Tuesday, June 9, 2020

References to God as Father in the Old Testament

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).

15 comments:

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I agree. Jesus is using Father in a personal and relational way - a literal way. And he seems to have gone out of his way to make this clear - and close off metaphorical/ poetic interpretations.

By contrast, in these OT quotations, Father is sometimes used to mean the creator, other times the divine Leader - much as the Russian Tsar was the Father of his nation, and his subjects might metaphorically call themselves his children.

Agellius said...

I agree too. It's clear now that you've pointed it out, but it had never occurred to me. Besides which, as you pointed out before, Jesus calling himself God's Son would not have been shocking or blasphemous if the Jews were already accustomed to thinking of God as their father.

Bruce Charlton said...

One revelance of this is that it cannot be supposed that Jews and Moslems are worshipping 'the same' God; except in a very general sense of recognising a unitary creator. The Christian God is personal (or, at least, I think that is how He is meant by Jesus to be regarded - although many Christians in practice have not regarded Him as such), and can therefore love us in a personal way - which is only possible between two distinct persons; the love of an impersonal deity (if people choose to call it love, which is a bit dubious) is a very different thing.

Francis Berger said...

Thanks for this, Wm. I certainly held the intuition that God as father possessed different qualitative meanings in the OT and NT, but I didn't think the quantitative difference would be so glaringly large. I think this speaks volumes about the Christian God as a personal rather than an impersonal Being.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

There's a popular schema (originating, I think, with Joachim of Fiore) in which the Old Testament Era was the "Age of the Father," and the Christian dispensation the "Age of the Son" -- with an "Age of the Holy Ghost" to come in the future. I think I have shown that this is misguided -- that "the Father" is every bit as much a New Testament concept as "the Son."

Francis Berger said...

I am fairly sure Berdyaev took the schema he uses in his work from Joachim of Fiore. B. sees the eras more in terms of spiritual development and the development of human consciousness. For example, "Age of the Father" is primarily about obedience to an external, impersonal authority whereas the "Age of the Son" is about the establishment of a personal relationship with the father (the realizations that God is personal). So yes, the Father is every bit as much a New Testament concept as the Son, but the whole concept of the Father in the NT is radically different than it is in the OT (indicating a shift in religious consciousness).

B. also claimed each era inevitably contains aspects of the other two. Put another way, no era or age is pure.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Frank, perhaps an "Age of the Lord" followed by an "Age of the Father" would have captured B's meaning more clearly.

Francis Berger said...

Wm, I agree. I get the sense the concept was simply superimposed on the Trinity; hence, memorable.

Otto said...

Nehemia Gordon, a former Orthodox Jew, has argued the opposite claim, that the Old Testament frequently refers to God as Father, in his book A Prayer to Our Father, and also in related videos (1 2 3).

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Otto, I haven't read Mr. Gordon's book, and I don't watch videos, but that the OT "frequently" refers to God as Father is demonstrably false. I have checked every single occurrence of the word "father" in the OT and listed every one that refers or could refer to God. There are a grand total of 13 such references, or 1 for every 1780 verses. It's conceivable that I somehow missed one or two references, but not hundreds.

Otto said...

In the videos, he also mentions Hebrew theonyms such as Abshalom, and Avimelech, which are references to God the Father, and are not translated in the English versions.

May I ask why you do not watch videos?

If you prefer text, here is a easy method of downloading the subtitles of any YouTube video:
How to Easily, Automatically and Instantly Transcribe YouTube Videos.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

But the examples you give are not theonyms (proper names of God). Absalom ("father of peace") was a son of David, and Abimelech ("father-king") seems to have been a title used for Philistine kings. It's hard to see how these names are evidence that God was seen as the Father.

As for video, it's just a (very strong) personal preference. And yes, I know I could read transcripts of Mr. Gordon's videos, but so far nothing you have said has made me think that might be a worthwhile use of my time.

Otto said...

Sorry, I looked up the definition and I appear to have misused the word "theonym"; I don't know what the proper terminology is, but I meant such names such as the German "Gottlieb" and "Gottfried"; and according Mr. Gordon, the Hebrew names with "Av-" were similarly used in Hebrew to praise God as Father and do not refer to a biological father.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

"Theophoric name" is the term you're looking for, but I don't see any reason to think "Ab-" names were theophorics. In some cases, such as Abner the son of Ner, they incontestably refer to the biological father, and I see no reason to interpret the others differently. Abimelech -- which could be interpreted as "father-king," "my father is king," or "father of the king" -- makes perfect sense as a name/title for a king, without reference to God.

Susan S said...

There aren't many references to father God in the Old Testament simply because God was not a ''father'' as such during that time, even though the term 'father' was used in reference to God, it was used as a metaphor of a father figure for a leader or creator or even one who loved, cared and protected them as in the case with the Israelites.
But if we think and take the Bible literally on what it says, what do we find? a literal father in God himself. Think with me. When does a man become a father? is a male/man/grown up boy always called 'father/abba/daddy/papa'? No!. He becomes a 'father' when a child is born unto him. Likewise God himself only became ''Abba Father'' when his Son Jesus was ''begotten'' or born. When was Jesus born? in the New Testament of course. Even though Jesus, the Son was spoken of [prophesied] in the Old Testament prophets, psalms and proverbs, He did not exist then until He was actually 'born'. but of course He also existed in the beginning with the eternal God but as Wisdom/WORD as Proverbs 8 and John 1:1 refers. But when He became 'flesh' and dwelled among us vs 14. God became a DADDY literally. So all of us who were 'begotten' after Jesus [meaning born again], we are not to shy away from calling God daddy or Father.

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