Review of Prayer in the Hebrew Bible, Part Three

Chapter 4 & 5 – Prayer and the Depiction of Character  & Prayer and the Characterization of God

It is always interesting to me what items land on prayer requests. In my experience, prayer has become for many a divine complaint box into which numerous woes are dumped day after day. Occasionally I have seen prayer leaders suggest that every petition be accompanied by an item of praise, which then leads to a much smaller prayer list (fewer people are submitting their requests). The character of a group is exposed by examining those things they choose to pray about. This is, in many ways, how Balentine sees the narrative prayers in the Hebrew Bible functioning.

As discourse between people and God, prayer plays an important role in portraying both human and divine character. What people say to God–there petitions and their praise, their desires and the live situations that bring them into articulation–reveal motives, attitudes, and morality. Likewise, the ascriptions addressed to God in prayer (e.g., “loving,” “just,” “merciful,” “sovereign”) reveal assumptions about divine character and divine receptiveness to human concerns, assumptions that a narrative situation may confirm, modify, or refute be supplying or withholding a divine response. It is part of the art of Hebrew narrative that such recorded dialogues enable the reader to witness the two-way traffic between heaven and earth and thus enter into the process of understanding the character of the parties involved. (48)

Balentine spends two chapters demonstrating how the Hebrew Bible uses narrative prayer to depict human characters (chap. 4) and God (chap. 5). Of human characters, prayer can confirm one’s status as worthy or blessed. In the case of Hezekiah, a deathly illness and the prophetic announcement of an immanent death calls into question the otherwise positive presentation of this king. Is he not, as readers have been lead to believe, a just and righteous king? Hezikiah’s prayer (including what is present and absent in his prayer), following the prophetic announcement of his immanent death, confirms his positive character, and the storyline follows suit as Hezikiah is granted 15 more years of life. Prayer can also serve to caricature or parody a biblical character. Balentine discusses the prayers of Jacob and Jonah in this light (though I suspect John might take issue with Balentine in reference to Jacob’s character). Of God, narrative prayers in the Hebrew Bible characteristically reveal how God’s own character is understood. This need not be understood merely as a description of an a particular person’s conception of God; how God is understood by these pray-ers becomes the model for how God is to be understood.


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