Theology

God as Father: The Old Testament Origins of a New Testament Belief

It is often believed by Christians that Jesus revealed the idea of God as a benign, benevolent, father. The central prayer of Christianity, the Lord’s Prayer, invokes a fatherly-god: “Our Father, Who art in heaven.” But the idea of a father-god and fatherly language is rooted in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), principally in the exilic and post-exilic literature which revolutionized Judean theology and set the path for the fatherly deity language of Jesus.

Fatherly language in the Hebrew Bible is older than the exilic and post-exilic literature. However, it is used sparingly and never in a systematic sense. Only with the exilic and post-exilic literature, especially Trito-Isaiah and Malachi, does a theology of God as Father begin to form in a systematic sense.

God as warrior and God as king were more common motifs and language employed in the Old Testament. As we covered in this post on the war-god thesis, early Israel’s formation to monarchy was dominated by war and God is regularly attributed as “a man of war” and divine warrior who protects soldiers and warlords in their struggles against their enemies. God as king eventually superseded God as warrior following the Davidic Monarchy’s rise to prominence—naturally so, the newly established kingdom under David rule saw itself as mirroring the Deity who graced them: as king.

It is generally accepted in historical-critical scholarship that the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile of the prominent and literate class of Jews in 587 BCE marks the transformative point of Jewish biblical monotheism. While the Deuteronomic reforms under Josiah began the campaign of cultic centralization and strict monotheism, the exilic and post-exilic theological innovation produced the systemized theology of God that we commonly recognize today: Father, care for the poor and oppressed, exclusive devotion to Yahweh.

The lamentation of Isaiah and the language of the Prophet Malachi are instrumental in the father-language of God. Isaiah 63-64 is considered part of Third, or Trito-, Isaiah, written after the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. So too is the Book of Malachi a post-exilic work. That they employ fatherly language reflects a reaching back into the filial cultic past of Yahwism and an innovation of covenantal compassion on the part of God. The invocation of the fatherly aspects of God, in Isaiah, are exclusively related to care:

Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation. Where are you zeal and might? The yearning of your heart and your compassion. They are withheld from me. But you are our father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our father; our Redeemer from of old is your name. (Is. 63:15-16)

Though the lamentation includes a reference to Abraham, the shift in importance focuses on God. While older biblical material praised the patriarchs, taking pride in that lineage, following the devastation of Jerusalem by various Near Eastern powers culminating in the sack of the city by the Babylonians pushed Jewish theology away from the human patriarchs and toward a strict Deity-focused covenant as expressed in the lamentation. “Abraham does not know us” means Abraham cannot help the exiled and struggled Jews. Only God, who acts as father to his family and household, can.

The result of the father-language developed in the exilic and post-exilic literature creates an unconditional loving God: as Father, God will always take care of his children as a father does in the socio-human sense of Near Eastern agrarian structuralism. The conditional love of Yahweh in the Torah is superseded by an unconditional father whom Jesus of Nazareth spoke of five centuries later. But the unconditional love of the father-god envisioned by the post-exilic writers is a result of the hardship of the exile. In the midst of that suffering they turned to the one comfort they had: the fatherly household image.

Malachi continues to pick up on the post-exilic father language and seemingly rejects the unconditionality of God’s love in Trito-Isaiah. Instead, the cursory reading of Malachi embraces the father-god language while wanting to retain the conditional covenant of the Torah:

A son honors his father, and a slave his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the Lord Almighty. (Mal. 1:6)

And:

Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another? (Mal. 2:10)

Malachi’s invocation of God as Father is a call to repentance, that the sons and daughters of God honor their heavenly father. In honoring their heavenly father, the covenant that they broke by disobedience will be restored. The love-relationship of father and offspring will be reconstituted when the disobedient child acknowledges their fault.

In a radical sense, God’s love and care is always unconditional insofar that he is eternally father. God doesn’t break his covenant with us. We break it with him. But it can always be restored by our actions as we were the ones who broke it. The breaking of the covenant is a one-way street. We have obligations too. When we meet them, God as father will always be kind and just, faithful unto the end. In this sense, God’s love is still unconditional; no matter who unfaithful we are to him if we repent he will always accept and care for us.

The post-exilic material that begins to employ fatherly language is a result of the need for care and compassion in the midst of hardship and not an imposition of rigid patriarchy as uninformed critics suggest. Trito-Isaiah and Malachi turn to the motif of the patriarchal filial head who loves his children and offers care to his children—either unconditionally, per Isaiah, or when a disobedient child repents and is restored (Malachi).

The development of this fatherly language and semi-systematic theology of parental care through a parent’s love for his children is what Jesus and New Testament writers further developed in the first century. It wasn’t a “new” innovation of “revelation” as sometimes believed. Rather, it drew and elevated an already existing strand of Jewish covenantal theology that had begun to emerge in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Moreover, the historical context in which the father-god language emerges is in the context of care and compassion for the downtrodden exiles and oppressed who have suffered for a myriad of reasons. It is not an entrenchment of agrarian patriarchal social structures.

With the warlord and warring period of Israel concluded, and with the destruction of the kingdom and its lack of national sovereignty curtailed, God as Warrior and God as King were supplanted with God as Father. Or, more accurately, God as King became a companion with God as Father since God as Warrior had dropped away from Jewish theological consciousness. The rhetoric of God, chronologically, leading into the New Testament period was now God as Father and God as King and the relevance of the patriarchs had also faded (don’t take pride in being a genealogical ancestor of Abraham, as Jesus himself said). Once known, it becomes obvious why that language is widespread throughout the New Testament corpus: it’s about care and compassion and not an affirmation of societal patriarchy (its language retains the vestige reality that it was men who provided and cared for the family and nothing more). It wasn’t new at all. It was the language of Jewish theology when Jesus ministered.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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