It’s “Dan to Beer-Sheva: a prayer ride through all Israel,” but what about this whole idea of a “prayer ride”—where does that come from? I’ve told people it’s like a prayer walk that you sometimes hear about, walking through a neighborhood or location, and praying as you go to encircle the whole area for God’s purposes. People seem to get that concept, but where does it come from in the first place?
Our prayer ride refers to Abraham, who came into the land of Israel from the north, via the watered and civilized area known as the Fertile Crescent. Probably the first town he saw in the land itself was Dan, known back then as Laish (Judges 18:27-29), a stronghold on the route leading from the north into Canaan, “the land that I will show you,” as God had told Abraham. From there, Abraham kept going south, passing through what later became known as Shomron, or Samaria, and Judah, and ending up finally for a brief time in Egypt. After he returned to Canaan, Hashem told him that the whole land was granted to him and his descendants forever (Gen. 13:15), and said, “Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you” (Gen. 13:17).
OK, so that wasn’t exactly a prayer walk, let alone a prayer bike ride, but it serves as a model for us. But it raises a question: If God gives the whole land to Abraham, why does he need to walk through it all? (And he does eventually get all the way to Beersheva in the south, which becomes his home base later in life [Gen. 21:33; 22:19].)
All along the way Abraham builds altars to the Lord, from the first one near Shechem, or today Nablus (Gen. 12:7), to the last of his altars, which he built on Moriah for the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:9). Altar-building, of course, parallels our practice of prayer in various ways. Both are directed to the Lord and express our worship and dependency upon him. But altars have a physical dimension that we often leave out of our understanding of prayer. We might think of prayer as purely spiritual. And it’s true—we can pray for the fulfillment of God’s promises over all Israel without having to schlep all the way there and then pedal our way along 280 miles of side roads and bike lanes, accumulating a total of 11,000 feet of climb along the way. And I guess Abraham could have settled down in Bethel and taken it easy after Hashem promised him the whole land, but he had to walk through it to take possession and dedicate it to God through his altar-building.
So there’s an element of physicality in prayer that we might miss, first because we’re heirs of, or at least influenced by, a philosophical-theological tradition that thinks of “spiritual” as somehow at odds with “physical;” and second, because we might succumb to the postmodern tendency to ignore the straightforward sense of a text and look for something more esoteric. (Don’t get me wrong—the Jewish sages often look beyond the plain sense of a text for deeper and not-so-obvious meanings, but they retain the plain sense of the text at the same time.) Prayer is a spiritual transaction with God, but the God to whom we pray has inhabited the physical realm with his presence, and invested it with value and significance. In Jewish thought prayer is strengthened, not watered down, by physical realities such as our posture, our location, and our motions.
This creation, this earth, matters. The land of Israel is land, soil, territory, which takes time and effort to transverse, and it’s this physical place that is promised to the physical people of Israel—a promise yet to be fulfilled in full through Messiah Yeshua. We don’t respond to that promise with only our hearts and heads, but also, like Abraham, with our feet. In our case, with feet clipped into bike pedals.