Jewish Reponse to Van HaleJanuary 17, 2008
Response to the Van Hale radio program, “Mormon Miscellaneous” episode entitled “God as a Close and Personal Father”
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 , 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,
* I never quite finished it Friday afternoon and didn’t get around to posting it until today, Thursday Jan 17th.