Review of Prayer in the Hebrew Bible, Part One

Chapter 1 – The Subject and the Interpreter

I am persuaded that at least the church of my experience has engaged in a conspiracy of silence–a tacit agreement among those responsible for steering the worship and educational emphases of the church to be optimistic in their outlook of the world, sometimes to the extent of denying radical evil; to be hopefull in expectation of redemption and deliverance, often to the point of denying the possibility of the tragic; and to embrace and encourage probes, wonderments, and questions about life’s purpose, and about God, only within contexts carefully calculated not to leave the answer in doubt. (5)

To introduce the subject of his book, Prayer in the Hebrew Bible: The Drama of Divine-Human Dialog, Samuel Balentine devotes his first chapter to describing how his “own life’s circumstances have prepared [him] to hear [the text] in particular ways” (12). He tells a story from his youth when the Vietnam war  “thrust me, and a whole generation of idealistic youth, into a world of questions for which no one had prepared us” (3). Finding a “biblical precedent” for both action and non-action, Balentine describes the counsel of his minister and his reactions to that counsel:

“Sam, you must not question God; you must simply obey.” it was a comment I suppose I should have anticipated, given the nature of the worship, including the prayers, in which I had been nurtured since my childhood. I had never heard anyone question God, so far as I could remember. Certainly no one had ever been encouraged to question God. As long as my life was relatively stable, it has never occurred to me to do so either. But with stability swept away, the situation was quite different, and somehow, although I did not know why, I knew that minister has to be wrong.  (4)

Balentine describes how the academy of biblical studies in his day shared a similar vision of prayer to that of the church. He briefly addresses how “Protestant bias” has played a role in both the avoidance and general misunderstanding of the subject of prayer among the academic community. His own academic interests in the subject were born out of his dissertation work, eventually published in The Hidden God: The Hiding of the Face of God in the Old Testament. His study ultimately aims to challenge the way the minister from his youth and the academy of his day envisioned prayer.

The critique he wages, particularly against the church’s understanding of prayer, is still very relevant. In my life experience, prayers in church are used to praise attributes of God, many of which I find to be theologically problematic, and to ask God to “heal the sick,” though any charismatic connotations should be stricken from the mentality behind such a statement. While many profess in the “power of prayer,” the theology of the prayers suggests very little power need be involved.  Moreover, prayers in the tradition of Moses or Abraham rarely surface. The recovery of a biblical theology of prayer has the potential to affect many aspects of Christianity, and for that reason I have decided to thoroughly review Balentine’s work.

Links to the other posts in which I review this book can be found here.

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