Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Bible's First Prayer

Proper 9 / Year A
Genesis 24:34ff

What is the first prayer you ever said?  While I don’t remember the exact moment, I am sure it was either at the dinner table - “God is great.  God is good.  Let us thank him for our food” – or going to bed – “Now I lay me down to sleep.  I pray the Lord my soul to keep…”  I suspect I am not the only person whose life a prayer began in this way.

While one of these two may have been our initial prayer, neither is the first prayer recorded in the bible.  Surprisingly this event does not appear in the text until the 24th chapter of Genesis.  Up until now, God appears on the scene and initiates conversation with a specific human being.  The person may or may not respond, but the response does not constitute a prayer.  It is either an answer to a question or part of a dialogue. 

Equally as surprising, the bible’s first recorded prayer is not offered by one of its main figures – not Adam or Noah or Abraham.  In fact, the person who offers the first prayer in the bible is not even named.  He is identified only as Abraham’s servant.  This trusted helper is given the task to return to Abraham’s ancestral homeland to find a suitable wife for Isaac (you may recall I mentioned in last week’s sermon it is curious Isaac himself does not make this journey or participate in the process). 

When the servant arrives at the village of Abraham’s birth, he rests at the town’s well and prays:

Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.  I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water.  Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.  By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
As soon as the prayer is finished, Rebekah appears and the rest is history.
The prayer contains several oddities.  One is its specificity.  There are many other ways to identify a bride-to-be… a light, an inner voice, or some other kind of sign.  The plan of the prayer has a lot of moving parts and hardly seems like a process God would propose.

Notice how the servant identifies himself to God.  He addresses the prayer to the God of Abraham and he describes Isaac as God’s servant.  In the mind of the person praying, each possesses a special relationship with God; one which he himself seems not to enjoy.  He never describes himself in relationship to God, only to his master… Abraham.  
The opening address in the prayer tells us much: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham”.  The Hebrew word translated here as O Lord is “El Shaddai”, which literally means “God of the mountain.”  It carries a sense of greatness and power and most often is translated as “Almighty God”.  In the polytheistic world religions of the ancient middle east, this would be the greatest of the gods – powerful, aloof, to be feared, and certainly not to be bothered with trifling matters like who says what to whom at a well. 

But the servant does not end his address to God with El Shaddai, he adds to it “God of my master Abraham.”  Again, in middle-eastern religions, there were the big gods who had control over things like the skies, fertility, and natural disasters and then there were personal gods whose interests were more focused on a specific individual, family, or clan.  The role these gods played in a person’s life was more like what we think of as a guardian angel.  To pray to the god of person X or the god of person Y was to entreaty a household god who was engaged with the day-to-day operations of the family.  In polytheistic thinking, El Shaddai would not be concerned with identifying a suitable wife for Isaac, but the God of Abraham would be.  

So, in this first prayer in the bible, offered by an unnamed servant, we find something truly revolutionary.  This person has come to see and sense how the Almighty God is intimately involved in the personal affairs of his master.  Now, this may not seem ground breaking to us today.  We pray to God for any number of very personal and at times trivial matters.  Abraham’s servant is the first person in the bible to recognize these two distinct functions of ancient middle-eastern gods are in fact part of the makeup and personality of the one true God. 

In this morning’s gospel reading we hear an invitation:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
These words are rooted in the personal nature of God’s Being.  We live in wearying times and we are carrying heavy burdens.  Our Lord is concerned with our welfare.  Our Lord knows our need.  And our Lord offers help and comfort. El Shaddai – the Mighty One – listens intently to every prayer, even “God is great, God is good” and “Now I lay me down to sleep.”  And this great God and our God invites us to a place of rest and ease.