Part 1: Fathers in the Bible
The word “father” appears in the Bible over 1,500 times. Most Christians could name dozens of biblical fathers and sons, from Adam and his sons, Cain and Abel, to Zebedee and his sons, James and John. We could cite several father and daughter relationships, including the elusive “daughters of men” in Genesis 6:2, Terah with his daughter, Sarah (Gen 20:12), and Philip with his four unmarried daughters (Acts 21:9).
Many biblical sons and daughters did not have good fathers. We can only guess at what kind of father Cain (Gen 4:17) or Eli (1 Sam 2:12; 4:17) might have been. Even the most famous father-son relationships have huge questions around them. How did Isaac raise a deceitful Jacob and vengeful Esau? The haunting failure of David with his sons, Amnon and Absalom (2 Sam 13-18), alarms every generation who hears that story.
The failure of fathers continues unabated into the current era. Many of us have experienced an unresponsive or absent father or know of such cases among friends and relatives. We don’t have to look far to find examples of what it means to be a bad father.
Yet, despite the failure of many biblical and contemporary fathers, good examples also abound. Abraham emerges as the first individual closely examined on the pages of Scripture who seeks to be a good father. When Ishmael and Isaac are born, he exhibits behavior that we both shun and follow. We wince at his sending Ishmael away (Gen 21:8f) and agonize with his desperate decision to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22:1). His obvious concern for both sons and his efforts to “charge his children . . . to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen 18:19) attracts our admiration and attention.
The entire book of Job revolves around his care for his sons and daughters, his grief over their loss, and the birth of a second family. His interest in their spiritual lives stands as a high point in biblical fatherhood (Job 1:5). His self-described lifestyle makes him a desirable man to call “dad” (Job 31).
Joseph’s loving response to Mary’s pregnancy seems consistent with the kind of father he becomes for Jesus in the all too brief glimpses provided in the gospels. The image of distraught Mary and Joseph searching Jerusalem for their twelve year-old speaks volumes about his concern.
Jesus paints a portrait of a wonderful father in the Luke 15 parable of the prodigal son. The father’s faithful waiting for the younger boy’s return, his warm welcome to the prodigal and his kind conversation with his now- alienated older son offers another high water mark for what a good father should do.
Our own experience mirrors the biblical treatment. Examples of bad fathers in our memory sit alongside fathers that seem exemplary. Whether in biblical times or in our own day, we don’t have to look far to find bad and good images of what it means to be a father.
The presentation of bad and good fathers in the Bible clearly anticipates our own situation. Not all families provide a loving and caring environment in which to raise children. We find our own troubled world reflected in the Bible. Scripture, however, resounds not just with model fathers, but with a dream for what fathers might be like. Rooted in the reality of how we do live, God in the Bible reminds us of how we might live.
The high standard set for families in Scripture prompts ministry to those from homes that fall far short of that goal. Out of that, we desire to provide a more holistic family setting for children without parents and young ones unwanted and uncared for by a mother or father. From the fifth commandment about honoring parents to the household codes in Paul’s epistles explaining marital and parenting relationships, Scripture calls us to a higher standard for all families. In that call to include honor, love and proper nurture in each family, Christians and churches associated with Christian Child and Family Services Association find their marching orders.