So far as I have observed, the first instance of the term prayer that I find is when Jacob, a fugitive from his brother Esau's wrath, was on his way to Mesopotamia at the suggestion of Isaac and Rebecca. The passage runs: And Jacob vowed a vow (prayed a prayer), saying -- If the Lord God will be with me, and guard me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and raiment to put on, and bring me back in safety to my father's house, then shall the Lord be my God and this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall be for me God's house, and of all that you will give me I will give you tithe.
It should also to be remarked that the term prayer is in many places is different from prayer as we speak of it -- as when applied in the case of one who professes that he will do certain things in exchange for obtaining certain other things from God. The expression prayer is, however, employed in our usual sense [in early texts]. Thus in Exodus after the scourge of frogs, the second in order of the ten, "Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron and said to them: Pray unto the Lord for me that He withdraw the frogs from me and from my people; and I will send the people forth that they may sacrifice to the Lord."
And if, because Pharaoh's word is aw-thar' anyone should be sceptical as to aw-thar' meaning here prayer as well as vow, he should observe what follows: "Moses said to Pharaoh, Kindly tell me when I am to pray (aw-thar') for you and for your officials and for your people, that the frogs may be removed from you and your houses and be left only in the Nile.'" In the case of the fleas, the third scourge, I have observed that neither does Pharaoh entreat that prayer be made nor does Moses pray. In the case of the flies, the fourth, he says: Pray therefore unto the Lord for me.
Then Moses also said: I will go out from you and pray unto God and the flies shall go away from Pharaoh and his servants and his people tomorrow. And shortly after: So Moses went out from Pharaoh and prayed unto God. Again in the case of the fifth and the sixth scourge neither did Pharaoh entreat that prayer should be made nor did Moses pray, but in the case of the seventh Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron and said to them: I have sinned this time; the Lord is righteous, I and my people are impious. Therefore pray unto the Lord that there be an end of thunder and hail and fire. And shortly after: Moses went out from Pharaoh outside the city, and stretched forth his hands unto the Lord and there was an end to the thunder. Why is it not as in the foregoing cases?
And he prayed, but he stretched forth his hands unto the Lord. That is a question to be considered more conveniently elsewhere. In the case of the eighth scourge, however, Pharaoh says . . . and pray (aw-thar') to the LORD your God that at the least he remove this deadly thing from me." So Moses went out from Pharaoh and prayed (aw-thar') unto God. We said that the term prayer (aw-thar') is, as in Jacob's case, in many places employed in a sense other than the customary. In Leviticus for instance: The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel; and you shall say unto them:
Whoever vows (naw-dar') a vow (neh'-der), setting a price upon his soul to the Lord, his price, if a male from twenty to sixty years, shall be fifty didrachims of silver, sanctuary standard. And in Numbers: And the Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Children of Israel; and you shall say unto them: Man or woman, whoever vows (naw-dar') a great vow of consecration to the Lord, shall be consecrate from wine and strong drink -- and so on of the so-called Nazarite; then, shortly after: and shall hallow his head in that day in which he was hallowed to the Lord for the days of the vow.
And again shortly after: This is the law for him that has vowed when he shall have fulfilled the days of his vow . . . ; and again shortly after: And after that, he that has vowed will drink wine. This is the law for him that has vowed, whoever has vowed his votive gift to the Lord, apart from what his hand may find by virtue of his vow which he has vowed according to the law of consecration. And towards the end of Numbers: And Moses spoke to the rulers of the tribes of the Children of Israel saying, This is the thing which the Lord has decreed: A man who has vowed a vow to the Lord or sworn an oath or entered a bond, on his soul shall not desecrate his word: all that has gone out of his mouth shall he do.
And if a woman has vowed a vow to the Lord or entered a bond in the house of her father in her youth, and her father has heard her vows and her bonds that she entered into against her soul, and her father has let them pass in silence, all her vows shall stand, and her bonds that she entered into against her soul shall remain: after which he lays down sundry other laws for such a woman. In this sense it is written in Proverbs: [I have a peace offering: today I pay my vows; and a foolish son is a father's shame: unhallowed are vows from a harlot's hire; and] it is a snare to a man to hallow hastily anything of his own: for after vowing comes repenting.
And in Ecclesiastes: Better not vow than vow without paying; and in the Acts of the Apostles: There are among us four men of their own accord under a vow. I thought it not out of place first to distinguish the meaning of prayer (aw-thar') in its two senses, and similarly of prayer (neh'-der), for the latter turn in addition to its common and customary general usage, is also employed, in the sense which we are accustomed to attach to vow in what is told of Hannah in the first book of Samuel: Now Eli the priest was sitting on a seat at the doorway of the temple of the Lord.
And she was in bitterness of soul and prayed (paw-lal') unto the Lord and wept sore. And she vowed (naw-dar') a vow (neh'-der) and said: O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the humiliation of your bondwoman and remember me and forget not your bondwoman and will give to your bondwoman male seed, then will I give him in gift to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head. And yet in this instance, one may, not without plausibility, with special regard to the words "she prayed (paw-lal') unto the Lord," "and she vowed a vow," Ask whether, as she has done both of two things, that is "prayed unto the Lord" "and vowed a vow," the word prayed ( paw-lal') on the one hand is not employed in our customary signification of prayer (aw-thar'), and "vowed a vow" on the other hand in the sense in which it is employed in Leviticus and Numbers.
For "I will give him in gift to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head" is strictly not a prayer but such a vow as Jephthah also vowed in the passage; and Jephthah vowed a vow to the Lord and said: If you will indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me on my return in peace from the Children of Ammon shall be the Lord's and I will offer him up as a burnt offering.