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

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

by Moshe Greenberg

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The Psalms are the best known and most widely used prayer texts of the Bible. But the prayers of the Israelite took another form: the prose prayers that we find embedded in biblical narrative. Prose prayer was spoken by persons of all ranks. Male and female, Israelite and foreigner, all enjoyed equal access to God. The pervasiveness and spontaneity of this prayer


The Psalms are the best known and most widely used prayer texts of the Bible. But the prayers of the Israelite took another form: the prose prayers that we find embedded in biblical narrative. Prose prayer was spoken by persons of all ranks. Male and female, Israelite and foreigner, all enjoyed equal access to God. The pervasiveness and spontaneity of this prayer, independent as it was of the structure and taboos of formal worship, turned it into a criterion for sincerity both in relations with God and in those among human beings.

Greenberg finds in this rich life of private prayer a setting for the high religious ideas--and the scathing critique of worship--that characterized the "genius" of the prophets of the eighth and ninth centuries B.C. His compact and masterful study, originally the 1981-1982 Taubman Lectures at Berkeley, suggests an explanation for the unprecedented democratization of worship in post-biblical Judaism.

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Biblical Prose Prayer

As a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel
By Moshe Greenberg

University of California Press

Copyright © 1983 Moshe Greenberg
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-05012-6

Chapter One

Lecture 1

Why are we moderns still drawn to the ancient Hebrew Scriptures? For one thing, since we are (at least descended from) Jews and Christians, we recognize in the Scriptures, whether we are religious or not, a spiritual and cultural patrimony: they are a source, containing paradigms of some of our distinctive and cherished values. A child is fascinated by the lineaments and the character of his ancestors, in which he seeks and finds the antecedents of his own identity. In like manner we peruse the Scriptures, which delineate our ancestors-literally, as the Jews hold, or by divine engrafting, as do the Christians-for the sources of our own identity and the values that link us to our nearest forebears. Finding them there, we have the assurance that we are not spiritual foundlings, but heirs of a rich and marvelously diverse tradition sprung from their roots.

Another reason for the Scriptures' lasting appeal is the surprising frequency with which, even without a preacher's embellishment, they seem to touch on our concerns. Our times differ radically from those of the Bible, and both our knowledge and our ignorance, our perplexities and our hopes, are beyond its scope. Yet, strange to say, we are still able to be stirred by the biblical representation of the main issues of human existence. Hebrew Scriptures offer a panorama of individual and collective lives and a variety of reflections and observations on them that constantly involve elemental values. Motives of behavior are stated and judged, or beg to be supplied by the reader. Causes are assigned to events, usually in the divine order; but when events are opaque, the observer's perplexity is candidly expressed and the failure of conventional explanation starkly exposed. The reader of the Scriptures soon finds himself diverted from ephemeral concerns to a consideration of fundamental, lasting issues, and these are dealt with in a plain and simple way that somehow bypasses our subtleties, complexities, and sophistication. By reducing issues to essentials, and thus making it impossible for the reader to escape them, the Scriptures work an effect like that of a child's blunt question or uninhibited comment on grown-up conduct. As a child's remark is capable of exposing a disturbing truth hidden under rationalization and self-deception, so the ancient writings invite us constantly to consider that beneath the glorious achievements of civilization stands the human being, a frail needy creature whose happiness still depends on discovering what it is, and why-without having had any say in the matter-it has been called into being.

Religion answers such existential questions by reference to a transcendent realm. The visible, tangible, phenomenal world does not in itself satisfy the restless soul's quest for meaning; the meaning of the mundane derives from its relation to the supermundane. Biblical religion, and its offspring-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-conceptualize the essence of the transcendent realm as one God, the source and ground of all being and all meaning. Single and all embracing, the concept of God integrates the cosmos, lending it coherence, consistency and thus intelligibility.

For his well-being, man must communicate with the transcendent realm, in order both to receive such knowledge and information as will enable him to conform to its nature and its will (if it is anthropomorphized, as it is in biblical religion), and to be able to have recourse to it in time of need. With the biblical God is "the fountain of life" (Ps. 36:10), he is himself depicted as "the fountain of living water" (Jer. 2:13); hence connection with him is a link to the vital source of all blessing: one who visits the temple "carries away blessing from YHWH" (Ps. 24:5). Central to religion, therefore, are institutions of two-way communication with the transcendent; in the Bible, oracles are given to man in three authorized ways-dreams, the priestly oracle and prophets (1 Sam. 28:6)-and man resorts to God through worship and prayer. There seems, however, to be a difference between the ways of God and those of man. God's dream-revelations to Israelites are plain, and their sense is immediately given; conformably, we hear of no professional dream-interpretation in biblical Israel. (I leave aside here the dreams of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar; their riddle-character recalls the connotation of mystery and equivocation that attaches to the terms "oracle" and "oracular," corresponding to the pagan conception of the relation of the supermundane realm to mankind, which is far from consistently or uniformly friendly. Note, however, that Joseph and Daniel are able to interpret the riddle-dreams, not through expertise, but through a special gift of God.) The technique of the priestly lot in Israel was also simple: questions to be answered "yes" or "no" were put to it, and its unequivocal response needed no expert to decipher it. Israel's prophets too were not schooled and learned professionals, but men called from all walks of life by the free choice of God; nor was their message so cryptic that it had to be interpreted to the public. In sum: the ways in which God communicated with men were all simple and minimally mediated; no human expertise was needed to make his message understandable. Such uncomplicated access to God's word-compared with the dependence on legions of experts in paganism-accords with the good will toward man that motivates the biblical God: it is for him to give and for man to receive in humble obedience and loyalty.

The ways of human communication with God appear more contingent upon mediation and prescription; indeed the most prominent forms of worship and prayer in the Bible seem to leave little room for free, simple, spontaneous expression.

The institution of the sanctuary and its rites and celebrations is by divine decree, involving the finest details of architecture and ritual. The central act of worship at the sanctuary, sacrifice, is in the hands of God's elected priesthood and their consecrated auxiliaries. Apart from the confession of one who offered a reparation-sacrifice, the laity had no role in this worship. Moreover, if we can rely on the biblical data, not even the priests had anything to say by way of prayer accompanying the sacrifices; besides the priests' confession on the Day of Atonement, no verbal expression of homage or petition is so much as hinted at in all the extensive detail of sacrificial prescriptions. Clearly this was not an area in which any human sentiment of devotion could find a voice. To be sure, there was a verbal component of sanctuary worship-the song that was part of temple celebrations, at least on festive days, according to meager evidence garnered mainly from the psalms. Amos refers to it when, speaking for God, he denounces Israel's sacrifices: "Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your lyres I will not listen" (5:23). As Isaiah depicts Israel's participation in the future triumph of God, he says: "But for you there will be a song as in the night when a sacred festival is held" (30:29). Among those who returned from the Babylonian exile to Jerusalem were "the temple singers, of the descendants of Asaph" (Ezra 2:41); since such a class could not have sprung up in the sanctuary-less exile, its existence must go back at least to the latter days of Judah's monarchy.

Was the institution of temple singers, which is not provided for in the laws, conceived to be a human initiative, and their song a human invention? The vehement censure of Jeroboam's innovations in worship throughout the book of Kings shows how blameworthy human meddling in divine institutions was held to be. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Chronicler bestows divine legitimation on temple-song, an office that was venerable by his time: the temple singers were ordained by God through the agencies of David, the man of God, as well as the seer Gad and the prophet Nathan (2 Chron. 8:14; 29:25). Furthermore, their song was inspired: "David... set apart for the service certain of the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, who should prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals" (1 Chron. 25:1; the verb prophesy is repeated twice more in the following two verses). Now several canonical psalms are ascribed to these singers (Asaph, Pss. 73-83; Heman, Ps. 88; Jeduthun, Ps. 39); these, like all the psalms in the psalter have a distinctive style, phraseology, and vocabulary that are the mark of a school of liturgical poets. It has long been noted that, despite the genuine fervor that pervades the psalms, for the most part, the circumstances they describe lack particularity; they speak in general terms of individual and communal distress and salvation, of God's mercies and wonders in history and nature. Whatever their origin, it seems that they functioned as stock compositions of trained liturgical poets, utilized by individuals and assemblies at temple celebrations; so whether we follow the late biblical concept of the Chronicler, that the temple-song was inspired "prophesying," or the scholarly judgment that it was a product of schooled guildsmen, it was not a realm of immediate, free invention.

One speaks tentatively of these matters because the psalmody of the Bible lacks an attested life setting. Life settings have been conjectured on the basis of allusions in the psalms, but they carry no real conviction. All that can be said with any firmness is that their peculiar style and language confirm the traditional ascriptions to David, Asaph, etc., in the sense that these men were regarded as professional poets; this explains the eloquence of the psalms and the noble religious sentiments that are frequent in them. Though the laity may have appropriated them for their use at the temple-Hannah's psalm (1 Sam. 2:1-10) is a fine example of this-we cannot draw from psalms or their conjectured life settings a picture of everyday, spontaneous piety in biblical Israel.

The two most prominent and ample sources of information about the religious practice of ancient Israel-the temple rituals and the psalms-are thus deficient as mirrors of the commoners' religion; both are prescriptions of the schooled; they belong to a class of experts.

The piety of the populace was mediated and probably refined through them. But for a clue to unmediated, direct forms of popular piety we must turn elsewhere-to the prayers embedded in the narratives of Scripture.

As used here, prayer refers to nonpsalmic speech to God-less often about God-expressing dependence, subjection, or obligation; it includes petition, confession, benediction, and curse (but excludes references to nothing more than oracle-seeking). The term narrative is used loosely to include not only story but also prophetic oracle (e.g., the prayers of Jeremiah)-again, any nonpsalmic context. What distinguishes all these prayers is that they appear to be freely composed in accordance with particular life-settings; their putative authors and their function are supplied by their context.

Here are some statistics on biblical prayers, and their relation to other forms of worship. References to the actual occurrence of temple rites-as distinct from legislation on them-appear about ninety times in Hebrew Scriptures; praying and prayers are mentioned, outside of Psalms, about 140 times. In well over half the cases, it is the act of prayer alone that is mentioned, for example: "The Israelites were terribly afraid [of the Egyptians], and cried to YHWH" (Exod. 14:10). In the rest, the verbal formulation of the prayer is given-some ninety-seven prayer texts. In quantity, their number is just under two-thirds of the number of psalms-150. Thirty-eight of the formulated prayers are spoken by lay people; fifty-nine by such leading men as kings or prophets. They are distributed throughout the historical books, from Genesis to Chronicles; among the prophets, Jeremiah stands out for his prayers. Yet, in spite of this considerable quantity of evidence, the study of it, and its utilization in the description of biblical religion has hitherto been negligible. How is that to be explained?

I venture to suggest that precisely its embedded quality has caused scholars to overlook its possible significance apart from its story context. This material is not an immediate witness to the prayers of ancient Israel. Every prayer text is part of a literary artifact. Even the mere report of an act of prayer represents a deliberate choice of the narrator, let alone the verbal formulation of a prayer embedded in a story. Samson (granting he existed) cannot be supposed to have prayed only twice in his lifetime, though only two prayers are recorded in his story. Nor can we think that by including only two prayers the narrator would have us believe anything of the kind. We must surely suppose, rather, that their inclusion just there and in that wording served the narrator's purpose. Hence, it cannot be excluded-it is, on the contrary, likely-that the wording of Samson's prayers is as much an artifice as the rest of the narrative. This doubt that the embedded prayers are veridical-that the literary record corresponds to what, in fact, the characters prayed-is, I conjecture, the ground for the scholarly neglect of them. If so, it is a wrongheaded ground, for even if it is granted that the prayers are not veridical, that does not foreclose their being verisimilar. In this matter, as in other aspects of the Scriptural message, verisimilitude may be as valuable as veridicality. (Recall Aristotle's dictum [Poetics, 9] that poetry-that is, artistic creation-is "something more philosophic and of graver import than history.") To determine their verisimilitude we must ask: are the circumstances and formulations of prayer in the Scriptures such as raise doubts as to whether they might have been so prayed in ancient Israel? Are the various literary prayers so conditioned by their narrative contexts as to be formally distinct, so that we must regard the art of the given narrator as decisive in their formulation? Can we find analogies in social speech for the forms of prayer, so that the notion that the narrators loosely and freely invented the prayers they put in the mouths of characters seems unlikely? If the answers to these questions support the view that the forms of Scriptural prayer represent the forms actually in use in ancient Israel, we shall have made an advance in our knowledge of ancient popular religion. If, along the way, we learn something about the way in which the prayer texts serve the narratives, we shall have gained a bit of insight into an aspect of the literary art of the Bible. The prospect of such gains arouses our interest in pursuing the inquiry.

Petitionary prayer, including intercession (i.e.,


Excerpted from Biblical Prose Prayer by Moshe Greenberg Copyright © 1983 by Moshe Greenberg. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Moshe Greenberg is Emeritus Professor of Bible at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Prior to teaching at the Hebrew University, he taught courses in Bible and Judaica at the Univerity of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and the University of California at Berkeley.

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