Bread and the kingdom of God: a tale of two prayers

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 18, 2009

Over the past weeks I’ve described at some length my understanding of peace as it is expressed by the ancient Hebrew word shalom. This week I’d like to relate that sense of peace to a Judeo-Christian view of the kingdom of God, and especially to the peace of bread.

Did I say peace of bread? Don’t I mean piece? No, actually I do mean peace of bread, and two prayers, one from Judaism and the other from Christianity, will demonstrate why.

There is the custom in Judaism of reciting a short but profound prayer at the breaking of bread. It goes like this:

“Blessed are you, Hashem our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

This blessing is one of a set of short prayers said at meals thanking God for all kinds of food.

A few observations are in order here.

First, what is this Hebrew word, “Hashem”? Literally, it means “the Name.” It is a reverential way of referring to the not-to-be-spoken sacred Name of God, represented in many English translations of the Hebrew Bible (also known as the Old Testament) by the word “Lord” written in small capital letters. It echoes the Shema Yisrael, the great confession of Judaism recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Tanakh).

Second, it affirms the Lord as sovereign ruler, not merely of Israel, but of the whole universe.

Third, it affirms the Lord as the source and provider of life’s necessities – and especially of bread, the great symbol of all physical provision.

The Christian prayer I’m referring to is variously known as the “Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.” Note how the first few lines of this prayer, spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew 6:9–13, closely parallel the Jewish prayer of blessing:

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread . . . .”

Here, following the intimate opening, “Father,” the word “hallowed” pays reverence to the sacred Name.

“Thy kingdom come” not only assumes God’s sovereignty over the universe, but expresses a longing for God’s reign to be realized right here on earth in the affairs of the human race.

And then there’s reference to bread, as well, with its clear acknowledgement of God as provider.

Both prayers quietly point to the quality of shalom/peace – the state of well-being experienced when human hearts walk in the ways of the Lord God as King of the Universe.

But what are we to make of this kind of king and kingdom?

Cochrane is fortunate to have several outstanding religious studies scholars in our midst, among them longtime coffee companion Dr. Anne Moore. Anne is a specialist in the kingdom of God in both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures.

I asked Anne how she sees the relationship among ‘kingdom of God,’ bread and peace.

The Jewish table blessing covers it quite nicely, she replied. “God as universal suzerain is the creator, and so, of course, is the ultimate source of the grains from which the bread is produced.”

But God’s kingdom is not like the Roman Empire, with God as a benevolent tyrant, she said. Nor is it individualistic. It’s about society as a whole.

“‘Kingdom of God’ to the authors of the Hebrew Bible was, above all, the designation for a form of relationship. It is the relationship between the divine king and humanity, including the obligations and responsibilities of both sides.

“The basic character of this relationship was justice, because only through justice could one ensure the harmony – the shalom/peace – of the lived world and the cosmos.”

What, then, about “daily bread”? I asked her.

“If one examines the issue of 'daily bread' throughout the Hebrew Bible, one finds this bread is part of the rituals that mark one's relationship with the covenantal sovereign,” she said. “The obligation of the community to ensure that the widows, orphans, and poor are fed is part of the commandments issued in reference to the just monarch. So, there is this connection between divinity and justice in terms of producing a wholeness within the community as presented in the task of ensuring everyone is nurtured in the most basic human aspects.”

Thanks, Anne. It is in this sense that I speak of the peace of bread. In our acknowledgement of our dependence on God, the provider of our daily bread, we have entered into a covenantal obligation to share that bread: to do our part in bringing about the well-being of the community as a whole – to live the lifestyle of the kingdom of God on earth by sharing the bread from heaven.


© 2009 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page