Hebrew Poetry and the Lord’s Prayer

My sister asked: “what is the literary structure/form of the Our Father?”

A friend of hers uncovered the following article: Inquiry into the Form of theLord’s Prayer: Structure and Poetic Form

I’ve written before about my fascination with the structure of Hebrew poetry. I was therefore delighted by this question and answer. I had never really thought before to wonder how the prayer that Jesus gave us is in continuity with other examples of Hebrew poetry that we know of, the psalms and canticles of the Old Testament. How it is also, one could say, the fulfillment of Hebrew poetry just as Jesus himself is the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament.

I was especially taken with this passage:

The traditional division into petitions cannot hide the poetic structure of the prayer as a whole which, like the poetry of the Psalms, rhymes ideas, not sounds. One line or phrase is conceptually parallel to, but verbally distinct from, another. The survival of this parallelism in Matthew, even after translation into Koine Greek, is yet another indication that the Prayer was originally in Hebrew or Aramaic. Greek writers, including some in the New Testament, were sometimes ham–handed with Hebrew parallelisms and tried to fit them into Homeric lines. That almost always failed. We must be eternally grateful that the Septuagint left the lines of Hebrew poetry intact. The Empire was full of poetry, some of it the finest until Shakespeare. But it was a different poetic heart than the Hebrew, more about sound and song, meter and rhyme, story and wonder. The Israelite poetic heart was about connections, relationship, and using poetic lines to find meaning between words and among events. Hebrew poetry is prophetic and Greek poetry is heroic.

Here we see Matthew leaving the structure as he found it, a testimony to his respect for his sources. He preserves the Semitic structure, retaining the elegant parallelism of Hebrew poetry. Luke, on the other hand, is very Greco–Roman and retains the parallelism only in the forgiveness petition. Matthew and Luke, without pushing it too far, spoke to different sensibilities.

First, I love what the author says about the difference between Hebrew poetry and all the other poetry of the lands encompassed by the Roman Empire. It echoes what I already knew about how the parallel structure of of Hebrew poetry is unique in its ability to be translated into any other language while still retaining its essential poetic form. And yet this goes beyond that insight to see that that Hebrew poetry’s characteristic is about connections and relationships. One line connecting to another, one thought in relationship to another; the very structure of the poetic line is an enactment of the meaning. Hebrew poetry is about connections and relationships: it is always about man’s connection to God and God’s relationship with us and that relationship encompasses our connection to the world God has created. Hebrew poetry is prophetic: it always points us to God in search of a relationship with man. It is a poetry which looks into heart of events, into the hearts of people and ponders their meaning within the context of God’s creation and God’s desire to be in covenant relationship with one people. Greek poetry is heroic, it is about man’s heroic striving with man, with the world, and with gods, who sometimes care about helping man, sometimes thwart him, and are often indifferent to his fate, or who use men for their own ends.

* * *

Covenant implies two parties and everywhere we look in the Lord’s Prayer we see form and structure supporting the words and meanings of covenant: honor and love, father and child, reciprocal feeding and forgiving, grace and gratitude, cosmic and personal.

I really like this insight that the basic structure of Hebrew poetry is about establishing relationships: relationships between ideas, parallel statements, statement and then elaboration, statement and antithesis, statement and inversion, images that build on one another like stairsteps. It’s all about establishing relationships, about making an ordered space, ordering the world, living in a world that is cosmic, ordered. Man living in right relationship with God and others and with himself.

The way the lines of a psalm echo, it’s like an image of the relationship between God and man, God seeks, man answers his call. Man pleads, God responds. Man worships, God shows forth his glory. Man strays, God seeks to reconcile man with himself.

The parallelism of the Lord’s Prayer is less striking in English than in other languages. In Latin and French you see it much more clearly.

* * *

The Introduction and the first three petitions are a single unit, much like the introduction and first four commandments of the Original Covenant are a unit. The three petitions, about the relationship to our Abba, are set apart by the word heaven on both sides and the clear shift of attention to our relationships to other people after them of on earth as it is in heaven. The Sabboth Commandment serves the same transitional function in the Original Testament. A seven day structure brings order to a chaotic universe and therefore serves as bridge between, in New Testament terms, heaven and earth. Each line of the first three petitions of the Disciples’s Prayer is a separate petition but, when joined as a poetic unit, a parallel to the other two lines. They could be understood as three parallel lines of one petition.

The rest of the petitions are like the last six commandments. In both cases, the Original Testament and the New, the first set of obligations are between the Deity and the people and the second set are from human person to human person. I do not believe this era spanning parallelism is an accident. The summary of the Law in Deuteronomy and on the breath of our lord, love God and love your neighbor, is made specific and practical in the Ten Commands and this Prayer of prayers. Notice that, unlike private prayer, all parts of this Prayer point outwards, away from self pity and pride and toward the welfare of others and thus the coming of the Kingdom.

This is fascinating. I really like the Lord’s Prayer as an echo of the Decalogue. A new Covenant replaces the old, a new order a new relationship.

In the Decalogue we have the mighty God who brings Israel forth from Egypt. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus instead tells us to call God Abba. In the decalogue we are told that we are to have no other gods but the one God. In the Lord’s Prayer we are told to ask God that his kingdom may come. If God is truly king over us, there is no room for any other God.

In the Decalogue we are told to not take the name of the Lord in vain. Jesus reiterates this commandment as we pray that God’s name be hallowed. But where the Decalogue gives us a negative prescription, Jesus gives a positive command. It’s not only that we are to avoid profaning God’s name, we have a positive adjuration to hallow it, we are prompted to ask God to hallow it.

In the Decalogue we are commanded to keep holy the sabbath day. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God that his will be done. Clearly it is God’s will that we live our lives according to the rhythm of creation, seven days of work and one of rest, patterning our terrestrial lives on the cosmic order of creation so that everything we do is an imitation of Him, our work an imitation of God’s work, our rest an imitation of his rest. Likewise Jesus’ petition would have us seek God’s will in all things, so that earth may be a perfect imitation of heaven.

So the parallels between the first part of the Our Father and the first three commandments in the Ten Commandments seem really clear, but what about the second part? Forgive us our debts as we forgive others contains the heart of the matter. Where the decalogue tells us not to hurt our neighbors, Jesus goes further and tells us to forgive them when they hurt us just as we want to be forgiven. Loving our neighbor in God’s kingdom is not only avoiding injury, but recognizing that when we are injured we need to extend mercy. Yes, we ask God to keep us from temptation and to deliver us from evil, but we also have an obligation to imitate God’s mercy, to heal the wounds that other people’s sins cause to us.

* * *

In Matthew 6:6, just a few verses before The Prayer, Geshua tells us But when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is there in the secret place; and your Father who sees what is secret will reward you.To fill out the picture, remember that in the ancient world all reading and praying was done aloud. There was no such thing as silent prayer, except for the unspoken groanings that Paul mentions. Also, recall that the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle was such a closet. Is our lord here changing the rules and asking us all to go into the most private place where He dwells? In any case, here He asks us for private, individual prayer. Yet a few moments later, if we accept Matthew’s sequencing, all of the pronouns are plural. The Lord’s Prayer is set in a gathering of those who pray to Abba. This is liturgy, spoken aloud, in the company of our fellow believers, families, and neighbors. Our Father not My Father, forgive us not forgive me. This praying in the company of others who also pray the same words at the same time is very significant and critical to our understanding this prayer.

This would not be so clear if it were not preceded by the admonition to pray in private. For this prayer, the Disciples’s Prayer, is something new. The praying in secret is for the bragging and begging prayers we pray when we make them up as we go along. Do not kid yourself, it is always so. Amid the sorrow over our sin, along with the humility of our praise for God, tucked into our one way conversations with Him is our tight focus on ourselves, our problems, our desires, and our faith. No wonder the lord, knowing human nature as He does, insists that we not speak our private prayers in public. But in this liturgical prayer, said together with other believers, we are embedded with each other, conscious of each other, aware of our responsibilities and the needs of others. It is one thing to pray in your bed as I forgive those who trespass against me. It is wholly another to look the neighbor who has insulted us in the eyes as we say as we forgive those who trespass against us. Even if the person who has wronged us in not present, some one else is and the very presence of another human person praying this Prayer keeps us focused beyond our own internal feelings.

I really liked this point about praying in secret vs public prayer. Interesting I’d never thought of the fact that in Jesus’ time prayer was audible never silent. Just as all reading was reading aloud. When people talked to God, they spoke. They were not in the habit of silent reading or silent praying. And this sheds a new light on the insight I’ve seen before that the Our Father is a corporate prayer, not a private prayer. Even when one prays it alone, because of the plural “Our” it is always a prayer prayed with the whole body of the Church.

One Response to Hebrew Poetry and the Lord’s Prayer

  1. Stephanie February 17, 2018 at 3:34 pm #

    What a rich post- thanks Melanie. The different ‘poetic heart’ of Hebrew and Greek poetry make me wonder about the heart of other poetry from around the world eg nonclassical, perhaps oral.

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