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Prayer(s)

Source:
The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Prayer(s)

    The Bible both talks about prayer and gives the texts of specific prayers to God. Underlying the biblical story is the conviction, so fundamental that it rarely needs to be voiced explicitly, that it is both possible and desirable for humans to address the Divine and that the Divine both can and will respond. Indeed the God of the Bible is characterized as “you who answer prayer” (Ps. 65.2; cf. 1 Kings 9.3; Matt. 7.11).

    Yet the very terminology of “prayer” is much more problematic than might seem at first glance. Sometimes, in modern usage, the term is used to include any form of address to God or even outbursts of praise about God, such as hymnic compositions in which God is not addressed directly but talked about in the third person. Furthermore, communication with God can be expressed not only in words but in acts of sacrifice, dance, ritual bodily gestures, and other nonverbal modes of communication, and in a broad sense all of these are often included in the category of prayer. Biblical scholars usually define the term more narrowly and precisely, distinguishing between “psalms” as sung poetic compositions in formulaic language that belong to the formal, public worship in the Temple and “prayers” as prose compositions, usually with some component of petition. Often it is difficult to draw a line between conversation with God (e.g., Gen. 18; Exod. 3–4) and the more formalized style of address and content that should be termed a “prayer.”

    Both prayer and sacrifice are understood in the Bible as service (Hebr. ʿăbōdâ) rendered to God as king. It is debated whether set words of prayer may have accompanied sacrifice in the Temple; certainly no such texts have been preserved. Sometimes the language of prayer and sacrifice is brought together (e.g., Ps. 141.2), and the Temple itself came to be called a “house of prayer” (Isa. 56.7; 1 Kings 8; Luke 18.10). Little is known about origin of the practice of set statutory prayers for the community (particularly for morning and evening), although the process certainly began in the postexilic period. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls there are, albeit preserved only in an extremely fragmentary state, the actual texts of prayers from perhaps the mid‐third century BCE, prayers for each day of the week, each month of the year, and for special feasts (1Q34; 4Q503–509); in these certain features that came to be standard in subsequent Jewish prayer are already attested (in particular the blessing formulary at beginning and end of each prayer and the practice of petitionary prayer on weekdays and prayer of praise on the Sabbath).

    When we turn to actual texts of prayers given in the Bible, much study has focused on the Psalms and on the Lord's Prayer; yet these are by no means the only prayers in the Bible. In the Hebrew Bible alone there are over ninety prose prayers in which individuals address God directly in a time of need. These range from a short simple petition (like that of Moses' “O God, please heal her,” Num. 12.13; see also Jth. 13.8; 2 Sam. 15.31; 2 Kings 6.17), to more lengthy and formal prayers blending elements of praise and petition (2 Sam. 7.18–29; 1 Kings 8.22–61; 2 Chron. 20.6–12), to communal confession of sin and lament (Jth. 10.10). Such prayers are presented as spontaneous, unrepeatable, and arising out of the immediate situation, although as Moshe Greenberg (Biblical Prose Prayer as a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel [Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1983]) has shown, there are links in contact, structure, and vocabulary between these prayers of individuals and the more formal psalms and public prayers. Of special interest are those narratives that portray an individual drawing on a psalm from the cultic realm as a personal prayer in time of need (1 Sam. 2.1–10; 2 Sam. 22.2–51; Jon. 2.1–9) and, from the postexilic period, a special collection of extended prayers of confession of sin and penitence (Ezra 9.6–15; Neh. 9.5–37; Dan. 9.3–19).

    The Apocrypha is especially rich in actual prayer texts, including the prayers of Esther and Mordecai added on to the Greek text of Esther; the prayers of Azariah and the three youths in the fire in Daniel 3; Tobit 3.2–7, 11–15; 8.5–7, 15–17; 13; Judith 9.2–14; 13.4–5; 16.1–17; and many other short prayers (see also Manasseh, The Prayer of). These provide a window into the continuing development of prayer forms in the Persian and Hellenistic periods, such as the increased use of the blessing formulary to begin a prayer, and give evidence of a number of new concepts about prayer that find expression in this period, such as the introduction of an angelic intermediary who presents prayers to God (Tob. 12.12) and the possibility of prayers for the dead (2 Macc. 12.41–45).

    In the New Testament we continue to find both statements about prayer and the text of prayers, especially on the lips of Jesus and Paul. Thus Jesus not only teaches his disciples about prayer and gives them words to pray “like this” (Luke 1.2–4; Matt. 6.5–13; see Lord's Prayer) but he himself is portrayed as praying at each of the decisive moments of his life (Luke 3.21; 6.12; 9.29; 22.39–46; 23.46; John 15–17). Much of what the New Testament says about prayer continues and reiterates what is said in earlier sections of the Bible about the necessity and efficacy of prayer and the characteristics of humility and persistence to be brought to prayer. Distinctively Christian is the emphasis that prayer, though directed to God (Rom. 1.8; 1 Cor. 1.4; Col. 1.3), is to be “through Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1.8) or in the name of Jesus (John 15.17), and the role of the Spirit in making prayer possible (Rom. 8.26–28; Gal. 4.6).

    See also Lectionaries

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    Eileen Schuller

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