Parents and children

God as Father

The Bible speaks of God as the heavenly Father, ‘from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name' (Ephesians 3:15). It regularly describes the relationship between God and humankind as that between a parent and children; a relationship which shows care for and discipline of humankind. This also highlights important aspects of human family life:

‘As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him' (Psalms 103:13).

‘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' (Isaiah 49:15).

‘My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline … because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in' (Proverbs 3:11-12).

The Prodigal ReturnsJesus, who frequently spoke to and about his heavenly Father, told the parable of ‘The Prodigal Son' (Luke 15:11-24) illustrating fatherhood. A young son, the ‘prodigal', leaves home, leads a wild life and squanders his inheritance. Later, when he is destitute, he returns home where his grieving father welcomes him back with unconditional love. This parable is widely understood by Christians, to represent God's welcome to sinners who repent.

In teaching about prayer, Jesus asks whether any of his hearers, as fathers, would give their child a stone if they asked for bread. ‘How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him' (Matthew 7:9-11). The prayer which Jesus taught his disciples, the Lord's Prayer, begins ‘Our Father', using the familiar word ‘Abba', which literally means ‘Daddy'.

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, God's fatherhood is depicted as one side of a two-way relationship, which requires trust and obedience on the part of human beings, as children in the relationship. This is spelled out in John 1:12, ‘To all who received him (Jesus), to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.'

Family relationships

When God gave the Israelites his laws by which to live, including the Ten Commandments, family relationships were the subject of the fifth commandment, ‘Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.' (Exodus 20:12).

Later, in the New Testament, Paul calls this ‘the first commandment with a promise', and tells children it is right for them to obey their parents. However, he is obviously aware that heavy-handed parental discipline can alienate children, so he adds, ‘Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord' (Ephesians 6:1-4).

The transmission of the story of God's care, from one generation to the next, is an important biblical theme. For example, Moses tells the Israelites:

‘Teach (God's commands) to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up' (Deuteronomy 11:19).

Psalms 128:1-6 provides a cameo of a God-fearing family:

‘Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways. You will eat the fruit of your labour; blessings and prosperity will be yours. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table … May the LORD bless you … all the days of your life … and may you live to see your children's children.'

Infertility and miraculous births

Psalms 127:3 states that ‘Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him,' reinforcing the idea that children are a blessing from God. Given this perspective, to have no children, especially no sons, was a cause of shame and grief to a woman, as the term ‘barren' indicates. In the polygamous society of the Old Testament, barren wives were often tormented by fertile ones. This is seen in the story of Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-28), who could not conceive a child. She cried to God in her misery, and her prayers were answered in the birth of Samuel, whose name literally means ‘gift of God'.

Two other barren women in the Bible miraculously gave birth in their old age:

For barren women to have a child, they often resorted to desperate measures. In Sarah's case, before she conceived, she had given her handmaid, her servant girl, to her husband Abraham, in the hope that she could ‘build a family through her.' (Genesis 16:1-2). A similar story is found in the wives of Jacob (Genesis 30:3-9).

In Margaret Atwood's satirical novel, The Handmaid's Tale, this practice is grotesquely revived in a twentieth-century totalitarian regime where religious laws are hideously misapplied.

Related topics

Big ideas: Christians; Inheritance and heirs; Jews, Hebrews, Children of Israel

Other cultural references

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

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