There is not a lot in Gensis that looks like (petitionary) prayer as we know it. God tends to just talk to people directly, and sometimes there are direct conversations. The experience of Christians today is different – we don’t tend to get a chance for a direct conversation. However, the explicitness of the conversations in Genesis gives us a valuable window into the dynamic of our prayers and God’s words and plans. On the assumption that God is unchanging (or, at least, the dynamic of his relationship with humanity is reasonably consistent), we can learn a lot from these explicitly laid-out conversations. Perhaps that is why they are given so explicitly?
The account of Abraham’s conversation with God in chapter 18, is a particularly interesting example, because Abraham enters a nuanced negotiation with God where he seems to extract a change in God’s plan. This raises the question of whether a change actually did happen, or if this whole conversation was part of God’s original plan. The clear pattern up to now (see Providence in Genesis) has been of God achieving his purposes through and despite the actions of humanity (including his chosen people). There is little evidence that anything different is happening here.
However, the conversation is real, and the effect that Abraham has is real. What would have happened had he not approached God? The Bible does not say, and we are not called to speculate. However, he is clearly commended for his boldness, and rewarded in human terms by God’s positive response. In this vignette, we see an intial template for intercessionary prayer. Abraham asks God for the improbable (nothing is impossible), and God responds according to his will and plan. Both people in the conversation are really engaging. Abraham is not going through the motions, but he is truly struggling with God – and doing so with the greatest of respect.
Prayer is real. Prayer is powerful.