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Book Review: The Jewish Background to the Lord’s Prayer

brad-young-bookThe main problem is one of approach. Too often, the importance of the Jewish background of the prayer and of the language that Jesus used has been overlooked or minimized. Jesus was a Jew, speaking Hebrew to his Jewish followers during the difficult days of the Roman occupation of Israel in the Second Temple Period. A modern Christian has a quite different understanding of prayer, Scripture, and faith than a Jewish teacher like Jesus, not to mention the great differences in language, culture, and history. One can easily miss the great depth of Jesus’ message, even while believing in him. Here we will try to rediscover something of the original Jewish atmosphere in which Jesus taught his followers how to approach God in prayer.

-Brad Young
from “Introduction: The Disciples’ Prayer,” pg 1
The Jewish Background to the Lord’s Prayer

I’ll start by profusely thanking Toby Janicki for graciously lending me his personal copy of Young’s book. Apparently it is out of print, and even used copies on Amazon are kind of pricey, especially for a forty-six page text.

As Young states, we Christians in the Church tend to almost take the Lord’s Prayer, or rather “the Disciples’ Prayer” for granted. It’s one of those things we read in the New Testament that we think we all understand correctly and completely. After all, the prayer itself is quite short. What’s there to misunderstand, right?

The answer to that question is “plenty,” and for the reasons I quoted above.

To start off, I won’t quote the Disciples Prayer here. It should be pretty familiar to most Christians, even those who don’t spend a lot of time in the Bible. For reference, there are two, parallel versions of this prayer in the Bible and they aren’t identical. You can find them in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. The differences, I suspect, have to do with the different audiences of each Gospel, with Matthew written to the Jews and Luke written to the Greeks.

Our Father Who Art In Heaven

Young suspects (pg 3) that Luke removed the “Jewish elements” of the prayer, since his version does not contain the words we read in English, “who art in heaven”. This was a familiar prayer formula in first century Judaism but would have seemed foreign to Greek readers. Picturing a “Father in Heaven” might have summoned images in Greek minds of some “god” such as Zeus sitting on an Olympian throne (pg 4). Luke may have felt it prudent to avoid such false associations by editing Jesus’ words (a Gospel writer editing the words of the Master to fit a specific audience is somewhat startling, don’t you think?).

But for a Jewish audience, the “Father in Heaven” reminded them of the love and care Hashem had and has for the Jewish people, and they would have recalled many references from scripture of the kindness of God toward Israel:

Whoever is wise let him note these things, and they will comprehend the kindnesses of Hashem.

-Psalm 107:43 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

Jesus taught his disciples that God is not just a generic Father in Heaven, but He is “your” Father and “our” Father. The relationship between God and Israel isn’t just corporate, it’s personal. As Gentile disciples of the Master, we are grafted into that relationship with God, and thus we can call God “our” Father and “my” Father in Heaven.

Hallowed Be Thy Name

PrayingYoung says (pg 7) that the word we read as “Hallowed,” at least in the King James Translation, is more accurately rendered “sanctified”. He “retrotranslated” the Greek into the Hebrew word “yitkadesh” which means “be sanctified” so the phrase should read like “may Your Name be sanctified”. He also compares this to the Hebrew word “v’hitkadishti” found in Ezekiel 38:23

I will be exalted and I will be sanctified… (emph. mine)

-Ezekiel 38:23 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

But as Young asks (pg 8), two-thousand years ago, what did “sanctify” mean to the Master’s Jewish disciples? Young makes comparisons to Leviticus 22:32 and Ezekiel 36:23 but he also said this:

The name of the Lord can be either sanctified or profaned by the conduct of people. In fact, because a martyr would frequently cause others to glorify God as a result of his sacrifice, the Hebrew idiom, “to sanctify the Name,” was often understood as referring to someone who would give his life for his faith.

-Young, pg 8

Adds some dimension to the crucifixion of Christ, doesn’t it? Perhaps as his disciples watched Jesus slowly dying on the cross, they remembered these words and what they truly meant to the Master. Perhaps they finally understood one day, that to pray this prayer was to ask that they be considered worthy to also die for the sake of Heaven.

But it’s not just how you die, but how you live, for “one sanctifies God by living a holy life.” Recall Matthew 5:16 (DHE Gospels):

So also, shine your light before sons of men, so that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father who is in heaven.

Thy Kingdom Come

Young spends a significant portion of this small book discussing the meaning of the Kingdom, and it’s somewhat reminiscent of an episode of the First Fruits of Zion television series called Thy Kingdom Come.

According to Young (pg 10), we mistakenly believe this phrase refers to Heaven or some future, Messianic Kingdom that Jesus will establish after he returns. But what did Jesus mean when he said, as he often did, “the Kingdom of Heaven?”

The Greek word “eltheto” doesn’t have an exact equivalent in English but it suggests “may it be” or “let it be”. But again, in Hebrew and to a Second Temple Era Jewish audience, what did this mean? Young (pg 11) says the phrase is quite similar to words we find in the Kaddish: “May He cause His Kingdom to reign.” Young also makes a comparison to the Hebrew words “tamlich malchutcha” or “May you continue establishing Your Kingship,” indicating a continual process rather than a point fixed in time. It is associated with the idea of a Kingdom that has already arrived, and yet is still in the process of coming.

I wrote a review last week about a portion of D. Thomas Lancaster’s Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series called The Partisans that speaks to this difficult to comprehend matter.

Lancaster
D. T. Lancaster

The overarching concept of God having reigned, His currently reigning, and His reigning forever, is all over the Bible. Exodus 15:18, Psalm 93:1, and Psalm 146:10 only scratch the surface, and all of these references may well have come to the minds of the disciples as they listened to Jesus teach them how to pray.

Young states (pg 13) that, referencing Matthew 10:7, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” the phrase “at hand” or “engiken” in Greek (Heb. “karav”), is “the perfect indicative” and is better understood as an already completed action. It’s could be better said as “The Kingdom of Heaven is here.”

On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would say the holiest name for God. When he pronounced the Tetragrammaton, the people would fall on their faces and affirm, “His honorable name is blessed and his Kingdom is forever and ever.” The Kingdom is present. God is reigning. He rules as the people recognize his Kingship. He rules when he redeems people. (emph. mine)

-Young, pg 14

This not only speaks directly to Lancaster’s point in the aforementioned sermon, but it expands the meaning of how God’s Kingdom can already be here in a completed form and still having not quite arrived. As each individual comes to faith and acknowledges the Kingship of God in the world and in their lives, the Kingdom is continuing to be established, one human being at a time, across all time, and across human history. As the Gospel message is progressively spread throughout the Earth, the Kingdom is also being spread, expanded, established, affirmed. When the time of the Gentiles (Romans 11:25) is fulfilled, Israel will be redeemed by Messiah and the Kingdom that has already arrived and yet still arriving, will become perfected in our world, and the Messiah King who is already enthroned in the Heavenly Court, will ascend to his place of honor in Jerusalem.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

-Matthew 5:3 (NASB)

Young says this is a poor translation of the Greek “hoti auton estin” and does not actually imply that the poor can “own” the Kingdom of Heaven.” The “poor in spirit” (followers of Jesus) do not own the Kingdom as a possession. Young renders the same verse in Hebrew and then translates that back into English to say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they make up the Kingdom of Heaven.” In other words, the followers of Jesus comprise, or are the building blocks, or are the substance of the Kingdom.

These are people who have already accepted the rule of the King and thus not only become part of the Kingdom as subjects, but are the very essence of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Messiah’s Kingdom. “May you continue establishing your Kingdom, and may your will be done” are parallel phrases in this prayer and declare that we desire more hearts turn to the Father by way of the Son, further establishing God’s rule and the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

Thy Will Be Done, On Earth As In Heaven

We already touched on this phrase in the section above, stating that this is an affirmation of what God is already doing. Young (pg 18) references the Greek “genathato” as “may it be,” translating it back into the Hebrew “hayah” which is “to be” or “asah” which indicates “to do”. A more literal translation, taking the Hebrew into account, would be “Let it be your will in heaven and earth” or “Let your will prevail in heaven and earth”.

The Death of the MasterYoung says (pg 19) that “to do His will” is idiomatic Hebrew indicating that it is people who do God’s will, thus is a call for obedience or a declaration of obedience to God, for one continually establishes His Kingdom by continual obedience, thus sanctifying His Name.

No finer act of sacrificial obedience to God can be found than in Jesus at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46, Luke 22:39:46):

Of course, the greatest example of the battle to do the will of God is Jesus himself in Gethsemane. Jesus had already predicted his betrayal and sufferings. The brutality of Roman executions was well known, and more than a few had actually witnessed crucifixion. Jesus was keenly aware of the deeper significance of his sufferings. Still, conscious of his own crucifixion looming before him in the next hours, he prayed, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus did not succumb but performed the will of God. A person overrules his own volition in order to do God’s will.

-Young, pp 20-21

Jesus has been called an Apostle (Hebrews 3:1), a “sent out one,” and he taught that no servant is greater than the one who sent him (John 13:16), thus Jesus depicted the perfect servant of God, who would obey, even to the death, as an act of love toward his disciples ( John 13:34, John 15:13) and ultimately toward humanity (John 3:16).

Young quotes from Rabbi Alexandri’s prayer (pg 21), saying, “Sovereign of the universe, it is revealed and known to You that our will is to do Your will.” We must all repent continually for it is sin that causes us to rebel against God, preventing us from making His will our will and establishing His Kingdom.

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

You wouldn’t think this would need interpreting. Why isn’t it plain that we are to ask God to fulfill our daily needs? Is this asking for our food today, or that our food be prepared for the following day? Young makes a connection to Proverbs 30:8 stating that Jesus may have been deliberately alluding to the scripture, “Remove me far from falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food that is needful for me.”

So “daily bread” may mean something more like “all of my needs”. This simple phrase in the prayer can be unpacked into a complex set of Jewish conceptualizations interconnected throughout the Bible.

Consider Exodus 16:4-10 and particularly verse 4:

Hashem said to Moses, “Behold! — I shall rain down for you food from heaven; let the people go out and pick each day’s portion on its day, so that I can test them, whether they will follow My teaching or not.”

This speaks not only to obedience but utter dependence and emphasizes not only the study of Torah, according to Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai (pg 25), but being “totally dependent upon God for…every need.”

God is the great provider and we should not even doubt that His providence will always be available (see Matthew 6:25-26, Luke 12:22-24).

And Forgive Us Our Debts, As We Also Have Forgiven Our Debtors

ForgivenessYoung cites (pg 29) Matthew 18:23-35 as a lesson in forgiveness and links how we as disciples forgive others to how we will be forgiven by God. He shows a parallel between this part of the Disciples’ Prayer and what Ben Sira (Sirach) taught (170 BCE): “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.”

But is it that we impact how or if God will forgive our sins by the quality of forgiveness in our own hearts, or is an unforgiving heart inhibited in prayer, thus never reaching God…or is it a little of both?

“Rabbi, which is the greatest mitzvah in the Torah?” Yeshua said to him, “Love HaShem your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all your knowledge. This is the greatest and first mitzvah. But the second is similar to it: Love your fellow as yourself. The entire Torah and the Prophets hang on these two mitzvot.”

-Matthew 22:36-40 (DHE Gospels)

There’s a slight difference in Luke’s version of the prayer. Matthew asks for forgiveness of “debts” where Luke says “sins.” Young (pg 30) says this is probably associated with the use of the Hebrew word “chayav” which can mean both guilt to which we are accountable and a debt to be paid.

If we again consider Jesus as an Apostle of God, then to the degree he forgave represented God’s forgiveness, and Jesus forgave generously, even to his enemies:

Yeshua said, “My Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

-Luke 23:34 (DHE Gospels)

Lead Us Not Into Temptation, But Deliver Us From Evil

Young (pg 31) considers “lead us not into temptation” and “deliver us from evil” to be parallel statements. The word for “temptation” in Hebrew suggests “test” or “trial,” just as HaSatan tested the Master (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:1-12, Luke 4:1-13) hoping to cause him to stumble. Please keep in mind that it wouldn’t have been much of a test if Jesus was totally incapable of sinning, of disobedience to God. He would only have been exalted by resisting the temptation to do what was evil in God’s eyes, that is, if it was possible for him to fail.

When Jesus taught his disciples this portion of the prayer, he of course knew that it was not only possible for the disciples to fall prey to testing and to sin, but that indeed, they would fail. Consider Peter’s denial of the Master after declaring that he would follow Jesus even unto death (Mark 14:66-72, Luke 22:54-62, John 18:15-27).

Young notes parallels (pg 32) not only in scripture (Psalm 119:133) but in one of the Psalm scrolls from the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Cave 11, “Let not Satan nor an unclean spirit rule over me” (Heb. “al tashlet bi satqan v’ruach tumah”). Also, the Testament of Levi states, “And do not let Satan rule over me to lead me astray.” Young further quotes abundantly from the Talmud where very similar wording is to be found.

Conclusion

We see here, as I’ve written in other “meditations,” that there is a great deal more information packaged into even the briefest portions of our Bible than we might imagine, even if we are seasoned students of the Bible. If we apprehend scripture from a solely Christian perspective but fail to take into account the Hebrew thought behind the Greek text, we fail not only to get the full message of Jesus, but in many cases, the correct message of Jesus. Thus even with the best intentions and a wholehearted desire to serve God, we end up traveling down many unintended and undesirable paths in relation to God, to the Jewish people, to Judaism, and to Israel.

That said:

Even though Jesus taught his disciples this prayer in Hebrew, in an entirely different setting nearly two millenniums ago, the petitions contained in this short prayer transcend time and are appropriate to the modern-day disciple. Today, perhaps more than ever before, Jesus’ followers need to be challenged again to respond to this timeless message.

-Young, pg 36

DHE Gospels
Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels

The challenge is to encounter the teachings of Jesus and his Jewish disciples on their own terms, meeting them on their own “home ground,” so to speak, rather than in the places that make us feel comfortable. Most Christians get a little nervous when a lesson about Jesus seems “too Jewish.” Oh sure, they can accept a few Hebrew words and a few Jewish thoughts, but once you start re-translating the entire concept of the Gospel message of Moshiach into a wholly Jewish context, most Gentile Christians, especially those raised in the Church and quite accustomed to the traditions associated with Biblical interpretation, will quickly lose their bearings and feeling in danger of becoming lost, will retreat to more familiar territory, even if that territory has a poorer view of the revered Savior.

Young’s small book was published thirty years ago and sadly is very expensive to acquire, but it also is part of a larger body of scholarship that is continually being added to, which holds the promise of truly illuminating the mind and heart of each and every believer, showing us the Jewish face of Yeshua behind the Gentile mask of Jesus.

Imagine if a forty-six page booklet can say so much about just a few verses in the Gospel that teach such a brief prayer, what could be learned if we approached the entire Bible from the same perspective?

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Jewish Background to the Lord’s Prayer”

  1. Forgive me if you covered this in your article, which I printed to read later, but:

    The Jewish Background to the Lord’s Prayer, Dr. Brad H. Young. Today, a new generation of disciples is learning, as did the disciples of old, the necessity and the power of prayer. We struggle with prayer, as did they. We, too, ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Can the time-worn and perhaps overly-familiar words of the “Lord’s Prayer” be more than a kind of spiritual pacifier for us today? Are there hidden in these simple words concepts that can stimulate and challenge us? Happily, the answer to both questions is yes, as the reader of this booklet by Brad Young will discover. (Gospel Research Foundation, Tulsa, OK 1999) $7.95 Also see article on the Lord’s Prayer at Jerusalem Perspective. http://www.gospelresearch.org/books.html

    Please send an email to Orders@GospelResearch.Org with the items you would like to purchase and we will send you an itemized invoice. You may pay via PayPal with your PayPal account or by using a Visa, MasterCard, Discover or American Express credit card. Note: A PayPal account is not required! Thanks!

    Correspondence should be directed to:

    Dr. Brad H. Young Gospel Research Foundation, Inc. Box 703101 Tulsa, OK 74170 U.S.A.

    Also check this out: http://www.jerusalemperspective.com/author/brad-young/ as well as http://www.biblescholars.org/2013/05/the-lords-prayer-and-the-amidah.html.

  2. Nope. Didn’t get all that. Did I read that one link right? One can buy the second printing of the “Lord’s Prayer” book for under eight dollars? Copies of the first printing used are about eighty dollars. Wow.

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