“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.”Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Recently I’ve been diving into studies on the ancient Jewish context of the Old Testament, especially the Torah (the first 5 books of the Old Testament that we commonly call the Pentateuch). As Christians, we often read these books in a bit of a vacuum. We read them (and in the case of Leviticus, we skim them) in order to make it through a yearly Bible reading schedule. We engage with the action-packed stories, but our eyes tend to gloss over at the more difficult passages that depict parts of ancient near-eastern culture that are entirely alien to us.
What is all of this about Abraham making two rows of dead animals and God walking through them? Why does God seem so merciless and cruel compared to the New Testament? Many of our most difficult questions about the Old Testament stem from the fact that we are thousands of years removed from the people in those stories, and our culture is exceptionally unlike theirs was. As I have read about the patterns of Jewish life in ancient Israel, some things have stuck out to me like signal flares begging to be seen. Jewish life now, and especially in the time of Jesus and long before in the times of the kings of Israel, was centered around tefillah. Tefillah (Heb. תפילה; te-feel-ah) is the Hebrew word for prayer.
Prayer as Service
Tefillah is really a very generic word in and of itself, from a root word meaning intervening and executing judgment. There are a number of other Hebrew words that translate to prayer, but the Jewish people have historically gravitated to this one in particular because of the implication that it is an exercise of the heart and mind, which lines up with the Biblical command to serve God “all your heart” (Deut. 11:13). To serve God with your heart is to tefillah, to pray. Prayer becomes then a labor of worship and service to the LORD God, not just a simple ritual of words.
So often when we pray, we view it as simply taking a list of requests to God. We’re often hoping, like children with Santa Claus, that He gives them all to us if we’ve been nice. Or we just go through the motions, not really reflecting on the incredible act of divine communion we are participating in. Prayer for the Christian is a time when heaven and earth meet as the God of all Creation meets with His creation. Of course, prayer is about asking, but it’s also about interceding for others, about worship and thanksgiving, and overall about being intentionally in the presence of God. As Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” Prayer is an act of service to God from our hearts.
Ritual Can Deepen Devotion
The passage at the top of the article is part of the origin for the tefillin, or phylacteries as we call them in English, which are the two black boxes worn on the arm and the forehead during Jewish prayer rituals. These leather boxes contain small scrolls with Scriptures relating to key passages on prayer: Exodus 13:1-10, Exodus 13:11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21. More than just a tradition to be kept for its own sake, these were a literal interpretation of the instruction to “bind them [God’s words] for a sign upon thine hand” and for them to be “as frontlets between thine eyes” (Deut 6:9).
When one would perform the daily prayer rituals and strap the tefillin to their arm and forehead, thy would literally be binding the LORD God’s Words to their hand and putting them before their eyes, and in so doing, would remember those Scriptures placed inside. This outward sign was meant to be a moment of reflection on the inward truth about God’s covenant and His promised redemption of His people. The Jewish people could reflect in these moments on their relationship with God.
Similarly, we as Christians should be view our own rituals in the same light. Whether it is praying before a meal, taking the cup and bread as part of the Lord’s Table in Communion, or even just saying a prayer as you begin your day, let them serve to put our great God and Savior before our eyes and bind His Word and promises to us. Believers in Jesus should not shy away from ritual or get too wrapped up in our traditions that we forget why they exist. Rather, let us use them to remember the New Covenant that Jesus made with us and the redemption of the body that we look forward to one day.
Communion Cannot Exist Without Community
We read in Genesis 1:27 that God made humans in His image. This has a lot of amazing implications, but one of them is that we are beings made for relationships. We see this in Genesis 3 when the Lord came to walk with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and again throughout Genesis (and the whole Old Testament) when He speaks to and meets with people over and over again. The original, perfect state of humanity was one of relationship with and service to God, but also with each other. One of the first things God tells Adam and Eve is to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). He wanted us to make more people!
The Ten Commandments reflect this dual sense of relationship. The first four commandments deal with our relationship with God, while the last six deal with our relationships with other people. Jesus reiterates this Old Testament emphasis when he says that the greatest commandments are to love God and love others (Matt. 22:36-40). Clearly, God intended for us to have right relationship with Him first, and then other people.
The Jewish tefillah reflects this emphasis. The prayer traditions of the Jewish people emphasize that their prayers not just be personal, but also a communal act. The Jewish Talmud (the laws added by the generations after Israel’s return to Jerusalem) speaks of those who would meditate for hours before the communal prayers. Clearly, they saw the Biblical urging to love God and love others as meaning they must be first in communion with God before being in community with people.
Looking to the New Testament, we see the writers of the letters to the churches also emphasize this dual communion/community focus. While there are numerous calls to pray and be devoted to God personally, there are also a number of times where we are reminded not to forsake the gather together of God’s church (Hebrews 10:25). We also see in the early days of the church that after a great moment of worship that shook the place where they were meeting, the next event we see happening was service those in the body of Christ that were in need (Acts 4). 1 John chapter 1 tells us that God wants to fellowship with us. But then it tells us that right relationship with Him results in fellowship (community) with the other believers. There can be no right relationship with people without right relationship with God, and right relationship with God always results in right relationship with people. Prayer is a huge part of that, as we often see the church in Acts pray together.
These are just three lessons from looking at the Jewish prayer traditions which started all the way back in ancient times, but they should challenge us to not take prayer for granted. In fact, prayer should be an act of worship and service to God which not only deepens our own faith in Jesus but also strengthens our bonds with our brothers in sisters in Christ. When we view prayer this way, we can approach with that boldness of the book of Hebrews, and leave changed and ready to be light and salt to a world greatly in need.