Biblical Prayer

Spontaneity and creativity were hallmarks of prayer in the time of the Bible.

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"If thou wilt indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace ... shall be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering" [Judges 11:30-31].

The Bible also contains a number of prayers in which the suppliants argue with God and persuade Him by their logical arguments to alter His intent. God graciously yields to the logic of the prayer and changes His original decree. Abraham's plea for Sodom and Gomorrah is the classic example. Abraham argues with the Almighty:

"Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" [Gen. 18:23-25].

Unfortunately, Abraham's logic was not backed by the facts of the situation, and his plea did not save the doomed cities.

These primitive elements in some of the biblical prayers, however, are the exceptions. Most biblical prayers are so sophisticated in their formulation that they have been adopted as patterns of prayer for all time. These prayers usually consist of two basic elements-introductory words praising God for His might and mercy, and a concluding petition, often universal in scope. King Solomon's prayer, only part of which was quoted above, follows this pattern.

Prayers of Praise

Not all biblical prayers are petitionary. Many of them concentrate solely on praising God or thanking Him for His mercies and blessings. One such prayer is the Song of Moses which he and the Israelites sang after safely crossing the Sea of Reeds and escaping from the pursuing Egyptians:

"I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;

Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

The Lord is my strength and might; He is become my salvation.

This is my God and I will enshrine Him;

The God of my father, and I will exalt Him"     

[Exodus 15:1-2].

The ancient Hebrews found no contradiction between the two forms of worship: the sacrificial rites of the Temple and the informal words of prayer uttered by individuals. They coexisted without infringing upon each other. In those early times prayer was essentially a spontaneous "cry" to God for help. It was based on the intuitive feeling or the deep conviction that God gives ear to the supplications of the devout and answers the prayer that comes from the heart.

Temple Prayer

In connection with the Temple functions only one brief prayer is prescribed in the Bible.

When the farmer brought his first fruits to the Temple, he was to recite a formula in which he briefly summarized the story of the bondage in Egypt, the redemption, and the "land flowing with milk and honey" which God had given to the children of Israel.

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Rabbi Abraham Ezra Millgram (1900-1998) served as a congregational rabbi, a Hillel director, and from 1945 to 1961, Educational Director of the Commission on Jewish Education of the United Synagogue of America. During several decades of active retirement in Jerusalem, he published a number of books, including Jerusalem Curiosities (Jewish Publication Society) and A Short History of Jerusalem (Jason Aronson).