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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of the Divine Warrior—Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19 (Amy Merrill Willis)

Habakkuk’s prophecy raises the unsettling question of how to deal with the image of the Divine Warrior in a sensitive manner. Handled carefully, rather than compounding violence with more violence, Habakkuk’s prophecy can function as a powerful appeal for justice.

 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 wrong-doing 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 judgment comes forth perverted.


2 Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.


17 Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

To the leader: with stringed instruments.

Religious violence seems to dominate our news coverage like never before. In a quick review of several news outlets earlier this week, I read a slew of articles and news reports that all came back to this problem of religiously-motivated violence. While one might expect most of this violence to be foreign, the articles reported on events that took place at home as well as abroad. In addition to multiple headlines about ISIS and its latest horrors, there was also a report on two separate beheadings in Oklahoma—one by a self-professed Christian and one by a self-professed convert to Islam. A separate article reported on an act of verbal violence rather than physical violence: a California pastor has repeatedly preached about his personal hatred for Obama and his wish that Obama die immediately and go to Hell.

Blame it on the Divine Warrior?

What to make of these things? Acts of violence provoke humans to make sense of these terrible things by trying to locate causes and root factors. Reader responses on news sites and social media show this meaning-making at work, but these responses can be almost as distressing as the violent acts themselves. For example, most of those responding to the ISIS stories asserted that ISIS’s violence is just part and parcel of Islam’s violence. And Islam is violent because Muhammad was violent. The causes were clear and obvious to those readers—never mind that such characterizations grossly misstate the character of Islam and overlook the proximate causes of extremist violence. Attempts by moderating readers to challenge these unfair generalizations yielded only ugly and caustic dismissals. And what about the situation with the California pastor? It was a little more heartening to read those responses. Most of the readers rejected his rhetoric as violent, unacceptable, and antithetical to the gospels. One reader, though, concluded that the pastor was a follower of the violent and wrathful God of the Hebrew Bible. The blame should be placed there, the reader argued, on that thundering Old Testament God.

It is easy to trace the logic that underlies such assertions. The religious texts of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all contain passages that entangle God in some way with violence. Take for instance the lectionary text for this week—the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk. Habakkuk’s third chapter recounts at length the past acts of God as the powerful Divine Warrior who once turned his rage against the threatening seas, who trod the earth with fury, and brandished the naked bow at the speaker’s enemies (Hab 3:1-15). It is chock-full of divine violence in which the Creator God acts as the Divine Warrior—the one who leads a holy war against chaotic forces, non-human and human alike. The problem with such passages is that they are more than ink and paper; they have tremendous power to shape human actions. So it doesn’t surprise us when human perpetrators of verbal or military violence name their religious convictions and their God as a motivating factor.

Given this connection, wouldn’t it be better if we just suppressed or eradicated such language? Many think so and, in fact, the narrative lectionary carefully omits this part of chapter 3 from the reading. Perhaps out of a keen sensitivity to these issues, the scholars who shaped the narrative lectionary left it out. The reading jumps right over the divine warrior imagery and goes to the song of praise at the end of the chapter.

Despite the lectionary’s sensitivity to this difficult language, it is not clear that simply suppressing the language does much to neutralize it, especially when other groups find ways to use that language destructively. On the other hand, it is a false logic that would dismiss an entire religious tradition because of its extremists, or blame all acts of religious violence on the Divine Warrior God of the Old Testament. This kind of logic misunderstands the nature of religious violence and even risks perpetuating it.

An Old Heresy with Staying Power

Many readers, Christian and secular alike, subscribe to the old idea that the Old Testament is little more than a record of a violent God, while the New Testament gives us the loving God of Jesus Christ. Such a characterization of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is an ancient one that was promoted by the 2nd century Christian thinker Marcion, who believed that the God of the Hebrew Bible, the creator God, was an evil God that was not related to Jesus Christ. Although the early Church firmly renounced and rejected this thinking, the distinction continues to enjoy support. But this way of summarizing the Old Testament and the New Testament grossly distorts these scriptures and also contributes to anti-Jewish bias. As New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine has argued, this logic is not only supersessionist, it assumes that there is a fundamental difference between the God of Judaism and the God of Christianity.[1] Somewhat ironically, this rejection of the Old Testament because of its violence has, in turn, nurtured verbal and physical acts of violence toward the Jewish community in Christianity’s long history of anti-Semitism.

The Roots of Religious Violence

Moreover, scholars of religious violence have cautioned against a simple correlation between religious texts and human violence in the name of God. Jessica Stern, author of Terror in the Name of God (2003) argues that it is not religion itself that creates holy warriors and holy war movements such as ISIS. Rather, deeply-rooted psycho-social factors power these individuals and movements to use violence for religious ends. Many of these factors are familiar to some degree to ordinary persons, such as feelings of alienation and disempowerment, having a sense of wounded masculinity and emasculation, the fear of chaos, but also the greed for power. In a recent article chronicling ISIS’s tactics in recruiting western women, religious scholar Mia Bloom argues that ISIS appeals to young people searching for hope and meaning. “They’re tired of being not the agents of change in history. They are just the bystanders.”[2]

The Underside of History with Habakkuk

Habakkuk also knew what it meant to be on the underside of history. Writing during a time of extraordinary social and political chaos in ancient Judah, he laments the way in which powerful members of his own society subvert the law. He names the corruption of his country’s leaders who pervert justice and oppress the righteous. He cries out against the violence of the Babylonians—a brutal military juggernaut that attacked Jerusalem repeatedly before finally destroying the temple and the country. Habakkuk’s complaint to God is a familiar one, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (1:2).

God is slow to respond and the prophet has good reason to lament. Finally, however, word comes that the perpetrators of these outrages will reap what they have sown and justice will prevail: “Ah! You who pile up what is not yours … soon your creditors will arise and you will be despoiled by them” (2:6-7). “Ah! You who have acquired gains … and have destroyed many peoples … you have plotted shame and for yourself” (2:9-10). The prophet sounds the death knell of the empire.

Habakkuk and the Quest for Justice

Despite Habakkuk’s earnest call for the Divine Warrior, what he really wants is not more violence but justice. Indeed, Habakkuk has been a powerful force in the quest for justice.

In a recent blogpost, biblical scholar Juliana Claassens calls attention to various times in which preachers have used Habakkuk to name, lament, and resist the forces of terrible injustice and depravity.[3] John Calvin wrote at length on Habakkuk and his critique of “tyrants and their cruelty”—surely a reference to the religious and political tyrants of Calvin’s own time. Claassens also tells the story of a church newspaper in Basel, Switzerland that spoke out against the Nazi regime in 1940 by quoting Habakkuk. Recognizing the power of the prophet’s critique, Nazi censors banned the newspaper. In the 1980’s, Allan Boesak, South African preacher, scholar, and activist, preached on Habakkuk as a way of giving voice to the injustices of the apartheid regime and seeking its end.

Habakkuk and other texts like it that call on the Divine Warrior present a dilemma for religiously and politically sensitive readers. We could suppress and deny them because of their violent imagery, or eschew and condemn their God. Habakkuk teaches us, however, that silencing this text and its witness to God doesn’t serve the purposes of justice. After all, silencing—even when done with good intentions—can be an act of violence in itself.

[1] Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. 2009.
[2] Tim Molloy, “How ISIS Uses Sexual Predators’ Tactics to Lure Western Women.” Frontline. PBS.org. Nov. 12, 2014.
[3] Juliana Claassens, “Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19.” Working Preacher.Org. November 30, 2014.

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