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FATHER (אָב, H3, πατήρ, G4252). The word "father" has various meanings in the Bible beyond its most common sense of male biological parenthood.


The term father is used in several different senses in the Bible and throughout church history:

  • Immediate male progenitor (Gen.42.13). In the Hebrew family the father had absolute rights over his children. The Scriptures many times set forth the character and duties of an ideal father. Reverence and obedience by children is prescribed from the earliest times (Exod.20.12; Lev.19.3; Deut.5.16).

  • Ancestor, immediate or remote. Abraham is called Jacob’s father (Gen.28.13), and God tells him he will be the “father of many nations” (Gen.17.4). The founders of the Hebrew race, the patriarch|patriarchs (niv) are referred to as its fathers (Rom.9.5 kjv); so also heads of clan|clans (Exod.6.14; 1Chr.27.1).

  • (Latin pater). A title now used in the English-speaking world to describe or to address Roman Catholicism|Roman Catholic or Anglo-Catholic clergy, whether secular or religious. “Pater” was originally a description of bishop|bishops as “fathers in God” or later of confessors. It seems that due to Irish influence in the nineteenth century the term took on a much wider meaning. The pope is still called “the Holy Father,” but certain classes of monk|monks prefer the title “Dom.” In Europe the term “Father” is not often used of the secular clergy.

  • God is Father: As Creator of the universe, “the Father of the heavenly lights” (Jas.1.17); as Creator of the human race, “Have we not all one father?” (Mal.2.10); as one who begets and takes care of his spiritual children, “you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Rom.8.15). In a special and unique sense, God is the Father of Jesus Christ (Matt.11.26; Mark.14.36; Luke.22.42).
  • The patronymic system

    Both the Old Testament and the New Testament offer ample proof that the Jewish family life was patronymic or paternal in nature. As the name implies, the patronymic system traces kinship through males who play the dominant role in the family and in society (Num 1:22; 3:15). Evidence is not lacking that the patronymic system supplanted an earlier maternal kinship system. Evidence of this more primitive system is found in Genesis 36, where the “generations of Esau” are traced through his wives, and in the Book of Ruth where Leah and Rachel are recognized as the women responsible for building the house of Israel (Ruth 4:11).

    Wherever the paternal system is found, both rank and property descend through the father. In general the ethnologists agree that the development of private property and the taking over by men of the chief functions of production have been the major influences in the development and extension of father power and a paternal family system.

    With the development of the paternal family organization among the ancient Hebrews went a steady increase in the power of the head of the family—the patriarch—over wives, children, slaves and the “ger” or stranger within his gates.

    Paternal privileges

    In the early times the Hebrew children, like their mother|mothers, were almost completely under the authority of the father. In the rude early days of the patriarchs the controls extended even to life and death rights over them. This was made clear by Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering. However, quite early in their history the Israelites were forbidden by Mosaic law to burn their children upon the altars of Molech (Lev 18:21). The power of the patriarchal father was restricted in two other situations: he was not allowed to make his daughter a prostitute (Lev 19:29) and he was not allowed to sell her to a foreigner. The father had the authority to marry his children as he saw fit. He had also the authority to sell children as slaves but only to fellow countrymen (Exod 21:7-9).

    The Hebrew children owed their parents the utmost respect and reverence coupled with the most scrupulous obedience. The Mosaic law required that the child who smote or cursed his father should be put to death (Exod 21:15, 17). The stubborn or gluttonous son was condemned to be stoned by his fellows after the father and the mother had testified against him before the elders of the people of Israel (Deut 21:18-21).

    The Jewish household included slaves and many times even strangers sojourning among them who placed themselves under the protection of the patriarch. For all practical purposes such foreigners were treated as members of the family as long as they remained with the family and under the control of its head.

    In the Talmudic period the father was permitted to contract for the marriage of his daughter only before she reached the age of puberty. After reaching the legal age the daughter had the privilege, if she wanted, to refuse to carry out the contract. In such a case the contract became null and void. In this respect the Talmudic law was more advanced than the marriage laws of Greece and Rome. The strict rules established by the patriarchal father for his family continued to have restrictive effects upon the decisions of his children even after they reached the legal age, and therefore limited the complete application of the Mosaic law.

    Parental responsibilities

    The religious exercises taking place in the home coupled with the instruction offered to the children were prob. the most significant influences in the establishment of the strong ties and solid foundations of the Jewish family.

    The Babylonian Talmud establishes the fact that the father was obligated to circumcise his son, to redeem him—if necessary, to teach him the books of Moses, to find a wife for him, and to teach him a trade as a means of livelihood. The father continued to exercise great and decisive influence over the lives of his children even after they were married.


  • W. Goodsell, A History of Marriage and the Family (1939), 1-80

  • E. P. Barrows, Sacred Geography and Antiquities (n.d.), 469-481

  • G. Cornfield, Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia (1964), 310-320