Saturday, July 09, 2005

God, the Father of Israel-Part 1

The Hebrew prophets do not describe God as “Father” with any frequency in the canonical writings of ancient Judaism.[1] The divine appellation “Father” (awb) only occurs approximately twenty times in the OT.[2] Nevertheless, these relatively infrequent occurrences do allow one to ascertain that ancient Judaism viewed God as a Father in four primary ways.[3]

(1) God is Father to the nation of Israel since he brings it about that the children of Israel exist as a nation qua nation (Exodus 4:22-23; Deut 8:5; 32:6; Ps 103:13; Isa 63:16; 64:8; Mal 1:6; 2:10; 3:17). In contrast to immortal deific fathers in Greek mythology, when Israel speaks of God as the one Father, “the idea in the background is not the biological one of procreation, but the theological one of election.”[4] The Israelite view of a divine Father also stands in stark contrast to the god of Stoic pantheism, which both the apostle Paul and Lactantius bear witness to in their respective theological writings.[5] Unlike the deity of Stoic philosophers, YHWH is a personal Father for the sons of Israel, one who guides the nation through the Middle Eastern wilderness and administers a discipline rooted in love (Deuteronomy 1:31; Proverbs 3:12). He is not merely a universal and immutable force that mechanically governs the cosmos or an impersonal fire that orders ta panta: YHWH carries Israel in his everlasting arms and leads the nation with figurative cords of love (Deuteronomy 33:2; Hosea 11:2).[6]

Kasper further argues that ancient Israel believed God had “the attitude of a father.”[7] Therefore, it seems that “Father” is a well-established metaphor for the divine in ancient Judaism: the term thus forms part of an asserted unfamiliar identity synthesis (i.e. a metasememe) that communicates the notion of God providentially and personally guiding Israel, the seed of Abraham (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8). The usage of the term “Father” as a divine title in the OT “is clearly a metaphor, an image employed to express some aspect or aspects of God’s relationship with God’s people.”[8] The prophet Jeremiah also indicates God’s paternity with respect to Israel is figurative, when he speaks of YHWH “becoming” a Father to Israel (Jeremiah 31:9).[9] Hence, as Vermes writes, though the communal address, “Our Father” is “relatively late,” the metaphor of God as Father (awb) to the Israelite nation appears to have been a leitmotif in the sacred documents of early Judaism.[10]

Marianne Meye Thompson has proposed yet other ways in which ancient Israel viewed God as Father. She contends that YHWH is the Father of Israel in that he functions as the tropic familial head of the nation. That is, God is the progenitor of Israel, bequeathing life and an inheritance to his metaphorical progeny: he is the figurative patriarch of the clan. Moreover, YHWH has deep affection for those he deems offspring. Therefore, as Father, he provides for, disciplines and lovingly corrects his children.[11] Finally, Thompson thinks that YHWH is the pater postestas, whom the Israelites should obey and reverence (Mal 1:6).[12] She wishes to suggest that the OT concept of God the Father is a particular as opposed to a universal concept. Thompson seems to argue that one can only apprehend the notion of God as Father in ancient Judaism by becoming acquainted with the Hebrew and ancient near eastern culture in which such a notion was forged. Modern scholarship seems to support her intuition.

[1] See Fortman, The Triune God, 4.

[2] O’Collins, The Tripersonal God, 14; Cooper, Our Father in Heaven, 106.

[3] Fortman writes: “More recent scholars find no evidence in the [OT] that any sacred writer believed in or suspected the existence of a divine paternity and filiation within the Godhead itself” (The Triune God, 4).

[4] Kasper, Jesus the Christ, 79. Scholars consistently appear to understand God’s fatherhood as one of election rather than procreation. For instance, John W. Cooper maintains regarding Deut 32:6: “The fatherhood of God is connected here with the election and salvation of his people” (Our Father in Heaven, 106). See also Thompson, The Promise of the Father, 45. O’Collins further contends that there are no biological connotations associated with the OT divine term “Father” in The Tripersonal God, 14.

[5] See Acts 17:28 and Divinae institutiones .

[6] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 17-19. Contra Kelly, however, Michael Frede believes: “There is nothing impersonal about Aristotle’s God, or the God of the Stoics, or the God of Numenius or Plotinus.” See “Monotheism and Pagan Philosophy” in Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), pages 48-49. Compare Metaphysics 1072b24-30 and Discourses.

[7] Kasper, Jesus the Christ, 80.

[8] Marsh, The Triune God, 29.

[9] Add note on state of Hebrew qal perfect from Gesenius.

[10] See Tobit 13:4 and Josephus in Ant. 5.93 and Vermes, The Religion of Jesus the Jew, 175-176.

[11] Thompson, The Promise of the Father, 45.

[12] Marianne Thompson, Promise of the Father, 18. See Tg. Isa. 63.16 and 64:8. See Thompson, Promise of the Father, 48.

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