Notes on Prayer: 1 Kings 8:31-32

1 Kings 8:31-40

Verses 31-40 of the Prayer of Solomon in 1 Kings 8 (cf. the previous studies) illustrate the principle of the centralization of worship for Israel/Judah, involving the Jerusalem Temple. The newly-built Temple (in the context of the narrative) clearly is intended to have a central position in the religious and cultural life of the people, continuing the tradition established with the earlier Tent-shrine (vv. 3-4ff). While the Tent-shrine was portable, moving along with the people, the Temple is built at a fixed (permanent) location. This has important implications for the religious experience of the people, and reflects the royal theology of the Kingdom. The people experience and relate to God, in a fundamental way, through the framework of the Temple and its ritual.

1 Kings 8:31-32

While most of the examples in vv. 31-40 emphasize the Temple as the focal point for the people’s prayers, the initial case involves social relations among the people. The ‘vertical’ relationship between the people and God has a corresponding ‘horizontal’ relationship of one person to another. Both need to be maintained, at both a ritual and ethical level, and the Temple plays a central role in this process.

However, with the specific example given in vv. 31-32, it can be a bit difficult to discern the precise situation being described. It is introduced with the substantive particle ta@, followed by the relative particle rv#a&. The particle ta@ often marks a predicate accusative (or direct object), but it can be used for other purposes as well; here it introduces a subject for discussion, and the combination rv#a& ta@ can be translated something like “in a situation where…”, “regarding (times) when…”. The specific situation in vv. 31-32 is summarized simply:

“when a man does wrong to his neighbor…”
ohu@r@l= vya! af*j$y# rv#a& ta@

The verb af*j* means “miss (the mark)”, often in the general sense of “fail to do (something)”, or with the specific ethical-religious nuance of “fail  to do (what is right)”, i.e., “do (something) wrong”. It corresponds to a(marta/nw in Greek, with both verbs being translated (in most instances) as “sin”. The phrase here can be rendered “sins against a neighbor,” but a somewhat more accurate translation is “does wrong to a neighbor”. The noun u^r@ denotes an associate, someone living or working close to another person; “neighbor” captures the general social situation.

The nature of the wrong done to a person is not specified, and it presumably could cover a wide range of offenses. It is serious enough, however, that the person who was wronged wishes to clear himself of any wrong-doing (on his own part) that could have justified such mistreatment by his neighbor. This touches upon a ritual aspect of life in the ancient world that is largely lost and foreign to us today. It involves the swearing of oaths, with the religious-magical force that such binding oaths were thought to possess. A formal action is described here in verse 31:

“and (if) he should impose on him a curse [hl*a*], to make him swear (under force of) the curse [vb hl*a*]…”

The principal verb is av*n`, which is typically used in the context of money-lending, and can refer to the imposition of a debt (and/or the exaction of it). Here the verb would presumably mean that an oath (with a curse) is imposed upon the person (who wronged his neighbor). However, some MSS read the visually similar verb ac*n` instead, which means “lift/take up” —i.e., take up an oath/curse.

The noun hl*a* denotes an imprecation or curse, typically in the specific context of a binding oath, etc. The related verb, in the Hiphil (causative) stem, indicates the forcing of someone to take such an oath—i.e., making them swear, under the force of a curse. The curse is an essential part of the oath, as it is intended to compel truthfulness and the fulfillment of any binding obligation. If a person violates the oath (or swears falsely), then the curse will come about against him/her. This is built into the magical character of the oath-idea: whatever the person utters in the curse-formula will come to pass if the oath is violated (or made falsely). Moreover, the deity thought to witness the oath will ensure that the curse comes about, as a form of divine punishment against the violator. In the context of Israelite monotheism, of course, it is YHWH who brings about the curse-punishment.

Thus, it is necessary that YHWH witnesses the oath (and its curse), and, for this reason, the oath is made, in a ritual (and symbolic) manner, in the presence of YHWH—that is, within the Temple precincts, in His “house”:

“…and he should come (and) utter the curse [vb hl*a*] before your slaughtering-place [i.e. altar] in this house”

The oath, with its curse, is made in front of the altar (lit. the place of [ritual] slaughter, j^B@z+m!) in the Temple courtyard. Based on the other examples given in vv. 33-40, one might suppose that it would be enough for the oath to be made in the direction of the Temple; however, at least in this situation, as it is described, the individuals are present at the Jerusalem Temple itself. The altar is a symbolic point of contact between the people and YHWH, a place where, in a ritual manner, they encounter His presence (the inner sanctuary being off-limits to the general population). By making the oath before God’s altar, the person makes the oath (and utters its curse) before God Himself.

Yet God is not actually present in the Temple, since His true dwelling is in heaven (cf. the discussion in the previous study); still, the request (and expectation) is that YHWH will hear the oath, and will respond accordingly:

“then you will hear (it in) the heavens, and you will act, and you will judge (between) your servants—to declare wrong (the one who is) wrong, (so as) to give (him) his (wicked) way (back) on his head, and to declare right (the one who is) right, (so as) to give to him according to his righteousness” (v. 32)

The prayer is that God will act to make clear who is right and who is wrong, punishing the wicked one and clearing/blessing the righteous. The adjectives uv*r* and qyd!x* are typically translated, in a religious-ethical sense, as “wicked” and “righteous”, respectively; here, however, the legal-judicial aspect of being “wrong” and “right” needs to be emphasized as well. The force of the curse, uttered in the oath, will come down upon the person shown to be wrong, and it is YHWH who will ensure this, as a matter of divine punishment against wickedness (and the false swearing of an oath).

In the ancient world, the swearing of oaths was a natural and normal component of social-relations, and served as an effective means of resolving disputes, securing truthful/honest dealings, and so forth. The magical-religious dimension of binding oaths (and their curse formulas) may be foreign to us today, with only a faint vestige remaining (associated with jury trials and other legal proceedings) in our culture; however, they played an important role in regulating interactions and relationships within society, helping to maintain a level of justice, fairness, and equity throughout. It is only natural that such oaths would be made, symbolically, in God’s presence, at the altar in the Temple. For the different approach to oaths that we (as Christians) are to follow, according to the teaching of Jesus, cf. my earlier article discussing the ‘Antitheses’ in the Sermon on the Mount (spec. the fourth ‘Antithesis’, Matt 5:33-37).

In the next study, we will survey the examples given in vv. 33-40.

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