Over the last two posts, we have seen how Jesus used the idea of fictive family to talk about the relationship of his followers to each other and to God. We have seen how Jesus casts God as the paterfamilias and us as his children. We become brothers and sisters of each other. But Jesus also uses fictive family to talk about himself and his relationship to God: God is the Father and Jesus is the Son. Is Jesus introducing anything novel with the Father and Son relationship he uses to characterize God and himself?
Talking about God is a major challenge. God is infinite, omnipotent, omnipresent, and asexual. Yet God is also person. God reasons, communicates, and has emotion. How does such a God reveal his/her/itself to finite gendered humanity? It is hard even to ask the question without anthropomorphizing God.
God is uniformly referred to with male pronouns but not because God is male. Part of the reason for this can be attributed to language. Hebrew and Greek, like English, have no way to refer to persons in a neuter form. Male pronouns can refer to human beings or to males. Female pronouns refer only to one gender and unavoidably project gender onto God. So while God is not male, neither is it appropriate to refer to God gendered as female. But this only tells us what God is not.
The only means of communicating about God is to use metaphors and analogies. The Bible is replete with them. In addition to father, God is king, husband, warrior, shepherd, judge, lawgiver, kinsman redeemer, vineyard-keeper, watchman, potter, teacher, glassblower, blacksmith, and ships pilot, as well as one who births things into existence, nurturer, and comforter. We frequently encounter the male metaphors. Here are a few instances of feminine metaphors used in the Old Testament to describe God’s acts (sometimes paired with male imagery):
Deuteronomy 32:18 – “You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
Job 38:28-30 – “Does the rain have a father? Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters become hard as stone, when the surface of the deep is frozen?”
Psalms 131:1-2 – “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”
Isaiah 42:13-14 - The LORD goes forth like a soldier, like a warrior he stirs up his fury; he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against his foes. For a long time I [God] have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.
Isaiah 46:3-4 - Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.
Isaiah 49:15 - Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
There are only very few places in the Old Testament where God is directly referred to as “Father”:
Deuteronomy 32:6 – “Do you thus repay the LORD, O foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?”
Psalms 89:26 – “He shall cry to me, 'You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!'”
Isaiah 9:6 – “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 63:16 – “For 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.”
Isaiah 64:8 – “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
Jeremiah 3:4 – “Have you not just now called to me, "My Father, you are the friend of my youth --”
Jeremiah 3:19-20 – “I thought how I would set you among my children, and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful heritage of all the nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me. Instead, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so you have been faithless to me, O house of Israel, says the LORD.”
Malachi 2:10 – “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?”
The metaphor “House of Israel” is used more than 100 times in the Old Testament to refer the people of Israel (though 75% of the mentions are in Jeremiah and Ezekiel). The book of Exodus begins with the Children of Israel (B’nei Yisrael) and ends with the Household of Israel (Beit Yisrael). Bruce Kaddon writes:
The use of the word beit, “house,” to describe the people is significant. The most important Jewish institutions are houses: beit sefer is school, beit k’neset is synagogue, and Beit HaMikdash is the Temple.
The word “house” signifies unity and implies that those who are part of it share a common purpose. Though members of a house do not always get along or agree, they have an implicit commitment to each other and to the house as a whole. A house also signifies stability and structure. Though their designs and sizes may vary, houses are physical entities that symbolize the strength and substance of those who live within them. Houses signify permanence as well. Although houses can be destroyed by fire, earthquakes, and tornadoes, the utter devastation that families experience at such loss testifies to the permanence we expect of our houses.
Therefore, there are strong parallels between the House of Israel and the vision of the household of God cast by Jesus. But there are significant differences as well. The “Father” in the Old Testament appears as one who brought the “house” into being but he seems somewhat distant. With only a couple of deviations, he is cast as the father of the community in the aggregate, with little sense of being an intimate father who interacts with individuals. The emphasis of God as father in the Old Testament pales in comparison to its frequency the New Testament, especially the gospel of John.
So was Jesus borrowing his vision of household from somewhere else?