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Biblical Prose Prayer: As a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel

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Biblical Prose Prayer: As a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel

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Biblical Prose Prayer
As a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel
By Moshe Greenberg
Wipf & Stock, 1983, 67 pages
ISBN 13: 978-1-55635-111-2

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 27, 2010

Does it make any sense to pray? To who are prayers addressed? Are they answered? Do the prayers in the Hebrew Bible differ markedly from those said today?

Probably every person today has his and her individual approach to prayer. The English word "prayer" is derived from the Greek and denotes a petition and entreaty, a request for something. It supposes that the deity is capable and willing to grant the petitioner's request.

The Hebrew word for prayer rejects the idea that a person is addressing God. The word hitpaleil means "judging oneself," and suggests that the individual is using the formula words as a prompt for self evaluation, a time to think about the past and future, and resolve to take corrective actions.

Mystics spurn both views. They see prayer as a period of communion, a sense of joining with God, when the individual finds contentment, being part of the whole.

Others feel an obligation to pray because prayers fulfill what they consider a human requirement to praise God and to mention many divine attributes such as being merciful, just, and compassionate.

Still others see prayer as a way of saying "thank you." And there are other ideas about prayer.

Most philosophers reject them all. They write that God has no need for prayer and does not hear them. The world functions according to the laws of nature and will not change no matter how passionately one requests that God alter nature. God is transcendent and it is impossible to join with God. Extolling God for having certain attributes is actually insulting, for God cannot be understood and whatever we say about God falls far short of what God is. True, it is good to have a period of self reflection, but there are far better ways of doing this than a formal service using formulistic words. People, they say, should spend their time bettering themselves and society.

These ideas relate to current and pagan prayers. But, "prayers" as they are used today are totally unlike the prayers in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the Hebrew Bible concept of prayers and the post-biblical versions are so distinct, that one can safely say that prayers did not exist in the Hebrew Bible. Why?

The Hebrew Bible pictures God as being ever present, a being that one can talk to, just as God had a conversation with Adam and Eve while they were in the Garden of Eden. Thus, when Moses requests God to do something, such as healing his sister Miriam, this was not what we understand as prayer today; Moses was simply requesting God, with whom he had frequent conversations and who he knew was very powerful, to heal his sick sister. Biblical people speak, cry, shout, ask God, as one "person" talks to another, but they do not pray to God.

The Israelites offered sacrifices, but there is no evidence in any scriptural book, that the sacrifices were accompanied by prayer. True, the Bible has psalms, but there is nothing in the Bible that says that they were used as prayers.

Moshe Greenberg, who died in May 2010, was a distinguished professor of Bible. He calls the biblical addresses of humans to God "prayers" in his Biblical Prose Prayers, but he recognizes that they were conversations.

Greenberg shows that these conversations are not formal statements, especially composed words, phrases, and sentences written by priests or poets, but normal everyday human requests that focus on the needs of the specific person at the specific time. They are simple, to the point, and are said by anyone, even non-priests, at any time and at any place. Thus Moses' prayer on behalf of his sick sister, "O God, please, heal her please," was a simple request that Moses made to God, who was present, as soon as he heard of her illness. It was as mundane as a man needing money for a pay phone, turning to his friend, who is standing near him, and saying, "Frank, please, lend me a quarter please."

Greenberg recognizes that some prayers start with "confessions," admissions by the petitioner that he did something wrong. The pray-er hopes that he can now reestablish a good relationship, and that God will grant his request. Greenberg stresses that this is not something that only occurs in addresses to God, people do this all the time when they make request of others. "I'm sorry that I did not call you last week, Frank, but could you lend me the quarter please."

In summary, it should be clear that the current understandings of prayer, that prayers are an entreaty, a self-analysis, a time of communion, or a need to praise God, did not exist in the early biblical period. Biblical personal prose encounters with God were simply conversations, formed with the same informality as human conversations. Prayers as we understand them today developed later when people developed a feeling that God was not present, but transcendental, loftier, more inaccessible. This was when the people felt that they needed to address such a deity with elevated formal language, words composed by experts, priests, and poets.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on www.yutorah@yutorah.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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