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:

The Israelite’s assumed relationship with God was even the inspiration behind a number of ancient Israelite names (Vermes 2004, 223), for example:

This concept of a fatherly God clearly continued beyond the completion of the canonical text, for example:

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:

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.