A Mixed Up Minister?
What insights does the book of Jonah have for ministers today?
Led by The Revd Tom Stuckey, a former President of the Methodist Church.
Bless the Lord
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Psalm 103:1
The bracha or blessing is an integral part of Jewish life. In fact, there is a bracha for virtually everything, from getting up in the morning, bathing, going to the toilet and getting off to bed. Each Shabbat (Sabbath), fathers bless their children with the Aaronic blessing, the Shabbat candles are given a bracha and when Shabbat ends there is a blessing for the Havdalah (the braided candle used at the end of Shabbat ceremony). Jewish men say a blessing before and after they read the Torah, and when putting on tefillin (prayer bands for the upper arm and forehead). There are blessings for when smelling fruit, eating fruit, eating vegetables, seeing lightning, hearing thunder, seeing a rainbow, upon seeing exceptionally beautiful people, trees or fields, and on seeing exceptionally strange-looking people or animals! The rabbis teach that an observant Jew should say one hundred brachot (blessings) a day; now that’s a blessed lot of blessings.
It might strike you as a little strange or even pedantic to have a blessing for the seemingly minute and random things of life; when would you have time to actually do anything when you are blessing all day! I remember a friend from Uganda who used to always give a blessing whenever he had a glass of water. At first I thought it strange but I began to appreciate that where he came from there was not as much rain as in this country; water was precious where he came from and the Giver of water even more so.
There is a whole tractate of the Mishnah called Berachot that is given over to discussions about the regulations about who can say a blessing, when to say a blessing and where to say a blessing. There is even a discussion on what invalidates a blessing. Berachot (the plural of bracha) are special forms of prayer that begin with the words Baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Ehad: “Blessed art thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe.”
It is worth noting at this point that the Mishnah is an important book for Judaism because, just as the New Testament marked out Christianity from the common Old Testament roots it has with Judaism, the Mishnah marked out Judaism as distinct from the common Old Testament roots it has with Christianity. However, having said that, the Mishnah still shares many commonalities with New Testament teaching.
Traditionally, much Christian prayer tends to ask God to bless various things and people. The Gnostic idea of the earth being evil and therefore needing to be blessed or to be sanctified stems from a non-biblical view of the world; the world was created by God and He is the sovereign Lord of all creation, which still reflects his glory. Such negative ideas about the physical and material world have filtered into the understanding of many Christians about blessings and prayer. We bless buildings, places and people; televangelists bless various objects sent to them and send them back to their viewers with the inserted blessed power.
Many an Oscar acceptance speech is littered with the claim to being “so blessed”; we cry out in prayer and worship to be blessed, and have more and more blessing. However, in Hebrew prayer God is the one who is blessed. The basic form of the bracha (blessing) starts Baruch ata: “Blessed art thou”. This phrase is often called the Shem Umalchut (“the name and the sovereignty”), so the blessing is not an incantation or a magical formula in order to get what you want, it is an affirmation and acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God, the Giver. The bracha is said to acknowledge that God is the source of all blessing and all the good things that we enjoy and need to survive and thrive in life.
The Hebrew word bracha comes from a root word berech meaning “knee”, and the Hebrew word for kneeling is linked to the word breicha, meaning “pond” or “pool”. Animals kneel down to drink at the pool as do people washing clothes and bowing the knee is part of prayer. Getting on one’s knees is the petition position and symbolises the proper attitude we should have before God when we pray. In biblical times, subjects approached kings on their knees and prostrated themselves on the ground. One of the Hebrew words for “worship” means to lie flat on the floor as a sign of respect and awe. In fact, the Hebrew word for prayer tefilah derives from hitpalel, which means to judge oneself. This is different from the English word “prayer”, which means to “beg”. The Hebrew concept of blessing, therefore, is about judging ourselves, being aware of who God is and adopting the position, metaphorically, of petitioning on our knees (though you can kneel if that helps you assume a proper attitude before God). “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker” Psalm 95:6. In prayer, we come to bless God the Creator of all things.
There are many blessings in the Bible. The word is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament, and we are told in Nehemiah 13:2 that “Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing”. In the sense of turning something bad into something good, or something neutral into something good, God does a fair bit of blessing in the Old Testament and, indeed, in our lives. However, blessing in the sense of a form of prayer, or a divinely sanctioned bit of good luck (as some people incorrectly view it), is more the direction we are investigating.
Bless the name
In daily speech in Israel, when you ask someone how they are, many may well answer Baruch HaShem: “Bless the Name” or “Bless God”. This attitude belies the powerful Biblical pattern of blessing that has undergirded Hebrew prayer; bless the Name because He is the author of life: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). We have a Name that is above all other names that we bless and before whom every knee shall bow, Jesus the Messiah.