In my recently posted notes on John 5:1-18, I said, "I do not believe the Old Testament contains a single unambiguous reference to God as the Father." Having now done the tedious work of checking every single occurrence of the word "father" in the Old Testament, I find that this is a bit of an overstatement. There are possibly as many as 13 (but in my judgment only 11) verses in the Old Testament which call God "father."
God as the father of the Israelites
- "Do ye thus requite the Lord, O foolish people and unwise? is not he thy father that hath bought thee? hath he not made thee, and established thee?" (Deut. 32:6).
- "Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting" (Isaiah 63:16).
- "But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand" (Isaiah 64:8).
- "Wilt thou not from this time cry unto me, My father, thou art the guide of my youth?" (Jeremiah 3:4).
- "They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn" (Jeremiah 31:9).
- "But I said, How shall I put thee among the children, and give thee a pleasant land, a goodly heritage of the hosts of nations? and I said, Thou shalt call me, My father; and shalt not turn away from me" (Jeremiah 3:19).
God as the father of Solomon
- "He shall build me an house, and I will stablish his throne for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son: and I will not take my mercy away from him, as I took it from him that was before thee" (1 Chronicles 17:12-13).
- "He shall build an house for my name; and he shall be my son, and I will be his father; and I will establish the throne of his kingdom over Israel for ever" (1 Chronicles 22:10).
- "And he said unto me, Solomon thy son, he shall build my house and my courts: for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father" (1 Chronicles 28:6).
God as the father of the fatherless
- "A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows, is God in his holy habitation" (Psalm 68:5).
God as the father of David
- "He shall cry unto me, Thou art my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation. Also I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth" (Psalm 89:26-27).
Other possible references that I reject
- "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). This is not a direct reference to God but the prophetic name given to a child: Pele-joez-el-gibbor-abi-ad-sar-shalom. The elements el and abi mean "God" and "father," respectively, but the name hardly amounts to an assertion that God is the Father. (There are also two minor biblical characters named Abiel, "my father is God"; I don't consider their names to be theological claims, either.)
- "Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?" (Malachi 2:10). Malachi is condemning the priests for showing partiality in their ministry. I read him as saying that partiality is inappropriate for two reasons: we all have one father (i.e., we are all Israelites, descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and one God has created us all. There immediately follows a reference to "the covenant of our fathers," confirming that he is talking about human ancestors rather than God.
So references to God as father do occur in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, I consider Jesus' use of "Father" to be both quantitatively and qualitatively different from anything in the Old Testament.
The quantitative difference is glaringly obvious. God is called "father" just 11 times in the whole 23,145 verses of the Old Testament. In contrast, the Fourth Gospel alone (879 verses) calls God "Father" 122 times -- and "God" only 83 times.
The qualitative difference is that the Old Testament never uses "Father" the way it uses "God" or "Lord," as a straightforward name/title for the Deity. There are in the Old Testament such statements as "God is my rock" and "the Lord is my light" -- but these are nonce metaphors; they're not what God is called. We don't see any expressions like "keep the commandments of the Light" or "the Rock spake unto Moses" or anything like that. "Father," as used in the Old Testament, is no different in this way from "light" or "rock" or any of the other figurative designations which may from time to time be applied to God, and the King James translation reflects this by not capitalizing "father" even when it is referring to God (except in Isaiah 9:6, where the translators are confused). In the New Testament, on the other hand, "Father" is capitalized because it is what God is called -- particularly in the Fourth Gospel (122 uses of "Father" for God, vs. 67 in the other three Gospels combined).