Jewish Reponse to Van Hale

January 17, 2008

Response to the Van Hale radio program, “Mormon Miscellaneous” episode entitled “God as a Close and Personal Father”

Dear Van,

First of all, thank you for hosting such an interesting show! I am not a Mormon myself and am in fact Jewish by both religion and heritage, but I do teach a community college course in comparative religion and have an academic interest in Mormonism. I was an employee of the Richard Evan Chair of Religious Understanding at BYU under Truman Madsen during the 1984-1985 school year and have maintained a number of relationships with Mormon academics as well. Thus my interest in Mormonism is also personal. Let me add that I have the highest regard for the Mormon faith and wish you all the greatest success.

That said, I did take issue with a few of your comments. in the “God as Close Personal Father” segment. You quoted a number of Christian writers who claimed that the Aramaic term “abba” was so intimate that no Jew would use it in reference to God. You further quotes these writers (particularly someone named “Barkley” I believe) that the Targums never use this term in reference to God nor do any Jewish “devotional literature” As someone who actually reads Aramaic and Hebrew (and Greek for that matter) and as a Jew I can assure you that this is simply untrue.

These assertions apparently came from a Jewish scholar, Joachim Jeremias, who made a statement at an inter-religious conference that “the term “abba” has a very familiar ring to it.” This is true. Many Jewish children use the term today. My own son occasionally calls me “abba.” However, this statement was used and extended by a number of Christian writers who apparently saw it as homiletically useful. This entire issue was discussed in an article that appeared in the Journal of Theological Studies some time ago (see James Barr, “‘Abba’ Isn’t ‘Daddy’ Journal of Theological Studies, 1988 as well as Geza Vermes, Jesus in the World of Judaism [1983], pp. 41, 2).

The targums in fact use “abba” in reference to God a number of times in their rather free translation of the Hebrew bible. For example:

JPS Psalm 103:13 Like as a father hath compassion upon his children, so hath the LORD compassion upon them that fear Him.

KJV Psalm 103:13 Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.



KJV Psalm 89:26 He shall cry unto me, Thou art my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.

TNK Psalm 89:27 He shall say to Me, ‘You are my father, my God, the rock of my deliverance.’


Further, the Hebrew equivalent of the Aramaic “Abba,” “Av,” usually in the plural possessive “our father” or “Avinu” appears a number of times. It is a prominent and oft repeated element of the High Holiday services particularly in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer:

Avinu Malkeinu, Chaneinu V’aneinu,

ki ein banu ma’asim.

Assei imanu ts’dakah vachesed, vehoshiyeinu.

OUR FATHER, Our King Hear our voice, Lord our God, pity and be compassionate to us, and accept – with compassion and favour – our prayer.

The word “avinu” is repeated numerous times at the beginning of the prayer. Sometimes in chant-like form.

The Talmud itself talks about the child learning to say ’abba’ and ’imma’ (B. Ber. 40a). The words the child was to learn are the normal words of the language–correct and grammatical adult language. The word did not have one sense of “daddy” when children said it, and another for “father” when adults said it.

Finally, the Greek word used in the New Testament to translate our word is always the normal word pater, and never a diminutive such as papas, pappas, or pappias, all of which existed at the time. Words that expressed “daddy” were available, but they are not found in biblical Greek–because they were not suitable for biblical style. They used ’abba’ because it meant “father” and not “daddy.”

To call God “Father” is to use covenant language. In all of God’s covenants, the people are “sons” or “children” by their adoption into the covenant. Even in the secular world this was so; one of Israel’s kings became a “son” of Pul (Tiglathpileser) when he became his vassal. But in the biblical covenants we find this most clearly expressed. In Exodus 4:22, 23 Israel is called God’s son because Israel has a covenant with God (the Abrahamic Covenant was in place, and the Sinaitic Covenant was about to be built on it). Playing on the word “son,” God told Pharaoh through Moses to let his son (Israel) go, or he would kill Pharaoh’s son. Later, Hosea repeats this usage when he records how God called his son out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1). Israel was God’s “son.”

In 2 Samuel 7:13, 14 we have the use of the word “son” for the king of Israel. This chapter is about the Davidic Covenant. And in that covenant God will be a father to the king, and the king will be his son. Thus, when the king was coroneted, he would publicly declare by what right he ruled by quoting this covenant: “The LORD said to me, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’” (Ps. 2:7). Every anointed son of David could claim this title, “God’s Son.”

Finally, you mention that it is your view, again relying on non-Mormon, non-Jewish writers that the Judaism of Jesus day was distancing itself away from the idea of God as a person (with or without a body). I think this is also (mostly) untrue. This is an extremely complex topic and I am actually writing an academic paper on it at the moment. However, I believe the evidence is overwhelming that, while there was a strain of Hellenistic anti-materialism present in Judaism at that time, the majority of Jews continued to believe in an anthropomorphic finite God. This was, I can demonstrate, the majority view up to the 11th century and a minority view that continues to appear in Jewish writing up until the 1750’s!

Though this research would tend to support the Mormon understanding of God, most Mormons, including Mormon scholars, seem to be unaware of this research. I think that this is because Mormons have a tendency to gravitate toward Christian scholars who are notoriously unreliable when it comes to Jewish sources, to their detriment. Perhaps this is due to the fact that most Mormon apologetic work is directed against fellow Christians, rather than any antipathy to Jewish sources, but it does weaken the general Mormon argument, in my opinion.

I have to say that, while I enjoy much of your material and generally agree with you when you are dealing general Christian or Mormon sources, this same limitation seems to be true of you as well. I think you would be well served by an examination of post-Biblical Jewish source material and a survey of recent Jewish scholarship. (And even some modern Jewish practice. Occasionally I hear you saying things like “The Jews Used to do X…” When, of course we never stopped doing X. For example, I recall you saying that “The Jews” once built “booths” or “tabernacles” as part of a holiday celebration. This was at a time in which I had just built my family’s sukkah and had gone on a “tour of sukkot” throughout our community similar to the way in which Christian families seems to “tour” Christmas lights).

I hope this makes sense. I’m typing this in the remaining minutes before the beginning of the Sabbath. * I really do wish you and your show well. I only wish you would become acquainted with the vast and rich body of knowledge that Judaism has preserved and continues to generate.

All the best,

Moshe Akiva


* I never quite finished it Friday afternoon and didn’t get around to posting it until today, Thursday Jan 17th.



  1. Great insights. I guess I never thought about how Jews themselves might be ignored in looking at ancient Jewish studies. I guess it makes sense, I mean look at the outsider response to Rough Stone Rolling. Van Hale is excellent, but you are right that broadening source material would be very helpful.

  2. Thanks Doc! BTW, I appreciate your comments and your blog. I just haven’t had a chance to tell you so….until now. 🙂

  3. Moshe,

    Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the time you have taken to consider my view and to respond. Because of your comments, I have been re-thinking my view.

    On the significance of Jesus’ use of “Abba” my position is based primarily upon the extensive research of Joachim Jeremias. My first encounter with his work was about 25 years ago in his book “The Central Message of the New Testament” published by Fortress Press in 1965. This was written for a general audience. I have encountered a number of other brief treatments, but they have all seemed to be based upon the writings of Jeremias.

    I saw in it a concept which had considerable appeal to me as LDS. It is common among LDS to view God as a close, personal loving Father. This has been my view throughout my life. It has been near and dear to me and central to all of my spiritual motivations. To be a bit more personal than is usual for me, I have five daughters who have consumed most of my life for the past 38 years. My relationship with them has been very close. They have loved and respected me and have, in many ways and in many instances, tried their best to live their lives, both consciously and subconsciously, such that they believe that I will approve and respect their life choices. My interest in Joseph Smith’s view of God laid the foundation for me to think of my relationship to God as I think of my relationship to my children. My spiritual aspiration is to develop and mature such that my personal Father, in heaven, will approve and respect my life choices. I anticipate an eternal life in a Father/son relationship. In my life choices I find no spiritual motivation from fear of the wrath of a majestic unknowable transcendent being prepared to punish me with eternal torment.

    This view of God, as a close personal Father, seems to be in stark contrast to God as I see portrayed in the Old Testament, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. I am only slightly familiar with Jewish writings beyond these.

    After reading Jeremias’ discussion of “Abba” in his treatment written for a general audience, I purchased his book the “The Prayers of Jesus” published by Fortress Press in 1979. This is a highly detailed and scholarly treatment which, candidly, my background is not sufficient to appreciate it fully. I have been re-reading this since I received your comments. Further, I have Vermes “The Religion of Jesus the Jew” in which I placed a marker some years ago in his chapter on “Abba” but, I am embarrased to confess, I have not read it. I am reading it now. Also, I have read some works of James Barr and respect his scholarship. I am going to get a copy of the article you reference.

    Since first reading Jeremias, I have taken an interest in the New Testament view, or views, of God’s relationship to man. I have collected a number of references which present God in a way which I insist is not that of the pre-Christian writings with which I am familiar. I will send you a short paper I wrote several years ago. Consider this scenario:

    According to the New Testament, man’s ultimate potential is astounding. Jesus inherits
    all that his Father has. As joint heirs with Christ of all that God has (Ro 8:14-17; Gal 4:4-7) we will sit with God on his throne (Rev 3:21) and with the same authority God gave Jesus will rule (Rev 2:26-28, Eph 2:6), and judge (1 Cor 6:2; Mt 19:28) and reign (2 Tim 2:12). We, filled with all the fulness of God (Eph 3:19) and partakers of His divine nature (2 Pet 1:4) will share God’s eternal glory (1 Pet 5:10, Col 1:27), and receiving the glory Jesus had with God before the world was (Jn 17:5, 22) will be one with Him as He and Jesus are one (Jn 17:11). In God’s image (2 Cor 3:18) we will be like Him (1 Jn 3:2).

    Whatever may turn out to be my ultimate view regarding Abba, I certainly would like to be better informed on the various arguments. Again, I thank you for pressing me to pursue this further. I will respond again after I do more reading and pondering.


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