us at some times we simply can’t manage that. We want to rage, shout and argue, and Habakkuk gives us permission to do so. Habakkuk’s experience is that this behaviour leads to greater understanding and deeper praise.

Image: By Dan Marsh (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

OT Lectionary October 19th Trinity 18 Isaiah 45:1-7

Our passage for today comes from the second part of the book of Isaiah, and therefore dates from the period when Israel was in exile in Babylon. Towards the end of their imprisonment God sent a prophet, known only to us as ‘Deutero-Isaiah’, to proclaim their coming release and repatriation. Today’s passage forms the epicentre of his message, and it contains some deeply counter-cultural messages if we can unpack the background and understand them.


We must begin with the prevailing view of God, or rather ‘gods’. It worked a bit like the Anglican parish system – depending on where you lived, there was a particular god who ruled over your patch. So it was a common feeling among the exiles who, in spite of the fact that they should have known better, became infected with this worldview, and therefore thought they had moved out of Yahweh’s patch and so now were beholden to the gods of Babylon. There was also a sense of conflict among the different gods, a kind of ‘my-god-can-beat-up-your-god’ mentality, which suggested that Yahweh was just one among many, and might well be liable to lose when playing an away match. This passage, like much of Deutero-Isaiah, sets out to subvert these worldviews.


So the previous chapter contains a vicious attack on idols and those who manufacture them, as satirical as any stand-up comic today. The message is that Yahweh alone is God, there simply is no-one else with whom to fight, and certainly no-one to whom he might lose the fight. The chapter comes to a climax in v 24-26 with the declaration that God is the Redeemer, the Creator and the Lord, who promises that Jerusalem will be restored and reinhabited.

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But then ‘Cyrus’ walks onto the stage. Whohe? In fact he would have been something of a celeb to the Israelites, but the way he is described would have shocked their socks off. He was the king of Persia, the latest up-and-coming nation, who in fact was to go on and rule over one of the largest empires ever in the area. Yet he is described by the prophet as God’s ‘shepherd’, at whose command Jerusalem is to be rebuilt. But an even greater shock comes in 45:1 where Cyrus is announced as God’s ‘anointed’ – the word is literally ‘Messiah’. What came to pass was that Persia conquered Babylon (you can read that story in the book of Daniel) and decided to let the Israelite slaves return home. All this, the prophet claims, is what God is doing, moving the nations and leaders around like pieces on a chessboard for his purposes and for the good of his people. Not only is he the only God: he is also more than able to use pagan rulers to further his purposes.


So how would we react if a preacher told us that the one true God has called ISIS to fulfil his purposes, or to have referred to Usama bin Laden the ‘Messiah’? I think we have a similar degree of shock here among the exiles at the prophet’s words. Yet we are still tempted to believe that we have a powerless God, who has been defeated by the combined forces of secularism, the multi-faith society and Richard Dawkins. We are still tempted to divide the world into two – the bits God rules over (ie church) and the rest where he has little power. We need Isaiah’s radical message as much as ever, although we need to remember that the exiles had been living as slaves, and believing their delusions for a long time before it was heard.

OT Lectionary Feb 23 Lent -2 Genesis 1:1 – 2:3

Well, what do we make of this, particularly in the age of Dawkins et al? This chapter-and-a-bit sets out the traditional account of creation, or at least one of them, and it has been the interpretation of this passage which has caused so much argument in the church and so much ridicule outside it. How do we deal with it?

The easy answer is to read the passage not as one telling us how creation happened, which is the view of fundamentalists, both atheist and Christian, but as why it happened. In fact this passage is deeply theological, and more than just a day-by-day account of the creation.

But there is a less noddy way of approaching the creation narratives. In fact they tell us less about how it happened than about the people who told the story. Most cultures have some kind of a creation story, and in fact there are three of them mentioned in the Bible, and a fourth which has come to popularity since. The first is the Babylonian story, about a battle between Marduk, the God, and Tiamat, the sea monster. Tiamat ended up in two pieces, and Marduk made the heavens and the earth, one from each half. This story was told by a warlike people whose gods were always fighting each other, which is presumably why they enjoyed a good bundle so much. This story is alluded to many times in the OT, without them actually believing a word of it, rather as we might use the story of Pandora’s box to make a point without actually saying that we believe it happened.

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Then there is the story in Gen 2, which almost certainly dates from around the time of King David, and which was told by a nation at the top of their game. So the human race were at the peak, with the rest of creation under their domination. It was us who came first, and for whom the rest of creation was given to provide a backdrop. It was us who gave names to the animals, and who are to care for the land.

So to the Genesis 1 story, which probably dates from a much later period, probably during or just after the Babylonian exile. The people now are sadder and wiser. They have a bigger sense of God and a smaller sense of themselves, so they are part afterthought and part crown of creation. But there is also some anti-Babylonian polemic: the word for ‘deep’ in v 2 is the same root as ‘Tiamat’, and like Marduk God separates it to make earth and heaven. ‘It wasn’t your Marduk who cut the sea monster in half’ the Israelites are saying. ‘It was our capital-G God! And by the way, all those stars you worship – he made them too, and the trees and plants: everything, in fact’. This story comes from a people who know their place, but have also learnt God’s place too – supreme over everything.

Understand this and you get a new insight into the fourth creation story: evolution by natural selection. Whether or not it’s true (and personally I have serious doubts, but that’s another blog) it tells us a tremendous amount about the culture which created it: a culture which believes in science as the ultimate answer to every question, an enlightenment worldview where everything is slowly evolving towards perfection, and where information is power. We have unlearnt the lessons of the exile about the supremacy of God, and so we tell a story which doesn’t need him. The question is less about whether the stories are ‘true’ or not,  but about whether the people who told them are right.