St. Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral, Wilkes-Barre
The God of Abraham praise
Hymn 401, The Hymnal 1982
So much of our musical heritage in the Christian Church finds roots in Jewish liturgical customs. For a start, the Psalms of David are the oldest hymns we have, even though we have no specific record of the music to which the words were sung, as there was no system of notating music at that time. The text of this great hymn, “The God of Abraham praise,” is one of two English paraphrases of the Yigdal, the Jewish articles of faith written down in the twelfth century and put into verse about three hundred years later. The other is “Praise to the living God” (Hymn 372), which is also matched with the tune Leoni, its proper historic tune. “The God of Abraham praise” was written by Thomas Olivers (1725 – 1799), possibly around 1763. Olivers was inspired to translate the original Hebrew text as an English hymn after he had heard it chanted in the Great Synagogue in London. However, in his translation he went further by adding references to Jesus Christ. The tune Leoni is based on the Hebrew melody traditionally used for the Yigdal, though it’s not thought to date from much earlier than the seventeenth century. At the request of the author Thomas Olivers, it was transcribed to musical notation by Meyer Lyon, or Meier Leoni (c. 1750 – 1797), for whom it is named. Lyon (or Leoni) was cantor of the Great Synagogue in London, and he achieved notoriety as an operatic tenor in London and Dublin.
I believe it is extremely important, in these times of great unrest between people of different faith traditions, that we should be aware of, embrace, and celebrate our interconnectedness with other faith traditions. This hymn is a very model of how we as Christians can celebrate our Jewish roots. Jesus Christ was not an Anglican, he wasn’t a Roman Catholic, or a Lutheran, or a Baptist … he was Jewish. For me, this great hymn is a great reminder of the fact that the reality of God is so much bigger than my own limited personal concept of God, the Great I AM.
Source: The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Raymond F. Glover, editor; published by The Church Hymnal Corporation, New York, © 1984.
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