Our Father in Heaven, the God of Israel
From the Hebrew Bible it is clear that Israelites have a long history of considering the creator God their father. For example:
- Moses admonished “Do you thus requite the LORD, foolish people and unwise? Isn’t he your father who has bought you? He has made you, and established you.” (Deut 32:6 HNV);
- Isaiah declares “For you are our Father, though Abraham doesn’t know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us: you, LORD, are our Father; our Redeemer from everlasting is your name” (Isa 63:16 HNV). And again: “But now, LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you our potter; and we all are the work of your hand” (Isa 64:8 HNV).
The Israelite’s assumed relationship with God was even the inspiration behind a number of ancient Israelite names (Vermes 2004, 223), for example:
- Abiel = My father is God;
- Abijah = Yah is my father, where Yah was an abbreviation for the name of God;
- Eliab = My God is father.
This concept of a fatherly God clearly continued beyond the completion of the canonical text, for example:
- In the forth century B.C.E. (Box 2004, 293), the Jewish wisdom-teacher ben-Sira wrote “I called upon the Lord, the Father of my Lord, that he would not leave me in the days of my trouble, and in the time of the proud, when there was no help. ” (Sir 51:10 KJV), where 'the Lord' is God and 'my Lord' is the king of Israel, to whom ben-Sira answers;
- The author of the apocryphal book of Tobit, from about the second-century B.C.E. (Moore 1996, 591), encourages “Confess him before the Gentiles, ye children of Israel: for he hath scattered us among them. 4 There declare his greatness, and extol him before all the living: for he is our Lord, and he is the God our Father for ever.” (Tobit 13:3-4 KJV).
- Several of the Qumran community texts espouse the concept of a parental deity. For example:
- 4Q502, frag. 39.3;
- In a Joseph apocryphon the forsaken Northern Kingdom cries out “‘MyFather and my God, do not abandon me to the hands of the nations’” (4Q372, fra. 1,16, Vermes);
- A thanksgiving hymn declares: “For Thou art a Father to all [the sons] of Thy truth, and as a woman who tenderly loves here babe, so dost Thou rejoice in them; and as a foster-father bearing a child in his lap so carest Thou for all Thy creatures” (1QH17 [formerly 9]:circa 35 ff. [pg.284], Vermes);
- “Though hast created us for Thy Glory and made us Thy children in the sight of all the nations. For Thou hast named Israel ‘My son, my first-born’, and hast chastised us as a man chastises his son” (4Q504 3:circa 5, Vermes).
The concept that an Israelite was a son of God was so firmly entrenched that Rabbi Hanina ben Papa (3-4c C.E.), speaking on the passage ‘Whoever robs his father or his mother, and says, “It’s not wrong.” He is a partner with a destroyer’ (Prov. 28:24 WEB), could suggest that “‘his father’ can refer only to the Holy One” (bSanh. 102a, Epstein).
The rabbinic writers, most of whom came somewhat later, preserve that same tradition, frequently combining the concepts of God as father and God being in heaven (Vermes 2004, 224). For example:
- Rabbi Hanina ben Papa (3-4c C.E.) speaking of Prov. XXVIII, 24, observed that “‘his father’ can refer only to the Holy One” (bSanh. 102a, Epstein). He then spoke of Jeroboam, son of Nebat, having destroyed Israel’s alliegence to their “Father in Heaven” (bSanh. 102a, Epstein);
- A discussion of names identifies that Tekoa got his name because his heart was fixed on his “Father in Heaven” (bSoţah 12a, Epstein);
- Rabbi Johanan claimed “Samson judged Israel in the same manner as their Father in Heaven” (bSoţah 10a, Epstein);
- Un-named Rabbis are credited with encouraging prayer toward the sanctuary in Jerusalem, but the blind man unable to identify the correct direction should pray to “his Father in Heaven” (bBek. 30a, Epstein). The reference to the sanctuary and the generic attribution suggest a date prior to the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E.;
- It is claimed that “the pious men of old used to wait one hour before praying in order that they might concentrate their thoughts upon their Father in Heaven” (bBek. 30b, Epstein);
- When placed on trial R. Eliezer acknowledged the Judge as right, for he was referring to his “Father in Heaven” (b‘Abod. Zar. 16b, Epstein).
If the Israelites though of themselves as sons (and daughters) of God, then God seemed to agree, calling them collectively “My son” (Exod 4:22-23), and referring to their king in the same terms (Psalm 2:7). Likewise, leaders within Israel seemed accustomed to referring to their charges as “my son”, regardless of any direct blood relationship (Josh 7:18-19).
The Bible teaches that Mankind, though made in God’s image (Gen 1:27), exhibits two genders, male and female. However, whilst both character and relationship are attributes of God, a specific gender is not. So why refer to God as ‘he’ or more specifically ‘heavenly father’.
The scriptures use gender specific descriptions where they are helpful in conveying the character exhibited by God or the nature of a relationship between the creator and a part of the creation. Even God does not apply the same gender consistently, either explicitly when referring to him/herself or implicitly when describing his/her relationship to various people (see inset panel).
When God tells those he/she considers children how they should refer to him/her, the picture is different. God expected the Israelites to use the title “My Father” (Jer 3:19 KJV) in addressing their deity. Of king David, God says “He will call to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation!’” (Ps 89:26 HNV). Similarly, when Jesus instructs his disciples in corporate prayer, he says they should address “Our Father” (Matt 6:9 KJV).
Gender specific metaphors are inevitably coloured by their cultural context. In the biblical culture the greater physical power usually resided with men. Hence, God is generally portrayed as male. However, when the scriptures seek to emphasise God’s nurturing nature a female metaphor is more normal.
In early Israeli society a son would usually learn his life skills from his father and be expected to obey him until he became an adult (cf. Isa 1:2). As Israel were supposed to learn from God and obey him in a similar way, God called them “my son” (Ex 4:22 KJV), thus implying that he was their father in heaven.
The masculine portrayal was the one generally adopted by Jesus when referring to God, except when a metaphor was better served by a different gender. On balance, there seem no compelling reasons to deviate from that established pattern. Indeed, if anything, quite the opposite. It is therefore the masculine that is generally used on this site.