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Great Prayers of the Old Testament – Walter Brueggemann

October 19, 2015

GPOTOTI read anything written by this man that I can lay my hands on. (And also by the other Walter – Walter Wink. While this wasn’t one of my favourites, it gave me considerable pause for thought.

Whereas Christians tend to grovel a bit and pray that ‘if it be thy will….’ the great men and women of the Old Testament, and Jews today, make demands rather than requests and argue that ‘if it isn’t your will then it ought to be’.

When Abraham prays for the cities of the plain, he haggles. He does this in the Qur’an too – so the God of Islam is not so remote as many Muslims believe – you only have to note the similarity of the Arabic with the Hebrew.

I got fed up with the repeated use of the tetragrammaton.

Each chapter includes background information pertaining to history, culture, politics and context surrounding each prayer. The prayers are exposited as opposed to being devotional or pastoral in nature. Grammar and a bit of Hebrew are delved into, but not in a way that is cumbersome or not easily understandable to a wide audience. Although there is brief mention of application, this is left mainly for the reader to ponder through three Questions for Reflection and Discussion at the end of each chapter.

The author says that, “Abraham and YHWH share confidences and are perhaps ‘best friends,’” although to be fair he mentions that Isaiah 41:8 has it, “Abraham, my friend.” Also regarding Abraham he says that “Abraham finds a ‘prayer partner’” who is competent and ready to be engaged.”

Regarding Moses, “It is evident in this exchange that Moses loves Israel more passionately than does YHWH, and it is this greater passion that sets the tone of urgency in the prayer.”

In the chapter on the prayer of Hezekiah which mentions the oppression of the Assyrian empire: “Those of us who belong to the United States as an imperial power may take note that the transformative prayer is on the lips of those who are under threat from empire.”


“It is evident in contemporary church practice, given rational assumptions and psychological sophistication, that much prayer in the church is reduced to an emotional exercise. This is evident in our propensity to `feel better’ when we pray, and in the readiness to water down petitions so as not to ask in bold ways, when our modernity assumes that in fact there is no one listening anyway.”

“God does not act the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence on God’s action, even upon his existence…God is not deaf, but listens: more than that, he acts.”

Abraham – The prayer is concerned with big issues—justice and urb destruction—and dares to summon God out beyond God’s first inclination. From the beginning, Israel’s prayer is bold and focused on justice issues.

Moses is a powerful man of prayer, and a compelling model of prayer. His prayer suggests:

That bold prayer is to stand in “the breach,” hopefully to be a “repairer of the breach” between God and God’s people or God and God’s world (see Isa. 58:12). Such a position is one of daring and of exposure, for it assumes that God can be, and is indeed, impacted by such prayer.

That bold prayer is evoked by a love of the community (church or world) and that such love evokes a crisis with God and invites a confrontation. It is evident in this exchange that Moses loves Israel more passionately than does YHWH, and it is this greater passion that sets the tone of urgency in the prayer.

That greater passion prods Moses to take an initiative with God that pushes beyond God’s own intentionality. In such prayer it is clear that God does not take all initiatives, as may be the case in much conventional theology. Moses invites God into the unexplored territory of forgiveness and pardon.

That such prayer grows out of a long, trusting history of interaction. Moses does not come before YHVVH as a stranger with a new idea, but prays out of a long history as an old and well-established colleague and confidant of YHWH.

That prayer is not conjured on the spot out of emotional need, nor is it completely spontaneous. Moses, in his prayer, is deeply rooted in textual tradition and had spent time studying what was to become Scripture. There is no doubt that the Scripture he quotes, Exodus 34:6-7, is taken to be God’s own utterance; thus Moses is able, because he knows the textual tradition, to pray the text back to God, and to call God to account.

It would appear that YHWH concedes something to the Mosaic accent on fidelity, but the self-reference of God con­cerning “the glory of the Lord” indicates that the exhibit of divine majesty crowds out some consideration of fidelity. It is clear that in prayer Moses must take into account not only the risk and need of Israel but the character of God as well. That is, prayer requires us to be knowingly and intentionally theological, because it is to God that we pray.

She [Hannah] sings that her family will continue.  She sings that her people will have a future.  She sings that through this little baby named “asked” there will soon be newness for the poor and needy and hungry and the feeble.  She sings in the way singing is possible only among those who have felt the powerful invasiveness of YHWH’s newness where no newness was possible.  She sings of the God who “brings life.”  …Hannah is the voice of all those who still have ashes in their hair and in their throats, who find themselves on the way to royal banquets and safe places…all of this accomplished by the son for whom she had not dared to hope…but only prayed.

It turns out, in the long course of Israel’s faith, that YHW promise persisted. Later generations could still draw on it. We permitted to imagine that one of the reasons for divine persistence is the vigorous, demanding entitlement of David and those prayed after him. Prayer impacts the Lord of the promise. We may even entertain the notion that without that insistent prayer uttered over and over, divine persistence might have failed.

Jonah’s prayer in 2:2-9, set apart as the only poetry in the narrative of the book of Jonah, is the centerpiece of the book.  That prayer does not occur in a vacuum, but at one moment in the ongoing vexed transaction between Jonah and his God.

Before we consider Jonah’s prayer, we may review the narrative of the first chapter of Jonah, which creates a context for Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving in chapter 2.  In that introductory narrative that sets the stage for the prayer, three matters are of note for our reflection:

  1.  Jonah is an Israelite (Hebrew) and an avowed worshiper of Yahweh whom he identifies as the creator:

“I am a Hebrew,” he replied.  “I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (1:9)

Jonah understands himself to be bound in loyalty and trust to Yahweh.  The confession he makes to the ship’s crew accents the majestic transcendence of the God of Israel as “the God of Heaven.”  It is, moreover, important that he credits Yahweh as the one who “made the sea,” for in what follows it will be crucial to the narrative Yahweh is maker and ruler of the sea.

  1.  Jonah is a disobedient adherent to Yahweh.  He is commanded by Yahweh, (1:2), but he flees away from the intent of Yahweh, (v. 3).  Indeed, he attests to Israel’s normative faith enough to conclude that he, in his disobedience, is the cause of “the great storm,” (v. 12).  Thus he fully affirms the tight calculus of Israel’s faith that disobedience evokes divine punishment.  These first two points – an adherent to Yahweh. . . a disobedient adherent to Yahweh – together articulate an irony that runs through the narrative.  Jonah knows but does not do what is required, a perfect setup for a tale of divine wrath and human disaster.
  2.  Given Jonah’s compromised faith, it is important to notice that Jonah is not the only one who prays.  As the crew prepared to throw Jonah overboard and so be rid of the cause of the disaster (an action Jonah himself proposes), the crew also addresses a prayer to Yahweh, (v. 14).  Presumably the crew is not Yahwistic or Israelite; nonetheless they accept Jonah’s avowal of the God who causes the punishing storm, and so they address that same God.  They are about to kill Jonah and ask that they not be judged guilty for the necessary murder.  The prayer of the crew evidences great respect for the God of Israel, even if the prayer is formulaic and a conventional prayer in the midst of violence that might have called for more than conventionalism.  The crew takes Yahweh with more seriousness than does Jonah, even if Jonah can acknowledge his failure before Yahweh.

This introductory chapter concludes with the disobedient Jonah put at risk, “into the sea,” (v. 15), the sea which Yahweh has created and over which Yahweh presides.  Consistent with Jonah’s expectation and the sailors’ concurrence, the expulsion of Jonah from the ship ends the storm, (v. 15).  The expulsion of Jonah and the cessation of the storm happen in the very same verse as a single sentence.  It is as though the God of the storm wanted only to engulf Jonah, who is now profoundly at risk.  Jonah, moreover, has no claim to make to Yahweh and utters no petition.  He is, at the end of the introductory chapter, disobedient to Yahweh; his status at risk is a consequence of that disobedience.  There is no hint that Yahweh has done other than what is appropriate, given the faith of Israel.

The prayer of Jonah is framed in chapter 2 by two narrative notices.  In verse 1, the prayer is introduced by a report that Jonah is now situated in the belly of the large fish that had been dispatched by Yahweh, (1:17).  Indeed, Yahweh had “provided” the fish precisely to rescue Jonah from the threat of the sea, though that rescue itself is perhaps nothing to celebrate.  For Jonah is still profoundly at risk!  It is remarkable nonetheless that the fish was “ordained” by Yahweh to rescue Jonah even though he had uttered no petition.  More than that, he had disobeyed and had no reason to be rescued.

The prayer is followed by the narrative report that Jonah is “spewed out” from the great fish at the command of Yahweh.  Thus the prayer is framed by two actions of Yahweh: Yahweh provided, Yahweh commanded the fish that did the spewing out.  The second expulsion of Jonah, this time from the fish, landed Jonah on “dry land,” the very “dry land” that Jonah has already confessed to belong to the realm of Yahweh, (1:9).  Thus Jonah moves from one zone of Yahweh’s creation to another, from the sea to the dry land.  All the while through the risk, Jonah has been in zones of creation governed by the creator God; he has never been outside the realm of Yahweh’s rule, for Yahweh’s creation comprehends both sea and land.

The prayer on the lips of Jonah is a Song of Thanksgiving, a highly stylized utterance in Israel.  Notice that Jonah’s prayer of thanks is spoken, in narrative sequence, while he is still in the belly of the great fish, that is, before his rescue is completed and he returns to dry land.  It is likely, however, that the narrative sequence wants us to understand that the “swallowing” of Jonah by the fish is already the sign of rescue, for he is no longer “at sea,” no longer subject to the whim and threat of chaotic waters.  The rescue is not at this point complete, but because the fish is Yahweh’s instrument of rescue for him, it is not inappropriate for him to anticipate the complete rescue to dry land.  Thus the fish functions in the narrative as a liminal “middle zone” between the great threat of the sea and the equally great safety of the dry land.  The threat of the sea is overcome and the offer of the dry land is anticipated, and therefore thanks is an appropriate posture for an Israelite.  Even though Jonah was completely recalcitrant against the will of Yahweh, he was still able to pray to Yahweh.  It is as though the threat of the sea and the swallowing by the fish have returned him to the sanity of trust in Yahweh.

This prayer, like Israel’s regular practice of thanksgiving, begins with a description of the trouble from which Jonah required rescue.  The simple rubric of such a prayer is, “I cried . . . you heard.”  But the specific lining out of this prayer is much more complex than that.  The prayer begins by Jonah’s memory that “I called. . . I cried,” (v. 2).  We have no narrative evidence of such a prayer by Jonah unless we refer to verse 1 where the verb for “pray” is much less intense than the verbs used here.  Jonah cried in distress.  He recognized his true situation of helplessness; he knew that he must turn to Yahweh, his only means of help, and he dared to break the silence with his needy, urgent petition.

It is promptly affirmed that “You heard,” (v. 2).  But verse 3 does not follow easily after verse 2.  If Yahweh heard, then Yahweh’s response to the petition in verse 3 is the very antithesis of what Jonah needed.  Or perhaps verse 3 looks behind verse 2 to describe how Jonah was in distress in the first place.  It is clear, either way, that here the distress is credited to Yahweh.  That does not agree with the narrative account, in which the trouble came because the sailors, at the suggestion of Jonah, threw him into the sea.  Thus Jonah misrepresents the cause of his trouble, which in fact was brought about by his own recalcitrance.  Verse 3 attests to the way in which prayer can distort in self-serving ways.  To credit Yahweh with the distress serves to exempt Jonah himself from responsibility.

In verses 4-6a Jonah describes his situation for Yahweh.  In verse 4 Jonah quotes himself.  He repeats his previous statement in which he acknowledges that he is remote from the temple, from the place where Yahweh is present and from which Yahweh’s help will come.  The verbal report in verse 4 is matched by Jonah’s narrative account of trouble in verses 5-6a.  The work of such prayer is to call Yahweh’s attention to trouble and need, and so to evoke divine response.  Here the poetry of Jonah engages in rich hyperbole, for the actual experience of being in the sea is characterized in cosmic terms – “overwhelming waters, the deep, weeds, and mountains” – as threats that robbed Jonah of freedom and a chance for survival.  The language of prayer is free to employ such hyperbole; it is the sort of regressive speech that we may use in contexts of acute danger and pain.  The emotive dimension of the danger is so real that it requires overstatement so that the listener can appreciate the direness of his circumstance.

The rescue is to “bring up my life.” The verb indicates a physical elevation, in this case lifting Jonah out of the chaotic waters. The verb is the same one Israel has used for the exo­dus, “to bring up out of the land of slavery.” Rescue is extrac­tion from the chaotic waters and the threat of death.

As often happens in such prayer, it easily slides over into didacticism in verse 8. Those who pray in public—and we readers are Jonah’s public—do not often acknowledge that even when the prayer is addressed to God, there are other listeners.

It is also to be noted that in verses 4 and 7 Jonah addresses YHWH in the temple. That is, even from the distance of “the sea” or within the great fish, prayer is still aimed toward Jerusalem where YHWH resides (see 1 Kgs. 8:28-30). This reiterated point makes clear that Jonah is not a private lonely individual; he prays as a member of the community that is represented in the tempi liturgy. Even at a distance, he is a member of that liturgical cons munity that receives a new world of good, safe, ordered creation from the Lord of the temple.

There is no doubt that the celebration of YHWH’s impossibilities, rooted in the question from Genesis 18:14 exposited in the present prayer of Jeremiah, continues sound in the faith of the early church in the New Testament.

In Luke 1:37 at the beginning of the Jesus narrative, angel, in anticipation of his birth, assures Mary “nothing will be impossible with God.”

In Mark 10:27 when Peter and the disciples see the prob­lem of “the rich young ruler,” Jesus assures them, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).

In Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane Jesus affirms that “For you all things are possible” (Mark 14:36).

In the end, however, the one thing not possible is that an obe­tient Jesus should be rescued from suffering; in that suffering and death, faith reaches the edge of God’s impossibility.

In lyrical fashion, Paul lines out the great evangelical pos­sibilities that open the world to joy. He speaks concerning the faith of Abraham, and declares the God of Abraham to be the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into exis­tence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17).

In that doxological assertion Paul identifies resurrection of the dead and creation from nothing as the signs of God’s power to do the impossible.

the report brought to Nehemiah’s awareness not only the “survivors” but the physical condition of the city, specifically the wall and the gates. Obviously the city lacked the most rudi­mentary security system and the “survivors” were in jeopardy. Beyond that, the continued devastation of the city—after 150 years!—indicated neglect and lack of responsiveness . . . and per­haps suggested to Nehemiah that the city was no adequate place for YHWH’s presence. To this “urban planner,” the physical. social, and theological dimensions of the report all converge to present a circumstance of dismay and dejection.

It is not surprising that the report evokes grief in Nehemiah. passionate Jerusalem-loving force that he was. Indeed, Nehemiah is representative of the elite Jews in the Diaspora who had nor: given up their Jerusalem-based Jewish identity, for whom the well-being of Jerusalem was an abiding agenda. Nehemiah response to the report, that he “sat down and wept,” indicates thz this shrewd, competent public figure was reduced to unrestr dismay. The word pair “sat down and wept” is the same p that occurs in Psalm 137:1 concerning the grief of the depo likely the narrative derives the phrase from the psalm, for the acts of sadness pertain to the entire community that cares a the forlorn city.

The verb of peti­tion is causative, “cause to prosper.” The imperative is followed by an emphatic particle often rendered “I pray thee,” and the recipient of such a gift from YHWH is “your servant.” Nehemiah had already identified himself in that way earlier in the verse. Thus Nehemiah positions himself in a lowly posture of subservience. The verb “prosper” itself is of special interest because of its indeterminate quality. The verse does not name something in particular that YHWH may do. It is the verb used to describe the finding of a good wife for Isaac (Gen. 24:21, 40), and to describe the rise of Joseph in the court of Pharaoh (Gen. 39:3, 23). It refers to pragmatic worldly success. In these uses, however, it is affirmed that YHWH is effectively engaged in such worldly issues, though of course the workings of YHWH are hid­den and inexplicable.

The verb “give success” (“cause to prosper”) is parallel in Nehemiah’s statement to “give to him mercies.” This again is a remarkable petition, for the rhetoric makes a connection between the divine giver of “mercy” and the worldly reality of “that man.” Except for the imagination of faith exhibited in this prayer, one would not think to connect “mercy” and empire.” But that is the way of daring prayer. Because everything in the prayer is uttered under the aegis of the creator God, matters are connected and interfaced and intertwined in ways that can never be apart from the rule of God.

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