On the Father as a Title of God

On the Father as a Title of God

On the Father as a Title of God. 

Then Manoah, father of Samson, asked the Angel of Yahweh, ‘What is your name, so that we may honor you when your words come true?’ The Angel of Yahweh replied, ‘Why do you ask my name? It is a name of wonder. It is unknowable, and too wonderful for you to understand!’” (Judges 13:18).

Trying to determine a list of God’s titles in the Hebrew Bible can be a tricky business, a daunting task. For one thing, the differences between a name and a title are unclear and they often overlap. There are times, too, when one is tempted to consider a common noun or adjective or metaphor to be a title if it happens to reference God. And there are plenty of times when we read of a character description of God, or a unique ability of God, and we find ourselves turning them into titles. So the titles of the Father that I will highlight in this series is a list, not the list. For all I know, there may not even be a definitive list of God’s titles. I aim to provide varied glimpses of God the Father in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament… who He is, what He can do, what He represents, what He has done. Most importantly, I pray the readers of these titles are able to maintain the Jewish tradition of using God’s titles as ways of addressing the Almighty. As we address God in prayer and worship, may we feel free to put a capital letter at the beginning of each title, making the title an aspect of His identity. In that way each title could be another way to honor God and recognize His greatness.

“I believe in one God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…” (Nicene Creed).

Father God in the Hebrew Bible. The term Father is used about a dozen times in the OT in connection with God, but only through comparisons and God’s self-descriptions. Interestingly, God is never directly addressed as Father, person-to-Person. Father was not used as a proper name in personally addressing God. Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey said, “To say ‘You care for us like a father,’ or even ‘You are a father,’ is one thing. But to say, ‘Good morning, Father’ is quite different.” In addressing God as Abba, Jesus seemed to be building on those pieces of Scripture that implied a tender, compassionate, approachable God the Father. Scriptures like these:

  1. “Then say to Pharoah, ‘This is what Yahweh says: ‘Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go, so he may worship me.” (Exodus 4:22-23).
  2. Even to old age and gray hairs I am He. I am He who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” (Isaiah 46:4).
  3. “You saw how the LORD your God cared for you all along the way as you traveled through the wilderness, just as a father cares for his child.” (Deut. 1:31).
  4. “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms. But they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? I can’t bear to even think such thoughts. My insides churn in protest. All my compassion is aroused. For I am God, and not human – the Holy One among you.” (Hosea 11:1-9, NIV and MSG).
  5. “You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”  (Deut. 32:18).
  6. Sing to God, sing praise to His name, extol Him who rides on the clouds – His name is Yahweh – and rejoice before Him. A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, He leads forth the prisoners with singing.” (Psalm 68:4-6).
  7. “You, O Yahweh, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.” (Isaiah 63:16).
  8. “Yet, O Yahweh, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter;  we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8).
  9. “As a father as compassion on his children, so the Lord Yahweh has compassion on those who revere Him; for He knows how we are formed; He remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:13).
  10. “Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I will remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him.”  (Jeremiah 31:20).
  11. “I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ And to the south, ‘Do not hold them back!’ Bring my sons from afar and daughters from the ends of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created by my glory, whom I formed and made.”  (Isaiah 43:6).
  12. “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” (Malachi 1:6)

The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) clearly does not portray God the Father as simply cruel, indifferent, unforgiving, or overbearing. Jesus knew this truth intimately, and so He uses the words of the Hebrew Bible to help form His picture of His heavenly Father. Interestingly enough, Jesus expands on this in the context of a gospel story, a parable intended to teach a lesson to the Pharisees.

No one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son.” (Matt. 11:27).

Only Jesus truly knows the true nature of the Father, His motives, His intentions, His character, His reasoning, the mystery of His innermost Being. Jesus knows the intimate details of God’s Fatherhood, and their shared eternal love that has no limits is somehow the engine of the world. There would be no love in the world were it not for the love between the Father and the Son and their Holy Spirit.

Abba. An Aramaic word that is a child’s affectionate term for father; a title that directly addresses the father in a family setting, much like ‘Dad’ or ‘Papa’; a word that assumes a profound personal relationship between child and father; a believer’s term of honor and intimacy that refers to God as Beloved Father. It’s interesting that, even though the Jewish believer has in the past been reluctant to address the Lord as Father, the term Abba is now used in the traditional Jewish liturgies of prayer and worship.

So when Jesus instructs His followers to boldly address “Our Father,” Abba, what kind of Father was He thinking of? What image of Father did Jesus want to communicate? If Jesus wanted His description of the Father to match up with His experience of the Father, wouldn’t it help us if Jesus defined what He meant by Father? If Jesus wants to unpack the Father for us, it’s time to drop whatever we’re doing and take heed. True to form, Jesus did leave us His picture of the Father by building on the Hebrew Bible and then expanding on OT Scripture in His words in the Gospel.

The Father in the Prodigal Story. It has been suggested that Jesus wanted to communicate the nature of His Father in this pivotal parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. Jesus here shares His own experience with Abba Father. He in  effect defined the meaning and substance of the Father in this parable. In Jesus’ mind, this is what His Father looks like. He in fact is redefining the inaccurate picture of the Father as an overbearing ogre full of power and authority, who loves to punish and threaten, who at times is distant and indifferent and other times a cruel taskmaster. Jesus paints a picture of the Father that contrasts with all that, a Father as Abba, a kind and forgiving God who wants what’s best for each person, a Father who genuinely cares for each person in the human family with an eternal love, who desires an intimate personal relationship with His children. Doesn’t Jesus’ picture of the Father here make you want to be His child? Consider the actions and attitude of the father in this parable:

  1. A father who didn’t take offense when personally rejected by his son and asked to split his inheritance before the father even dies;
  2. A father who patiently endured humiliation at having his own son waste his inheritance;
  3. A father who responded with compassion when his wayward son returns home penniless;
  4. A father who was actively waiting for his son to return, on a continual lookout for his defeated son, a father who seemed poised to show mercy;
  5. A father who publically degraded himself by running, which fathers aren’t supposed to do, to meet his son;
  6. A father who physically embraced his wastral son, saving him from the eventual village gauntlet;
  7. A father who continued to pour out grace and compassion by repeatedly kissing his renegade son. This is a reversal of the typical scenario in which the repentant son is expected to kiss the father’s hands or feet;
  8. A father who restores the prodigal son to full family status, giving him the father’s feasting robe, the family signet ring, and a pair of sandals that would distinguish the son from hired servants;
  9. A father who threw a huge village feast with a fatted calf, feeding at least 100 people. Instead of rejection, the father threw a celebration;
  10. A father who would absorb another public insult by leaving his post as the host at the feast in order to search for his ungrateful elder son;
  11. A father who patiently accepts the elder son’s unwarranted insult and bitter attitude.

This is how the Son pictures the Father. Who wouldn’t join His family?

 The Father’s Spiritual Womb. The Lord’s love for us is compared to both a father and a mother in Deuteronomy 32: 18, “You neglected the Rock who had fathered you, you forgot the God who had given you birth.” And when Jesus was having His heart-to-heart talk with Nicodemus (John 3), He talked about being “born again,” which brings to mind the birthing process of a mother. Somehow we are saved only after going through a birthing process with God. Interesting. It’s almost as if God Himself has a spiritual womb. One of the Hebrew words translated as mercy/compassion is rachem, which has a root word that means womb. So rachem is intended to mean mercy-womb. God formed each of us with rachem when we were mere unborns, and we were conceived and nourished within His rachem, the mother’s mercy-womb. The baby within the woman is the ideal time to extend God’s compassion to that human being inside of her. The developing baby utterly depends on a mercy-womb. And God wants Himself to be experienced as our womb-sanctuary, our safe place in Him, our refuge and shelter. God Himself yearns to be experienced as a womb of mercy for each of us, a refuge and shelter and safe haven. The purpose of our lives is to live in God’s rachem, God’s womb of love. Yes, our Father has a mother’s love. God’s compassion is the same as that of a mother who cherishes the child she has carried and borne. Isaiah says this in 66:13:  “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.” And also in 49:15: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” And Jesus compares Himself to a mother hen in Matt.23:37, when He “longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” God is properly referred to as Father, but He often displays the heart of a mother.