🔼The name Habakkuk: Summary
- Basil, Insect Repellant
- Emptied Bosom, The Emptiness Embraced
- From the widely attested Semitic word habbaquku or hubuqbuq, mint or basil.
- From (1) the verb חבב (habab), to embrace, and (2) the verb בקק (baqaq), to empty.
🔼The name Habakkuk in the Bible
There's only one man (or woman) named Habakkuk in the Bible. This name appears only twice and only in the Book of Habakkuk, namely in Habakkuk 1:1 and 3:1. The chapters and verse numbers in the Bible are arbitrary and not native to the text but added by modern scholars for ease of reference, and since the first two chapters of Habakkuk form a unit, this name "Habakkuk the prophet" is really part of the title of two semi-independent works rather than simply the signature of the author. Said otherwise: a book named "The Adventures of Don Quixote" is not necessarily written by an author named Don Quixote. Likewise, a book titled "The Oracle Which Habakkuk The Prophet Saw" is not necessarily written by an author named Habakkuk.
Commentators generally agree that The Oracle Which Habakkuk The Prophet Saw was written by someone with an extraordinary mastery of the Hebrew language, and then invariably complain that the "name" Habakkuk makes no sense in Hebrew. What they don't complain about is that quite a lot of Biblical names "make no sense" in Hebrew. Take the name Abraham, for instance. That name makes not a lick of sense in Hebrew. And Jesus was supposed to be called Immanuel, so how does that make sense? And how come there are more than two dozen men named Zechariah in the Bible but only one Adam, Noah, Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon? That makes no sense at all.
The authors of the Hebrew Bible (and the Greek New Testament too, for that matter) all produced texts that were of such baffling quality that it's beyond obvious that they worked within schools and were not the hermits that folklore makes them out to be. Biblical names, in turn, rarely describe one individual human being but always entities like social movements, scientific or technological specialties, or schools of thought with specific outlooks or insights. The literary character named Moses (= Drawn Out), for instance, almost certainly does not depict one flesh and bone man, but rather the cultural bottleneck that allowed some oral traditions to survive into modernity and some to be forever forgotten.
The name Abraham, to give another example, does not belong to one flesh and blood man, but rather the beginning of international trade, which honed local languages, opened people up for other points of view, lubricated the exchange of ideas and knowledge, did wonders for the development of script and finally the alphabet and ultimately allowed mankind to emerge from primitivity and embrace the formal Word of God. The name Adam, to top the list, does not belong to one flesh and blood human man, but rather personifies the one thing that applies to all living creatures (namely the fall; see Romans 8:19). Adam's wife Eve was called the "mother of all life." The word for "mother" may also mean "people" or "tribe" and the term "all life" occurs half a dozen times in the Bible and always means, well, all life. Eve is what we moderns call the biosphere.
Having considered all this, some readers might sense a creeping suspicion that the authors of some of the most celebrated literary works mankind has ever produced had a kind of sense of things that we moderns have no idea of. As if they were Mozart and we are tone deaf.
🔼The origin of name Habakkuk
As lamented by many, the name Habakkuk does not immediately resemble any word in the Hebrew Bible. This might be because it's a word so rare and specific that no author used it, although anybody in the original audience would have recognized it (there are doubtlessly many of such words and terms, just as there are many English words not ever used by Shakespeare). But the name Habakkuk is also endowed with a rather peculiar structure, as it consists of five letters whereas most Hebrew words are three letters long. Names are often longer than three letters but most commonly consists of a three-letter word combined with a theonym (-el, -yah, -baal, -ab, -ah, -zur and so on). Habakkuk does not contain any known name of any deity.
Our name may simply be a transliteration of a foreign word, but Hebrew scribes allowed enormous margins and often "transliterated" foreign words so creatively that their original was barely recognizable. Particularly the names of Assyrian and Babylonian royalty were fair game (hence the name Nabu-kudurri-usur became Nebuchadnezzar, Hammurabi became Amraphel, and Marduk-apal-iddina became Berodach-baladan).
The Book of Habakkuk was produced in a time when the Assyrians dominated the world, and they would have recognized this work as an act of high treason (the apostle Paul would have the same problem during the Roman occupation; see our article on the name Philemon for more on this). Contrary to modern convention, folks in antiquity were by no means compelled to stick to their birth name and could change their name to accord to their heroic deeds or slant of thought, and that makes Habakkuk almost certainly a pseudonym.
The author of Habakkuk almost certainly operated within a school or tradition and the mere popularity and longevity of this work demonstrates that it was very well received, copied profusely and sent to communities whose readers doubtlessly knew or knew of the author. That means that the name Habakkuk is almost certainly synthetic — deliberately crafted — and thus a manifestation of a literary genre that we moderns are unfamiliar with: a one-word mini-poem whose elements are condensed and compressed into a unique term like a musical cord or abstract painting.
🔼Etymology of the name Habakkuk
Ancient scholars have pointed out that our name Habakkuk bears a striking resemblance to the Akkadian word khabbaququ (or more modern transliterations: habbaquku or habbaququ), the Assyrian word hambaququ, and the Arabic word hubuqbuq, which all describe a garden herb of the Lamiaceae family, probably mint (says R. Campbell Thompson in A Dictionary of Assyrian Botany) or basil (specifically Ocimum menthaefolium, according to Philippe Provencal's The Arabic Plant Names of Peter Forrkal's flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica).
The author of Habakkuk wrote just prior to the exile, and basil, as everybody in Habakkuk's time knew, is an herb that loses its flavor quickly after being harvested and has to be added to the final dish at the last possible moment. Besides giving food a zesty tang, basil also has antifungal and insect repelling qualities, which not only comes in handy in practical reality, it also reminds of the observation that mosquitoes and flies have no collective house or social structure and spread nothing but disease and decay; hence the familiar name Baal-zebub / Beelzebub, or Lord Of The Flies (which is a joke name because flies have no lord). Similarly, the Chaldean hordes which Habakkuk envisioned to overrun Judah "mock at kings and rulers are a laughing matter to them" (Habakkuk 1:10).
Hindus venerate basil for much the opposite reason and an India-specific kind is generously dubbed "holy basil". Basil has the qualities that every king hopes for, which is how basil got its name: the "royal" herb. Our modern word "basil" comes from the Greek word βασιλευς (basileus), meaning king:
The noun βασιλευς (basileus) means king, i.e. the chief of any societal structure greater and more complex than that of a tribe or family. The noun βασιλεια (basileia) means kingdom or dominion.
And as if that isn't enough, the Hebrew word חבצלת (habasilat), which is commonly (incorrectly) translated as the rose of Sharon (Song of Solomon 2:1) or as crocus (Isaiah 35:1), denotes a plant of unknown specifications but is probably a reed or marsh plant known as habasillatu in Assyrian. It was probably the word that more generally described a flower bulb or bud, and may have inspired the turban and early crowns. The Biblical word for scientific knowledge is דבר (dabar), from which comes the word דברה (debora) or honey bee (see below). And that might help to explain how basil obtained its royal status in the Greek world:
The unused verb בצל (basal) probably meant to strip off. Identical noun בצל (basal) may mean onion or may more generally refers to flower bulbs and buds. Reverence for flowers may have inspired the turban.
Biblical Hebrew does not contain a word that looks like habbaququ, but there is a plant with a strikingly similar name קיקיון (qiqayon). What plant this word might have described is unclear, but it's the one that provided shade for Jonah as he made himself comfortable to view the destruction of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria (Jonah 4:6-10).
Of course basil isn't big enough for a man to shelter under, but the story of Jonah may not be a literal report, mostly since realism and journalism didn't exist back then, and may rather be a playful reflection on the balance of power at the time, and particularly the balance of power of administration and thus information technologies (rather than merely political or military power).
The famous "worm" that YHWH sent to attack the plant was nothing like anything from "Dune" but rather a tiny creature called תולעה (tole'a), from which the purple dye was extracted with which the ancients made their signature royal robes (Matthew 27:28, Acts 16:14). The Phoenicians (with whom Solomon built the temple of YHWH in Jerusalem) were proverbially known for their purple production and made their famous purple dye from a sea snail called Murex in Latin:
The adjective μυριος (murios) and noun μυριας (murias) mean either an uncountable myriad or else roughly ten thousand.
The verb μυρω (muro) means to flow or trickle (of tears or blood and such). The derived noun μυρον (muron) means oil or ointment, but a proverbially expensive one. This noun in turn yields the verb μυριζω (murizo), to sprinkle with costly oil.
It may be that these words are linked to the creature called Murex (murex, muricis), from which the Phoenicians made their signature purple dye. There may even be relations with the word σμυρνα (smurna) or myrrh, the proverbial oil with which the consummation of marriage was celebrated.
🔼Faith like a mustard seed
The Phoenicians (the co-builders of the temple of YHWH in Jerusalem) were strongly associated with the palm tree, and trees in the Bible almost invariably refer to systems of government. The broadly branched oaks of Mamre (Genesis 13:18) represent unwavering fidelity to law, and particularly natural law, which explains why the word for oak, namely אלה ('allah or 'elah), is so similar to the word that describes the Creator: אלה (eloah).
The palm tree is unlike the oak in that it has no branches, but a stiff trunk and a broad crown of huge leaves that all sprout from the same head. This points to a very simple legal code that applied broadly to everyone; a kind of prime directive based on supply & demand, fair trade and mutual benefit that would support a trading hub at the center of many diverging trading routes; precisely what Abraham was the patriarch of.
Like Eve and the "Virgin" of whom Isaiah spoke so hopeful (see our article on the name Mary for more on this), women in the Bible often represent collectives of people, and a governing female called Deborah who is seated under a palm tree (Judges 4:4) may in fact describe a senatorial body made up from successful merchants who understand how economy and thus society works. The name Deborah comes from the noun דבר (dabar), or Word:
The verb דבר (dabar) means to formalize: to deliberately establish and pronounce something's name or definition. This causes the thing to become "real" in the mind of whoever understands this word, name or definition, and this in turn explains why all of creation was spoken into being, and Man in turn "named" all the animals by their name and finally his Wife by hers (Genesis 2:19-23). This principle sits at the base of nominal reasoning and thus human awareness and ultimately Information Technology.
Noun דבר (dabar) means word. It also means "thing" since the naming of a thing causes the experienced reality of the thing. All thus created "things" together form the whole of experienceable reality, which in turn is called the Word of God.
Noun דבר (deber) describes any deadly pestilence, which is a "word" that breaks unstable compounds apart. In nature this occurs via the Weak Nuclear Force. The ability of unstable compounds to break apart sits at the heart of all progress and thus all reality.
The rare noun דבר (dober), refers to a pasture; probably a well-defined fenced-in field upon which sheep graze. Figuratively this word obviously refers to some specific Holy Book from which a community feeds (the books of the Bible originated as separate works, with their separate adherers). Noun דברה (dibra) means matter or issue, and the similar noun דבורה (deborah) describes the bee (this probably because bees make honey, and "milk and honey" denote essential sustenance). The noun דביר (debir) was a nickname for the Holy of Holies and means "place of the word".
The noun מדבר (midbar) literally means "place of wording" and is used once to mean mouth and 270 times to mean wilderness, and because a wilderness is a place without cultivation, any cultivation needs to spring up in a wilderness. And anybody serious about the quest for true insight needs to leave the culture (or religion) of his heritage behind and spend a stint in the uncharted wild. All major players in the Bible did so.
Contrary to oaks and palms, the plants mostly associated with the gospel are strikingly unimposing. From the plant called אזוב ('ezob) or "hyssop" comes our word soap. The word מר (mor) describes the bitter spice we call myrrh, which was associated with the consummation of marriage (and possibly the name Mary).
A living faith may be as small as a seed, as long as it is indeed a complete seed and contains the wholly complete genome of an entire orchard and only needs time, water and a plot to root in. But strikingly, a single mature faith that comes from its tiny seed grows into a mustard "tree" (Matthew 13:31-32), which is little more than a handsome shrub, in which only relatively small birds can nest. The name Jonah, it should be noted, means dove, which is a tiny pigeon.
Israel is often associated with the gnarly and decidedly demure olive tree (זית, zayit), because the olive tree produces the oil with which the Christ is anointed. This word Christ (which is Greek for the Hebrew word Messiah and means the same, namely Anointed One) was never reserved for Jesus the Nazarene but applies to every king, priest and prophet (hence a "kingdom of priests" is a "kingdom of christs"; Exodus 19:6).
An important element of the good news of the gospel is that Jesus will end all human government (1 Corinthians 15:24, Ephesians 1:21) and when he takes the government upon his shoulders (Isaiah 9:6) this government will come from every person's personal knowledge of the laws of nature and thus of the Creator (Galatians 5:1). Hence a perfect society is not like a massive tree but rather like a vine (Isaiah 5:1, John 15:5).
🔼The everlasting arms
Despite the reservations of many a modern commentator, a Hebrew audience — and particularly an audience that was neither fluent in Assyrian or Arabic botany terms nor was swayed by any of the motivations that would 1,500 years later drive the Masoretes into adding diacritic symbols to the texts — would have recognized in the name Habakkuk two rather obvious elements. The first part of our name is spelled the same as the noun חב (hob), meaning bosom or passionate embrace, and additionally strongly reminds of the verb חבק (habaq), to huddle together:
The verb חבב (habab) means to love, to warmly embrace or to passionately hold close. It occurs only once in the Bible, as does the derived noun חב (hob). This noun is commonly translated as "bosom" but the much more common word for bosom is חיק (heq), and the noun חב (hob) is probably more accurately rendered with "embrace".
The accidentally similar verb חבק (habaq) means to embrace in the sense of to huddle together. This verb is much less dynamic and emotional than the previous and emphasizes the search for prolonged collective strength or shelter. The noun חבק (hibbuq) describes a huddling together.
This noun חב (hob) occurs in the Bible only in Job 31:33, where Job asks his audience to demonstrate where he erred so as to deserve his grim fate: Have I trusted my wealth, thrown kisses to the sun and moon, or wished ill to my enemies? Have I turned away aliens or the needy from my table? "Have I covered my transgressions like Adam, by hiding my iniquity in my חב (hob), because I feared the great multitude, and the contempt of families terrified me, and kept silent and did not go out of doors?"
The verb חבב (habab), likewise only occurs once, namely in Deuteronomy 33:3: "Indeed, He חבב (habab) the people; all Your holy ones are in Your hand, and they followed in Your steps; everyone receives of Your words." Note that the verb ידד (yadad) is a more common verb that means to love, the noun דד (dad) means nipple, and the noun יד (yad) means hand.
The second part of the name Habakkuk (allowing for a merger of overlapping letters ב, b, which is not uncommon in names that consist of two elements), reminds of the verb בקק (baqaq), to empty or be luxuriant:
Verbs בקק (baqaq) and בוק (boq) mean to be or become empty (of items, lands, etc.). Nouns בוקה (buqa) and מבוקה (mebuqa) both mean emptiness. Noun בקבק (baqbuq) means flask.
A second verb בקק (baqaq) means to be luxuriant and may either be imported from a cognate language or else refer to a proverbial wealth of bottles to empty.
There was probably also a verb בקה (baqa) that meant to search, scout out or examine, with a similarly spelled noun meaning gnat. Perhaps the link with the previous was accidental but perhaps the erratic flight of the gnat reminded observers of vainly criss-crossing an emptied land in search of something that was no longer there. Or perhaps the gnat was proverbial for something that required careful straining (see Matthew 23:24).
The name Habakkuk positively teems with meaning. It refers to Basil, the royal herb venerated for repelling insects with its pleasant smell (to the human nose), and with that to the important olfactory aspects of Jewish tradition and specifically the fragrant anointing oil that made the tabernacle a national beacon of pleasant smells (Exodus 30:22-33). The tabernacle is where the Creator met his people like a husband would his bride, which is how the Bride of the Song of Solomon implored the north wind to make her "garden" breathe out fragrance, and let its spices be wafted abroad (Song of Solomon 4:16). In Jewish tradition, the bed where a marriage was first consumed was sprinkled with myrrh, so that the whole area became filled with the scent of love and procreation. This explains why Nicodemus hauled a whopping 100 liters of it to the burial of Jesus, enough to make the whole of Jerusalem thunder with the joy of proliferation (John 19:39; early Roman commentators imaged that the implied "custom of the Jews" had to do with embalming for burial, which was a rather silly error soon rectified by better informed scholars).
Through the prophet Ezekiel YHWH said, "As a soothing aroma I will accept you when I bring you out from the peoples and gather you from the lands where you are scattered; and I will prove Myself holy among you in the sight of the nations" (Ezekiel 20:41). And later Paul wrote, "But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place" (2 Corinthians 2:14). The knowledge of Him is what we moderns call science (1 Kings 4:33, Romans 1:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:21), which is why YHWH is the God of the whole of mankind (Habakkuk 2:14) and also why the Jews win so many Nobel prizes.
The ancient Hebrews realized that the world is not governed by warring gods and roving spirits, as the pagans demanded, but rather by a singular and unified natural law (Deuteronomy 6:4). Jesus famously condensed the whole law and the prophets into: "Treat others the way you want to be treated" (Matthew 7:12), and this is commonly explained to prelude the generous attentions you will befall on the sheer merit of you kind benevolence, but that is not necessarily what is implied. What is implied is that (a) you are under divine orders to analyze what you want and convey that to others by how you treat them, and (b) someone who is truly other cannot be dealt with out of experience or empirical knowledge but must instead be analyzed through dry and detached theory. Like buying an album for someone who's into music you find absolute garbage, or helping a friend avoid a trigger to a weakness that you find laughable, or looking out for a partner for someone whose sexual appetites are unimaginable to you. When you cannot possibly relate to someone's concerns, your only chance of being useful comes from an analytic review of available facts and a calculated extrapolation thereof. A pin prick will remain a pin prick unless it expands into the unknown, and as any conscious creature knows, theory always precedes reality (Habakkuk 2:2).
The Hindus like to believe that the Creator dreamt the universe into existence, but the Jews insist that He consciously spoke it into being. The celebrated Golden Rule additionally implies that God didn't merely spoke but rather theorized the unprecedented universe into being. Just after the beginning, the universe was void and formless, but the Creator theorized natural law into existence and along with natural law came the nature it described. This helps to explain why the Greek word θεος (theos), meaning God, so closely resembles the word θεωρια (theoria), a theory or thing observed. Or as the ancient Hebrews put it: "The eternal God is a dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms" (Deuteronomy 33:27, Habakkuk 1:12). The ancients understood that creation rests upon the everlasting arms of theory. The name Habakkuk also means The Emptiness Embraced (Habakkuk 3:10).
Thirdly, the name Habakkuk means Emptied Bosom, which reminds of Hannah, who poured out her soul to YHWH and conceived of her son Samuel (1 Samuel 1:15). It likewise reminds of the sins of Adam that would finally be extracted from his bosom so that he and his offspring could live forever (Romans 5:14, Ephesians 2:1). It reminds of the cup that Jesus feared to empty (Matthew 26:39), which early commentators mistook for Jesus' fear of his own death. This is a silly mistake, of course, since Jesus' life was always indestructible and no one but himself had any say-so over it (John 10:18).
John the Revelator saw the souls of the slain under the altar, who cried out: "How long O Lord, holy and true, will you refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" (Revelation 6:9). Likewise Habakkuk implored: "How long, O Lord, will I call for help and you will not hear?" (Habakkuk 1:2).
The Creator answered through the prophet Isaiah: "For the sake of My name I delay My wrath, and for My praise I restrain it for you, in order not to cut you off" (Isaiah 48:9). Jesus didn't fear his own death but other people's death. The greatest burden of an autonomous and sovereign person is not merely the responsibility for one's own life and actions but rather the cruel clarity of unredeemable worthlessness in others. The divine Son of God can heal and teach until the entire capacity of the law is exhausted, but he cannot make a worthless thing useful beyond the range of application of natural law.
Omnipotence isn't relevant when the very existence of reality depends on fidelity to a set of rules. Just like the Word of God could not have been received by mankind if the ancients hadn't painstakingly developed script, so can no one attain reality when the laws that describe reality can't incorporate you anywhere. Jesus had nothing to fear but having to judge between the living and the dead. He feared for the souls of fools (Psalm 75:8, 119:119, Isaiah 1:22-25, Habakkuk 2:16, Luke 23:34).