This painting is by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch, and anyone who is familiar with Bosch’s work will immediately recognize the very…Boschesque…subject matter and style. The subject is the Irish knight Tundale’s vision of a trip through heaven and hell and depicts the souls of the damned, tormented because of the sins that they committed in life.
Today’s Bible text is the entire Book of Habukkuk (it’s short). The biblical translations of Habukkuk are widely divergent in certain verses, including the following, which made me think of this painting:
Wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure. They open their throats wide as Sheol; like Death they never have enough. They gather all nations for themselves, and collect all peoples as their own.Habukkuk 2:5 (NRSV)
Now take a look at those people dining in the mouth of that creature! Is this not a perfect visual image of “They open their throats wide as Sheol; like Death they never have enough.”?
Not every translation has that “open their throats” imagery; likely because it is not in the original Hebrew from which this was translated. And also, the NRSV version I am using does not include any mention of wine in Habakkuk 2:5, though it is in the Hebrew. (Some translations say something along the lines of “wine betray the haughty man, so that he does not stay at home” instead of the NRSV’s instead of “wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure”).
This seems like kind of a big difference! Especially when you start looking at all the different ways people have interpreted the five woes of the wicked, which are declared by God in Habukkuk 2:6-20. The third woe is about making your neighbors drink, and “pouring out your wrath until they are drunk, in order to gaze on their nakedness.” Some interpret this as being against drunkenness and licentiousness, but this sounds to me more like sexual assault, and some commentaries say it is all metaphor for the oppressor stripping away the defenses of the oppressed and then exposing their vulnerability and looking on them with contempt for a situation they themselves created, “pouring out [their] wrath.”
The reason for these translation differences is because of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In particular, the Pesher Habukkuk, 1QpHab. It differs in places from the Masoretic text, which is the version that made it into the Bible. Best I can tell, many scholars prefer the Dead Sea Scrolls because they are actually older. But this isn’t my area of expertise, so I’ll stop there.
If you haven’t read Habukkuk, I recommend it. The entire book is such a perfect lament for our own times too. It’s a lament about how God allows injustice in the world. Habukkuk laments that his country is overwhelmed with violence, oppression, and corrupt leaders. But never fear! God is doing something about it. What, you ask? Well, God is sending a treacherous Empire to conquer Judah.
Could you imagine? If we complained to God about the injustices in our own country, and God’s response was “worry not! I am rousing Russia to conquer your country! Huzzah!”
Habakkuk is not comforted – not because he doesn’t want more violence, mind you – but because the nation God is sending to conquer his is even worse.
God’s answer is less than ideal, in my opinion. But the exchange does inspire some great conversations about our own role in the here and now. And it ends with a beautiful prayer of hope: