And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you (2 Peter 2:3, KJV).
In terms of fan appeal, Jabez is the Elvis of the Old Testament. Bruce Wilkinson gave this minor player instant fame by selling more than nine million copies of his book The Prayer of Jabez. At the peak of the book's popularity you could not walk into a Christian bookstore without bumping into shelves of spinoff merchandise, including Jabez silk ties, travel mugs, mousepads and keychains, among other trinkets.
While the book has the Christian world spellbound, a few Bible scholars are raising concerns about Wilkinson's interpretation of the prayer from 1 Chronicles 4:10. The premise of the book is that Christians should recite the Jabez prayer – repeatedly if necessary – to invoke God’s favor and blessings. Wilkinson says it is a prayer God always answers.
One of the skeptics is Larry Pechawer, a professor of Hebrew studies at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Mo. He has published a book, The Lost Prayer of Jabez, that challenges the best-seller's message. Pechawer claims that the ancient Jewish scribes misunderstood the passage and added incorrect vowel points to one Hebrew word, which led to a critical mistranslation in English Bibles.
Pechawer says the correct rendering of Hebrew reveals that Jabez simply asked for pastureland, a valued commodity in his day. "Jabez was not asking for influence or ministry opportunities," he argues. "If translated correctly, all this discussion goes away. It eliminates much of the spiritual aspect of the prayer."
The Jabez controversy can be solved by correcting the mispronunciation of one word in the phrase "keep me from harm," he says. Pechawer points out that the Hebrew verb ASAH means to "make" or "provide" instead of "keep from." The Hebrew word MR'H was pronounced by Jewish scribes as MERA'AH, meaning "from harm/evil." They added markings (vowel points) to indicate that understanding, but Pechawer says it was a mistake.
"I wrestled with this verse and I came to realize that MERA'AH was the wrong form in this context," he says. "The correct word has the same original letters, MR'H, but is pronounced MIR'EH, which means pastureland. If you go from 'keep me from evil' to 'provide me with pastureland' you have wiped out the whole rationale for the Jabez phenomenon."
Pechawer also writes that the Jewish rabbis went to extremes in spiritualizing the Jabez prayer. He says they used a series of unlikely connections to identify Jabez as Othniel, the first judge of ancient Israel.
Peter Michas, a Hebraic Roots teacher and pastor of Messengers of Messiah International Ministries in Highland, Calif. (pictured right), agrees that some Jewish commentary is in error, but insists there is enough truth to take the texts seriously. Michas believes that Jabez and Othniel are the same person based on an understanding of Hebrew writing, which jumps forward and backward in thought. Jabez and Othniel are mentioned three verses apart in 1 Chronicles 4. The commentary in The Torah Anthology Book of Shoftim (Judges) states, "Othniel ben Kenaz was also known as Jabez. . . . Like King Solomon, Othniel did not pray for power or wealth. His prayer was for spiritual gifts rather than physical ones. . . . He was called Jabez because he advised and spread Torah."
Michas agrees with the rabbis who say Jabez was answered because of his humility. "Jabez wanted nothing but to serve God," he says. "Why does God answer that kind of humility? It has no arrogance, no selfishness, no greed. Paul was a tremendous example. He wished he could die and go to hell in place of the Jews so all Judah would be saved." Michas says he is grateful that God preserved enough rabbinical writing to help us understand difficult Bible passages. "We do not have vast amounts of sources remaining," he says. "Many of the scrolls and writings were destroyed by the church over the last 1,500 years." He says Jewish reference books on the Tanach (Old Testament) – available through ArtScroll, Judaica Press and Torah Anthology, among others – can be helpful to Christians wanting to dig deeper in their Bible studies. Hebrew is a picture language and many of the beautiful attributes of God are lost in the Greek mindset of the church, according to Michas.
While they disagree over the reliability of Jewish sources, Pechawer and Michas would say that a large segment of Christianity has misunderstood the Jabez prayer and, in extreme cases, used it as a carnal model for prayer. Pechawer says some Christians have been confused because they lack skills to make good decisions when interpreting Scripture. "We’ve dumbed down the gospel," he says. "Jabez is a novelty to most. Here comes a verse out of nowhere and it’s new and exciting." Wilkinson was out of the country and unavailable for comment.
A version of this article appeard in the October 7, 2002 edition of Christian Retailing magazine, a Strang trade publication.Posted by Jeff King at July 9, 2003 09:40 AM