Where are the fatherly role models in the Bible?

This is not, by the way, a late post for Father’s Day 2016. It is a really late Father’s Day 2015 post. I started it more than a year ago. It started, in part, because I have seen the encouragement and strength my wife has felt from all of the strong female examples in the Bible. That is ironic, of course, because the Bible is so male-focused. Yet it is true, positive male examples in the Bible are actually few and far between and nonexistent when it comes to fathers. Bad dad.

There is no doubt that the Bible, its origins, cultural and historical context, and many of its teachings are patriarchal through and through. I don’t think I need to demonstrate that, but let’s just start with the “curse” in Genesis 3.

Gen. 3:16 To the woman [God] said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

Remember, this is a curse this is not how it was supposed to be! And yet here we have it, the establishment of patriarchy at the (almost) beginning of time. Man shall rule over woman, whether married or not, that is the new (not the intended) order of humanity.

It is a bit surprising then that when I, as a father and husband, look to the Bible to seek out examples of positive role models in men I find it starkly lacking. A fact that is made so much more striking since I can think of many women in the Bible who provide examples of amazingly positive, strong mothers, sisters, and wives. Hannah, Ruth, Naomi, Elizabeth, and Mary to name just a few. So where are all the men that I should emulate? Let’s consider a few.

Adam – He doesn’t start things off in a strong, good way, does he? We hear very little from him except that he is lonely and needs something, someone more than the animals. When God gives him one negative command (“…of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” Gen. 2:17) he can’t even pass that along with embellishing an ultimately causing all sorts of trouble for Eve. Apparently he told her, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” Of course, when she did touch it and not die, she took the serpent’s words for truth and, after all, it looked good and her husband was there with her (“she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” Gen. 3:6). Adam had three jobs: take care of the garden, be fruitful and multiply, and don’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A batting average of .333 is good in MLB but usually that is a failing grade. I could go on, but I will simply offer one more bit of evidence for Adam’s less than stellar record: Cain.

Jacob – The father of all Israel should be a good place to look for fatherly examples, right? Well, let’s just consider how he treated Joseph relative to his brothers. ((And if you are interested in an old study I did for my masters on dreams in the Joseph cycle, you can find it here.)) Jacob proves himself an example, certainly, but not a positive one. He allows his love for Joseph to overshadow that of his love for his other children and consequently brings about great harm, pain, and suffering for himself and his beloved Joseph. “But God used that to provide for the family in time of famine! Clearly it was God’s will!” That is a highly flawed view of God’s sovereignty that I have addressed elsewhere, but in this context, suffice it to say that what Genesis makes clear is that God used the circumstances to benefit his chosen people, not that this was the way God intended it to happen. So, Jacob is an exemplary father, but not a positive role model. This theme will be continue in the Bible.

David – “A man after God’s own heart.” ((The usual paraphrase of 1 Sam. 13:14, Samuel speaking to Saul says, “the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart.”)) That is David, right? That is who God told Samuel he would anoint as king over Israel. So what positive examples does David provide us with? Well, a lot of heartfelt psalms (if we want to assume that he wrote them) but actions often speak louder than words and “faith without works is dead” so what were his works? He was a womanizer, murderer, and a father who loved his children, but in all the wrong ways. Just look at the complicated and Game of Thrones-like story of Amnon and Absalom. He refuses to rightly punish Amnon after he raped his sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13ff), so Absalom murders his brother Amnon. And it all goes down hill from there…. This entire cycle is itself the fulfillment of Nathan’s prophesy against David for his rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah the Hittite

Joseph – And one more from the New Testament. Surely the stepfather of Jesus is a positive role model! How can he not be? He takes in Mary, even after he finds out she is pregnant by someone else, and takes on the duties of being the earthly father to the Son of God. There is no doubt that his loyalty to Mary is exceptional. But Joseph disappears from the narrative after Jesus’ birth. We hear nothing about Jesus’ childhood and in his adult years Joseph simply is not mentioned in any meaningful way. So perhaps he was a great father, but we have no examples or anecdotes from which to base our study.

God the Father – What about God, the father of all (Eph. 4:6)? Yes, certainly here we find the example par excellence for our own fatherhood. He creates the very world to support and sustain us, he creates us out of love and to love and to be loved, and when we fail to reciprocate he provides us with the means to be reconciled to himself. The obvious difficulty is that we are not God, shocker, I know. I have written elsewhere (here and here) on what it means to be created in the “image of God” for all humanity, not just for fathers. It is a difficult thing to look at God as our role model, but of course there are many lessons that could be drawn from the Bible’s description and depiction of God as the Father and that will be another post for another time. This post is simply an attempt to problematize how we look at the Bible with respect to the figures in the Bible and how we apply their “lessons” to our own lives.

I remember a conversation with a woman in our IV chapter from my first year in college. She rejected using the term “God the Father.” This was nothing new to me, I knew that many people were objecting to using gendered language with respect to God and the New Revised Standard Version that was then in production (but not yet published) so there was a lot of discussion around such topics. What was memorable and compelling about her argument was not some general identity based argument, but the very specific example of her own father. He had been mean and abusive. Whenever she heard or tried to used the term “God the Father” she could not help but think of her own father, the one who was not benevolent, kind, and sacrificial in his love. That argument moved and continues to influence me. ((As an aside, I do still used “gendered” language myself in rendering biblical passages and creeds, because I think there is historical value in understanding what the text actually says. But I support those who take a different approach.))

It is the reality of our world that fathers (and mothers) are supposed to love their children and yet often do not. This is also the reality of the Bible and the premise of my long neglected book project Characters of God. The passions and actions of Jacob and David are real, like those of so many who love their children desperately, but not well. A lot can be learned from such negative examples and they should not be neglected. But I cannot help but be disappointed that the biblical account of the official patron saint of fathers, Joseph, offers little for my devotional study. Does it really matter though? Because whether you are a father, a mother, or someone who has never had a child we are all called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. I think that probably covers it.

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