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Prayer of Jabez
Question from Marty Purvis on 3/13/2002:

I have heard that EWTN has suggested that the book Prayer of Jabez is not to be practiced - is this true - I read the book promoted by a Christian friend and I really enjoyed the book and have the calendar and pray the prayer every morning. What is it that you are objecting to?

Thanks so much for your answer in advance.

Marty

Answer by Catholic Answers on 3/18/2002:

Please see below an article written by James Akin regarding The Prayer of Jabez.

Jan Wakelin

The Prayer of Jabez by James Akin

The prayer of Jabez is a minor prayer by a minor figure in a minor part of the Bible. The Prayer of Jabez is a major bestseller that is a major component of a major Evangelical marketing campaign. Nine million copies sold. Top of the New York Times bestseller list. Numerous spin-off products. Everything but Prayer of Jabez Happy Meals. The core product is the overpriced, undersized book The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking though to the Blessed Life, by Protestant minister Bruce Wilkinson. (At ten bucks for 92 tiny pages, this is basically a hardcover edition of one of Wilkinson's talks.) Wilkinson claims that a number of years ago he began to pray daily a short prayer of the biblical figure Jabez and, in response, God poured out abundant blessings on him. So now he encourages others to pray the prayer daily in expectation that God will bless them, too.

"Jabez Who?" You may be asking "Who is this Jabez guy?" There's a good reason you probably haven't heard of him: He is a very minor figure mentioned only in passing in the giant, nine-chapter genealogy that begins 1 Chronicles. Everything we know about Jabez (Hebrew: Ya`bets) is in just two verses in the middle of the genealogy. Ironically, it doesn't name his parents or his children. The verses are just stuck in there. Here are the verses in the translation Wilkinson: "Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, 'Because I bore him in pain.' And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, 'Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!' So God granted him what he requested" (1 Chr. 4:9-10, NKJV). That's it. That's all we know. So let's look at the text, Wilkinson interpretation, and the Jabez phenomenon.

"More Honorable"? Key to Wilkinson's thesis is the idea that Jabez was more honorable than those around him and that by copying his prayer we, too, will be more honorable and will be blessed by God. It should be noted, however, that the premise that this is built on-the idea that Jabez was more honorable-is rather iffy in the Hebrew text. The Hebrew word in question-nikbad-would normally be translated as saying that Jabez was more "honored" than his brethren-i.e., more famous, more respected, more noteworthy, not necessarily more virtuous.

"I bore him in pain" Wilkinson tell us that "In Hebrew, the word Jabez means 'pain.' A literal rendering could read, 'He causes (or will cause) pain'" (p. 20). This isn't true. The relevant Hebrew word for pain is `otsev ("sorrow," "pain," "hurt"), and it is not possible to give a literal rendering of the name. It is clearly intended in the text to be a pun on the word for sorrow, but like many Hebrew pun-names, it can't be given a literal translation. All one can say is that Ya`bets sounds a bit like`otsev and that there is a pun going on in the passage. (This is clearer when the words are spelled in the Hebrew alphabet; Ya`bets contains all of the consonants of `otsev-ayin, bet, and tsadhe-but in a different order.)

"Called on the God of Israel" One thing that Jabez devotees don't give full weight to is the fact that the text stresses who Jabez was praying to: "the God of Israel." This was no unimportant thing. It is easy for us to forget this in a day in which half of the human race are monotheists, but in the ancient world there were a lot of people worshipping other deities, even in Israel itself. For this reason, it may be that Jabez was special not because of what he was praying for but who he was praying to. Part of why he was singled out for mention because he resisted the temptation to worship other gods and made his vows to the God of Israel. We should also note that the text does not say that Jabez prayed the prayer daily, as Wilkinson encourages. In fact, it doesn't even say that he prayed it regularly. He may have only prayed it once. Why would he be famous for a prayer said once? Because it may actually be a vow. This possibility is clearer in other translations. For example, Young's Literal Translation renders the first part of the prayer as: "If blessing Thou dost bless me . . . " Noted Old Testament commentator C. F. Keil sees it as a vow in which the conditions of the vow are spelled out but not the corresponding promise. I.e., he is saying "'If Thou wilt bless me, and enlarge my coast, and Thy hand shall be with me, and Thou wilt keep evil far off, not to bring sorrow to me,'-without the conclusion, Then I vow to do this or that (cf. Gen. 28:20f), but with the remark that God granted him that which he requested." Keil adds: "The reason of this is probably that the vow had acquired importance sufficient to make it worthy of being handed down only from God's having so fulfilled his wish, that his life became a contradiction of his name; the son of sorrow having been free from pain in life, and having attained to greater happiness and reputation than his brothers" (Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 3:88).

A Spiritual Paragon? While Jabez is noteworthy to the Chronicler, it is not clear we are meant to see him as a paragon of spirituality. He certainly isn't one from a modern perspective. His prayer is basically is a prayer of self-interest. He begins by asking "that you would bless me indeed." There's nothing wrong with that. Every petitionary prayer asks God for some blessing, either for ourselves or others. In this case, he's praying for himself. That's fine, too. God wants us to pray for our personal needs. That's why the Our Father includes things like "give us this day our daily bread." But God also wants us to pray for others. In the Our Father we pray collectively, for both ourselves and others: "give us . . . forgive us . . . lead us." The paragon of spirituality is to go beyond praying for the members of one's group and to pray even for one's enemies (Matt. 5:44). Jabez doesn't do any of that. He doesn't pray for anybody but himself-at least not in his one recorded prayer. That doesn't make Jabez a bad guy. And I'm sure in his regular prayer life he did pray for other people. But the point is: In the one prayer he is famous for, he doesn't pray for anyone but himself. That's not bad; that's just not super-spiritual.

"Enlarge my territory" Attempting to make Jabez sound more spiritual, Wilkinson says that in making the petition for more territory Jabez "wanted more influence, more responsibility, and more opportunity to make a mark for the God of Israel" (p. 30, emphasis in original). This allows Wilkinson to tell his readers that in repeating this clause "you ask God to enlarge your life so you can make a greater impact for him" (ibid.). As exegesis, this is wishful thinking. There is nothing in the text indicating Jabez wanted "to make a mark for God" or "to make a greater impact for him." The vocabulary Wilkinson uses is late-twentieth century Evangelical. It's totally anachronistic. The motive he attributes to Jabez is similarly anachronistic. The ancient Hebrew manner of praying would more naturally ask God to show his greatness by doing great things for the petitioner, not ask him to do great things for the petitioner so that the petitioner could have more influence for him. While Jabez's petition could be a literal request for more land (a very common concern in ancient Israel) or as a metaphor for more influence, in either case he, Jabez, is meant to be the beneficiary. It is not credible to imagine a man of this culture, in this era, with this set of self-interested petitions is praying for more land or influence so that God may be the beneficiary.

"That I may not cause pain"? Jabez's self-interested petitions continue as he asks that God's hand would be with him-a common Old Testament metaphor for success. Then he prays "that you would keep me from evil that I may not cause pain!" Wilkinson seems to interpret this as meaning, roughly, "Keep me from sinning so that I may not hurt others." That would be a more spiritual interpretation than what is likely, however. Jabez almost certainly meant "Keep me from harm so that I may not be hurt." Wilkinson's interpretation is facilitated by the fact that he is using the New King James Version, which normally is quite a good translation. But here it's rendering is totally idiosyncratic. While it is gramatically possible to translate the word `atsbi as "I may cause pain"xx it is also possible to translate it as "pain may be caused to me." The overwhelming majority of Bible translations render the petition along these lines: "that you would keep me from harm that it may not pain me," punning on Jabez's name. This makes far more sense. "Keep me from sinning so that I won't hurt others" may be a sentiment among Evangelicals today, but it is anachronistic here. "Keep me from harm so I won't get hurt" is a much more likely petition from an ancient Hebrew who's name sounds like the word for "hurt."

What's the significance? Why is Jabez significant enough to be mentioned in Scripture? It would seem that he was well known at a certain period in Israel's history as a man who prayed to God and lived a good life in spite of the fact that his name sounds like the word for pain. It may be that he made a vow to God in which he punned on his name and his family passed down the memory. It may be that he simply prayed in a way which punned on his name. It also may be that he is noteworthy in part because he, unlike many in his age, worshipped the God of Israel. Either way, while he is worth noting, he isn't a spiritual giant. However clever a twist he puts on the end of his prayer, it is self-interest from front to back. There is nothing wrong with that, but it isn't profoundly spiritual.

Having a sense of proportion Can Catholics pray the Jabez prayer? Well, sure. There isn't anything wrong with the prayer itself. However, I have a problem with Wilkinson encouraging people to say it on a daily basis as if God will uniquely reward this prayer. In his book he even speaks of people "Making Jabez Mine" and experiencing "the Jabez blessing." There is no such thing as "the Jabez blessing" for people to experience. God has made no such promise, and inflating a microscopic Old Testament character with modern, Madison Avenue, Evangelical ad-speak does not create one. The Jabez phenomenon reeks of manufactured spirituality. The book is part of "The BreakThrough Series," which includes Wilkinson's other books Experiencing Spiritual Breakthroughs and 30 Days to Experiencing Spiritual Breakthroughs-as if such events could be mechanically produced on schedule by using the spiritual equivalent of a diet plan, rather than being rather than being graces God grants according to his will and timetable. My suspicion is that Jabez has taken off the way it has in Evangelical circles for three reasons: (1) Evangelicals are starved for the kind of daily devotions that Catholics already have plenty of, (2) it represents a toned-down version of the "health & wealth" gospel that appeals to human nature, and (3) Multnomah has dumped a ton of advertising money into the project. So while I'm all for giving Jabez his due-he was a noteworthy guy or else Scripture wouldn't mention him-I'm also for keeping a sense of proportion: If he were someone Christians should make a daily part of their prayer lives, he'd get more than two verses.

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