The Origins of Prayer: Prayer in the Bible

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Turning to God in moments of need, what we call praying, definitely appears in the Bible. It was performed by private individuals as well as public figures. Prayer was not, however, the standard means of worshipping God in the Hebrew Bible.

There are some beautiful examples of private people praying. In the beginning of the book of Samuel there is a story of a woman, Hannah, who prays for a child. She prays silently, in her heart. The description says she was weeping all the while only her leaps moved. Her voice could not be heard. This was apparently not that common a scene. So, the High Priest Eli, who sees her, assumes that she is drunk.

Individuals in the Bible sometimes turn to God requesting the cure of an illness. One of the earliest and most succinct prayers in biblical literature is the prayer of Moses on behalf of his sister Miriam. It is only four or five words long: “Oh God, please heal her”.

Prayer and Sacrifice

One of the first public scenes of prayer in the Bible takes place as the Temple of Solomon was completed. He gathers all the congregation of Israel to the site. Solomon acknowledges that he knows that God does not really dwell in this building. He says even the heavens cannot contain him. He knows that from this point onwards, people would pray to God as they turn towards that place. He knows this would happen at particular times. What is interesting is that although Solomon prayed and knew that in the future people would direct their prayers to the Temple, that story ends with Solomon himself offering up 22000 oxes and 120000 sheep as sacrifices of well-being to the Lord. In other words, this story expresses that prayer is all well and good, but we know how to worship. We sacrifice animals.

As long as the first and the second Jewish temple stood, prayer never displaced sacrifice as the primary mode of public worship. However, Jews lived in the diaspora without access to the temple. They may had developed some sort of alternative system of prayer. The earliest known synagogues to us were in Egypt in the third century B.C.E. Interestingly enough, they were called, in Greek, proselke, which means “place of prayer”. It could be that in the far off diaspora they were praying, whereas in Israel and the closer you got to the temple, they were still practicing worship through sacrifice.

We know that there might had been Jews in Palestine itself that developed systems of prayer. These would had been Jews who did not have access to the Temple, and possibly those who refused to enter the Temple. We know, for instance, that some of the sectarians who produced the Death Sea Scrolls refused to participate in worship at Jerusalem, and they probably had some hymn service in which they prayed.

Nevertheless, even if Jews in the diaspora prayed, at the same time, they sent funds to Jerusalem for the purpose of participating in the purchase of animals for sacrifice. They obviously thought that this was a religious requirement of all God-fearing Jews.

Prayer and the First Synagogue

The fact that prayer was a late-comer to the synagogue became evident when we discovered a dedicatory inscription from a first century C.E. synagogue in Jerusalem. In fact, this is probably the earliest physical evidence that we have of a synagogue in the land of Israel. In the inscription, the builder of the synagogue enumerates why he built the synagogue. His name was Theodotus the son of Betanas. The inscription is in Greek. It claims that he built the synagogue for the reading of the law and for the teaching of the commandments. Furthermore, he built a hospice and chambers, and a water installation for the lodging of needy strangers. What is striking is what is missing from the inscription. There is no mention of prayer.

If somebody were to approach this fellow and say “Theodotus, are you leaving something out? What about prayer?”, he would have said “prayer? You want to talk to God? You see that building on the hill over there? That is were you talk to God. On the way up there, with an animal, because that is the way it is done.”

The inscription here is not only fascinating in its antiquity, but I think it is very enlightening in what it tells us about the later appearance of prayer as an alternative system of worship.