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July 10th, 2022 | The 23rd Times

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The Story of Prayer

by Stephen Beale – Catholic Exchange

Prayer, or something like it, begins early in biblical history. Genesis 4:26 reports that while Adam and Eve were still alive and having children that men ‘began to call on the name of the Lord’—a vague but evocative statement that could be interpreted as referring to prayer.

The Hebrew word for prayer, palal (pronounced: paw-lal’), does not appear until sometime later, in Genesis 20:7. The word is spoken by God in a dream to Abimelech urging him to return Abraham’s wife so that Abraham might pray for him. Abimelech does this and Abraham prays as prophesied 10 verses later.

But it is not until much later that we get the first description of someone actually praying. Surprisingly the word is not used too often in the context of Abraham’s story. In Exodus, we get something of a description in Moses’ brief firsthand account of how he interceded for the Israelites in Deuteronomy 9. But this is not prayer in the conventional sense—Moses is in the midst of a mystical encounter with God on Mount Sinai. It is not until the beginning of Samuel that we get a full description of an ancient Israelite praying.


In the Old Testament, this is a pivotal moment. Hannah will become the mother of Samuel, the prophet who oversees Israel’s transition to a nation with a king, first Saul, then David. In terms of typology it’s also a crucially important moment, as Samuel foreshadows Christ, making Hannah a forerunner of Mary. The whole scene, in fact, also is a sort of Old Testament prefiguring of the Annunciation scene.

The historical and theological context indicates that this is a turning point. There is also the simple fact that this is the first true story of prayer in the Bible.

What are the Lessons in Prayer?

The value of fasting:

Before the above passage, we see Hannah at a meal, weeping and unable to eat. It is after one of these meals that she prays. Although Hannah was not intentionally fasting it is worth noting that she did pray on an empty stomach. Physical hunger seems to go hand in hand with spiritual hunger.

Prayer is an urgency:

There is a subtle tone of urgency to this whole story. Hannah’s moment of prayer seems somewhat spontaneous: she has been going up to Shiloh with her husband and his other wife every year and every year his other wife ‘would torment her constantly.’ This time seems different: Hannah seems to have reached a breaking point and in that moment of crisis cried out to God. (This is a reasonable inference from the story: had Hannah been repeatedly praying for a son the story would take on a whole different color.)

Pray in the presence of God:

If you read St. Francis de Sales classic work, Introduction to the Devout Life, his instructions for prayer constantly include the stipulation that one should prepare for prayer by placing oneself in the presence of God. That’s exactly what we see Hannah doing here, by coming to the tabernacle, which was a precursor to the temple.

Prayer as sacrifice:

Being in the presence of God in the later history of ancient Israel meant being near the altar, the place of sacrifice. For later rabbinic commentators, it legitimized prayer’s connection with sacrifice. This was vital for post-temple Judaism, which had to develop a spirituality in the absence of a sacrificial system. For us too, the story reinforces the bond between prayer and sacrifice. Indeed prayer really is a sort of sacrifice—a sacrifice of the will. This is at the core of the most basic Christian prayer: Thy will be done. For us the ultimate model is Christ, whose agonizing prayer ended with the affirmation that ‘not my will but yours be done.


Such vulnerability before God means that Hannah’s prayer is coming from the heart, the commentators of the Talmud note. Her heartfelt prayer exhibits what the Talmudic rabbis considered an essential aspect of prayer, kavvana, which one contemporary writer defines as “the intentionality and attention with which a fully aware and situated self orients itself toward God and performs a holy act.”

Prayer is internal and external:

This is something suggested in the Talmud. Note that even though the drama is largely an interior one its outward visible signs are unmistakable. Though she was silent, she was moving her lips. She was visibly crying. Prayer should shake us body and soul.