Saturday, April 5, 2014

I Chronicles 4

I Chronicles 4 has the story of Jabez.  Jabez prayed to God: “Oh that thou wouldest bless me indeed, and enlarge my coast, and that thine hand might be with me, and that thou wouldest keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me!” (v 10, KJV).  The text goes on to narrate that “God granted his request.

I liked what the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary had to say about the prayer of Jabez, as it drew from Jewish traditions: that Jabez in I Chronicles 4:10 was asking God for the opportunity to learn and to teach Torah.  That was the path to true blessing, and that would be how God would keep Jabez from evil, particularly Jabez’s own evil inclination.  And, according to the Artscroll, God granted Jabez’s request by leading Jabez to a group of Kenites.  In I Chronicles 2:55, we encounter Kenite scribes who dwelt in a place called Jabez.  According to the Artscroll, the Kenites needed a teacher, and God provided them with one, leading to a place of Torah study and scribal activity called “Jabez.”

Many Christians have criticized Bruce Wilkinson’s 2000 book, The Prayer of Jabez, saying that it promotes a prosperity Gospel.  Back when the book was popular, there was concern that Christians would use the prayer of Jabez as a mantra in an attempt to obligate God to cater to their own self-centered desires.  I was listening to one preacher who said that the Bible does not promise that God will hear everyone who prays: the prayer of one who does not listen to God’s law is an abomination (Proverbs 28:9); God will not hear the prayer of one who ignores the cry of the poor (Proverbs 21:13); and husbands who are inconsiderate towards their wives hinder their own prayers (I Peter 3:7).  See here for other examples.  I recall Christian radio personality Hank Hanegraaff saying that we can pray the prayer of Jabez until we are blue in the face, but God will not honor that prayer if we refuse to forgive a person.

I think that the Artscroll’s insights can potentially counter these reservations, or at least balance them out.  Jabez was not asking for material prosperity, per se, but for the opportunity to grow closer to God and to serve others, through study of the Torah.  And Jabez recognized that he had an evil inclination and thus needed the Torah to deal with his own evil.  That, in my opinion, is preferable to assuming that people need to become perfect before God answers their prayers, yet it also unites prayer with the pursuit of righteousness, the path of becoming godly, compassionate people.

Incidentally, my impression is that a number of Bruce Wilkinson’s critics read his book one-sidedly.  Wilkinson was relating the prayer of Jabez to receiving opportunities to serve God and others, which is similar to what the Artscroll is saying.

I will not make the leap of saying that the Artscroll’s interpretation of the prayer of Jabez is what the biblical passage meant in its original context.  Still, I appreciated the Artscroll’s insights, and the insights of the Jewish interpreters from which it was drawing.

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