Excerpt from A Prayer to Our Father by Nehemia Gordon and Keith Johnson (pages 7-20):
Copyright © 2009 by Nehemia Gordon and Keith Johnson, All Rights Reserved.
As the only prayer written by Jesus himself, over a billion Christians consider the Lord’s Prayer the ultimate expression of their faith. This quintessential Christian prayer is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew in Greek and has been translated into over 1,400 languages. It was originally taught in Hebrew to the Jewish multitudes who came to hear Jesus preach on a Galilean mountainside. In English, the Lord’s Prayer is sometimes called the “Disciple’s Prayer,” although, in most other languages, it is simply called the “Our Father” after its opening words.1 In ancient Hebrew, it was known as the Avinu Prayer, based on the Hebrew word meaning “Our Father.”2
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the multitudes that came to hear Jesus teach were captivated by his sermons. Jesus used simple terms that any ancient Jew could easily understand.3 However, much was lost in translation when his message began to spread among the Greek-speaking non-Jews. At the end of the 1st century, a Christian writer named Papias reported that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Hebrew and “everyone translated it as he was able.”4 In the 16th century, the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther concluded that without a comprehensive knowledge of the Hebrew language, the full meaning of the New Testament would forever remain elusive.5 The Avinu Prayer is no exception, and only by uncovering the prayer’s Hebrew origins can we hope to understand it the way it was originally understood by the Jews of the Galilee some 2,000 years ago.
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Many factors could have conspired to prevent us from ever writing this book. First and foremost, we could not be more different. One of us is a white Jew, while the other is an African American Christian. This is not just a difference of race but, more importantly, of culture and religion. One of us was raised in the bookish culture of dry Jewish intellectualism, while the other was nurtured in the Jesus-focused spirit-led world of an inner-city church.
In our desire to be guided by the word of God, we looked to the words of the prophet Amos, which are translated in the King James Version of the Bible:
Can two walk together, except they be agreed?6
We agonized over the question of whether a Jew and a Christian could walk together when not agreed on fundamental issues of faith. This inspired us to examine the words of Amos in the original Hebrew, and we discovered that what the prophet actually said was:
Can two walk together, without having met one another?7
We decided to take up the challenge of Amos and meet one another on common ground in order to walk together humbly before God. We did this by focusing on our common scriptural heritage, the Old Testament, while respecting our mutual differences. We found that these differences allowed for a unique collaboration that helped us better understand the ancient prophetic writings that each of us holds dear.
As the biblical Abraham went forth from the land of his forefathers on a journey guided only by his faith, we embarked on a study of the Avinu Prayer not knowing where we would be led. We found that, beyond understanding the Hebrew meaning of a prayer taught by a Galilean Jew from Nazareth, we discovered a path of reconciliation that this ancient prayer invited us to walk. We invite you, the reader, to join us on this journey to explore the Hebrew origins of the Avinu Prayer, commonly known as the “Lord’s Prayer.”
The Journey to Common Ground
Authors’ note: As co-authors we were challenged as to how to bring each of our voices to the page. We decided to write some sections of the book in first person singular, taking turns being the speaker in different chapters.
Our journey to common ground began when I left my home to study the Bible and Nehemia left his home to live it. We ended up meeting in the ancient city of Jerusalem with a shared passion for the Word of God.
My own spiritual journey began in high school when I became involved with a local inner-city church in my native Minneapolis. After receiving an undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota and working in corporate America for a number of years I decided it was time to give back to the community. I took a job as director of an inner-city youth ministry where it was my responsibility to teach young people the Bible. After three years I realized that what I could teach the youth was limited by my own biblical understanding. To be able to do more I would need further training, so I decided to move my wife and two small boys to Chicago where I enrolled in the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. At this evangelical seminary, I took many courses in the Bible and theology including New Testament Greek and Old Testament Hebrew.
During my first semester of language studies I immediately recognized Greek as a European language with many similarities to English. In contrast, Hebrew struck me as strange and unfamiliar with its Semitic structure and foreign concepts. Yet there was something captivating about the language spoken, written and read by the people of the Bible. I could not get over the fact that Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets communicated in Hebrew and not English. God could have selected any language in the universe to reveal his Word and yet he chose Hebrew. I found myself thinking: “Why would I not want to know this heavenly language?” After completing all of my language requirements I continued my Hebrew studies with an independent reading course. Using reading tools under a professor’s guidance, I was able to slowly make my way through the Torah – the Five Books of Moses – but I never gained a deep understanding of or proficiency in the Hebrew language.
After receiving my Master’s Degree in Divinity, I put away my Hebrew reference tools and took a position as a pastor at the same inner-city church in Minneapolis where I began my journey of faith as a youth. Over a three-year process I was ordained as an Elder in the United Methodist Church. Occasionally I dug out my Hebrew reference tools to incorporate a word or concept into one of my sermons, but otherwise my unused Hebrew skills gradually waned over the years.
This all changed when I felt a calling to relearn the Hebrew language. When I opened up my old seminary books I realized I had forgotten nearly everything. Over the course of a year I took small but focused steps toward regaining the Hebrew knowledge I had acquired in seminary. Then one day I had a dream in which I saw a scroll flying over my head. When I woke up from the dream I heard a voice instructing me to be in Jerusalem on the biblical festival of Shavuot (Pentecost). I decided to answer this invitation and began exploring the logistics of traveling to Israel.
As the date of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land approached, I had a burning desire to obtain a Hebrew “Torah Scroll.” The previous year I had seen a Torah Scroll for the first time and when I approached to touch it I was unexpectedly moved to tears. I was told by numerous sources that my chances of obtaining a scroll were slim. A Torah Scroll contains the Five Books of Moses from Genesis to Deuteronomy written out by an expert scribe on parchment. The process takes nearly a year and as a result costs tens of thousands of dollars. I was told that even if I could raise the funds, no Jewish scribe would ever sell such a sacred object to a Christian. Torah Scrolls are intended for use in Jewish synagogues and to sell one to a non-Jew would be considered a sacrilege. Many people told me to just accept the reality that I would never be able to get my own Torah Scroll.
I prayed for an answer and eventually heard about a man in Israel who was selling used Torah Scrolls. The parchment on these ancient scrolls had turned brown and the edges were worn, so they were no longer considered “Kosher” for use in the synagogue but still had value to collectors. I didn’t know if I could afford one of these old Torah Scrolls but I was determined to get one.
As I prepared for my journey to Israel I decided against a standard organized tour. I had been to the Holy Land once before and was disappointed at being shuttled around on an air-conditioned bus from one tourist site to another with little time to appreciate the real Israel. This time I would stay at the house of a friend of a friend and find my own way around the country. My host lived within walking distance of the Old City of Jerusalem, which gave me the freedom to explore on my own.
When I arrived in Israel, I spent several days experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of Jerusalem, all the while keeping an eye out for a way to get my Torah Scroll. Although I had the phone number of the collector who was selling the old scrolls, I was hesitant to call without having someone to translate for me. On one of my excursions around Jerusalem, I befriended a Palestinian man named Zacchi who agreed to help. However, he wanted to first show me what was happening in the West Bank. Zacchi and I ended up going on a series of adventures that brought us to the war-torn Palestinian-ruled town of Bethlehem before finally arriving at the apartment of the Torah Scroll collector in the Jewish village of Maale Adumim.
The collector was away on business in Greece so Zacchi and I were greeted by his friend who had been instructed to show us the scrolls. The collector’s friend, who happened to be a white South African, presented me with three beautiful Torah Scrolls. While I was examining the scrolls, the collector called from Greece. It turned out that he spoke fluent English and after a few niceties over the phone, he said to me: “Just take the Torah Scroll you want and when you get back to America give me a call so we can agree on a price.” I handed the phone back to the South African man who nodded as the collector filled him in. I stood there in disbelief: an Israeli Jew was telling his white South African friend to give a holy object worth thousands of dollars to a Palestinian Arab and an African American whom he had never met without any money being exchanged. This turn of events seemed nothing short of a miracle.
A few nights later, my host arranged for me to meet a special tour guide named Nehemia Gordon at the Mount Zion Hotel. The purpose of the meeting was to plan the details of a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem the next morning, but by this time all I could think about was my Torah Scroll. Nehemia started talking about the various options for the tour but I was not really paying attention. Finally I interrupted Nehemia and asked him to listen to my story. I told Nehemia about my dream, about the voice telling me to come to Jerusalem on Shavuot, and about my adventures in getting the Torah Scroll. Nehemia sat there politely smiling but eventually admitted he had great doubts about my story. He could not believe for a minute that a Gentile had been able to obtain a real Torah Scroll. He informed me that it was likely I had been duped by some unscrupulous person who sold me a mock Torah Scroll, like the type carried by children on the Jewish festival of Simhat Torah. These faux Torah Scrolls are printed on paper rather than written out by hand on parchment and are only worth a few dollars. When I was done telling the story I said to Nehemia, “So will you come see the scroll and read it for me?” Nehemia reluctantly agreed but reiterated that he suspected the scroll was a fake. I laughed and said: “You’ll see!”
When we arrived at the home of my host, I ran up the stairs from the basement garage, leaping two steps at a time. I rushed to the Torah Scroll lying on the large living room table and grabbed hold of the protruding rods around which the ancient parchment was wrapped while Nehemia slowly meandered up the stairs. When Nehemia finally reached the living room, I turned to him from behind the Torah Scroll panting and said: “Here it is!” Nehemia was certain he would be shown a fake scroll printed on paper, but as he approached he was surprised to see real parchment peeking out from beneath the velvet cover. He admired the beautiful designs on the ancient velvet wrap that covered the scroll and read the words of Isaiah embroidered in golden thread:
For the Torah shall go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.8
I had not even noticed these words on the cover of the Torah Scroll and when Nehemia read and translated them I was in awe. Standing in Jerusalem with my new Torah Scroll, I felt like I was living this prophecy.
As Nehemia removed the velvet cover he remarked that this was indeed a genuine Torah Scroll, and a very old one at that. I waited in anticipation as Nehemia began to read from the scroll.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“It’s the section on the feasts in Leviticus 23,” Nehemia explained. I immediately picked up my Bible and turned to Leviticus 23 so I could follow along. As Nehemia read and translated, it dawned on me that the scroll had opened to the section on Shavuot. When Nehemia reached the end of the section, I let out a shout of excitement and jumped for joy, clenching my Bible in my hands. When I was done dancing with joy I turned to Nehemia, who had been startled by my vocal and physical expressions of enthusiasm, and said: “Do you realize the significance of this? I had a calling to come to Jerusalem on Shavuot and get a Torah Scroll which everyone told me was impossible. When I finally got the scroll it opened to the section on Shavuot!” Nehemia told me he was impressed but not sure what to make of the dream or the “calling.” He had been raised in the intellectual tradition of Lithuanian Jewry, which placed great emphasis on scholastics and book learning but viewed dreams and miracles with skepticism.
“That’s very interesting,” Nehemia remarked rather dryly. I was surprised by Nehemia’s reserved lack of emotion and asked, “Don’t you realize the magnitude of what just happened?!” That night we experienced the meeting of two different cultures, of two very different approaches.
The next morning when we met for the tour of the Old City, I decided I would convince Nehemia to become my Hebrew teacher. I had been impressed at how he read and translated from the Torah Scroll with such ease and wanted to be able to do the same thing myself. The tour began early in the morning at the subterranean tunnels that run along the length of the Western Wall. For centuries Jews had been coming on pilgrimages to pray in front of a tiny patch of wall on the western side of the Temple Mount; as far as anyone knew this was the only surviving remnant of the Second Temple. After the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967, Israeli archaeologists carried out excavations which proved that the Western Wall actually continued underground for over 1,000 feet. As we walked through a series of tunnels along the newly exposed sections of the Western Wall, I admired the massive foundation stones which provided support for the Temple complex above.
It occurred to me that I needed to build my own biblical faith on such solid foundations that could survive the ravages of time. Before coming to Israel I had talked about my desire to own a Torah Scroll with my fellow Christians, and one concern that was expressed was: “What does the light of the New Testament have to do with darkness of the Old Testament?” As I walked through the subterranean tunnels, dwarfed by the massive foundation stones, I realized I could never hope to understand the “words in red” of the New Testament without the foundation of these words in the Old Testament.
After the tunnels along the Western Wall, we went to see many other ancient sites around old Jerusalem, including the “Broad Wall” mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah, and the “City of David” where Jerusalem started off as a small Jebusite town.9 Throughout the day we talked about many scriptural issues; whenever Nehemia stopped to catch his breath or sat down to rest, I was waiting with a question about some scriptural verse. After each question Nehemia would pull out his Bible and read a biblical passage to me that contained the answer. I was surprised to see that Nehemia’s Bible was worn out and missing part of the cover but what surprised me most was that it was entirely in Hebrew. I had seen many Bibles with Hebrew and English on opposite pages but as I peaked over Nehemia’s shoulder there was no English to be found. Throughout my years at Christian seminary I had always thought of Hebrew primarily as a reference tool, and it surprised me that someone could actually read Scripture in the original language the way that most Americans read it in English. I finally understood what the Apostle Paul meant when he said:
What advantage then has the Jew? …Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God.10
It was not by accident that Jesus brought his message to the Jews who were deeply immersed in the “oracles of God.” Some Christians may think the Old Testament, or as Jews prefer to call it the “Hebrew Bible,” lost its relevance after the crucifixion.11 However, the Book of Acts praises the Jews of Berea for basing their faith on it:
Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.12
When Paul preached in the synagogue of Berea, the New Testament had yet to be written and the “Scriptures” that the Jews examined were none other than the Hebrew Bible. I realized that to fully understand the message of Jesus of Nazareth I had to be like the Bereans and make the Hebrew Bible my Scriptures. This was no longer just about reading a Torah Scroll as a symbolic act. I wanted my daily Bible devotions to be in the Bible’s original language, and I was excited about the prospect of reading the actual words that God spoke to the prophets, rather than someone’s translation of these words. I was determined to make the Hebrew Bible “my book,” just as the English translation of the Bible had been for so many years.
Towards the end of the day I turned to Nehemia and asked him if he would teach me Hebrew. Nehemia responded that he was far too busy, not to mention the logistical nightmare of teaching someone so far away. But I did not give up and eventually Nehemia agreed to consider it if I could prove I was a serious and committed student. Nehemia had met many pilgrims in the past that felt overwhelmed by the emotional and spiritual experience of being in Jerusalem, and he suspected that my excitement would wear off shortly after returning home.
When I arrived back in America, my burning desire to read Scripture in the original language just intensified. After two months of calls and e-mails Nehemia finally agreed to create a rigorous curriculum that would give me a solid foundation in biblical Hebrew and help me gain a true proficiency in the language, rather than be limited to using it as a reference tool. Nehemia also proposed a weekly telephone conference in which we would read the Hebrew Bible together. He soon realized that this was not just a one-way relationship of teacher and student. As we read the Bible each week in Hebrew, Nehemia found that I brought a different viewpoint that challenged his preconceptions and forced him to delve deeper into the Hebrew language and the words of the prophets. Over time, our weekly telephone conferences transformed from a “class” into a joint study, in which we explored different facets of Scripture together. We realized that each of us brought a unique perspective to the Scriptures that made for a powerful synergy. A Jew and a Christian had arrived at common ground and were walking together by the light of God’s holy Word.
1 The Hebrew flavor of the prayer’s original name is preserved in many ancient and modern languages such as the Latin Pater Noster (“Our Father”) and the Spanish el Padre Nuestro (“the Our Father”).
2 The Hebrew word Avinu אָבִינוּ “our father” is made up of two smaller words: avi meaning “father” and nu meaning “our.” In ancient Hebrew, books, prayers, and poems were named after their opening words. Thus, the Book of Genesis was called Bereshit, which means “In the beginning,” and the Song of Moses was called Ha’azinu, which means “Give ear,” both after their opening words.
3 Matthew 7:28–29 as explained by J. M. Grintz, “Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language in the Last Days of the Second Temple,” Journal of Biblical Literature 79 (1960), pages 32–47.
4 The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, translated by C. F. Cruse, Grand Rapids 1971, page 127.
5 See page Error: Reference source not found below for the source of this statement.
6 Amos 3:3 [KJV].
7 Amos ends this verse with the Hebrew word no‘adu נוֹעָדוּ, which literally means “they met one another” (the nifal expressing a reciprocal action). This verb is used the same way in Exodus 25:22: “And there I will meet with thee” (KJV). Amos is saying that before two people can walk together, they must first meet on common ground. The Hebrew meaning is correctly captured by several modern translations such as the new Jewish Publication Society translation, the New English Translation, and Young’s Literal Translation. Even the familiar King James Version says that two people cannot walk together unless they have first agreed to do so (irrespective of whether they agree on theology and religious ritual).
8 Isaiah 2:3.
9 Nehemiah 3:8; 2 Samuel 5:7.
10 Romans 3:1–2 [NRSV].
11 In addition to “Hebrew Bible,” Jews also refer to the Old Testament as Tanakh and Mikra.
12 Acts 17:11 [NIV].