Click here to watch the 2014 Nevin Lectures
« Back to Blog

The Trinity and the Nations, 2

The Blessing of the Father

The narrative of the Exodus makes it clear that Yahweh is Israel’s Father. Moses is told to declare to Pharaoh that “Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me’” (Exodus 4:22-23). In contrast to Pharaoh who treats Israel as a slave, Yahweh insists upon treating Israel as a Son. Yahweh sees the evil done to His son and intends to protect him. However, in some respects, Yahweh treats Pharaoh as a son as well. Just as Israel requires continual spankings in the wilderness, Pharaoh is like a toddler who adamantly refuses to obey, but cries when he gets hurt.[1] Yahweh tells Moses, “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand” (Exodus 3:19).

As Robert Jenson might say, Yahweh’s is identified not merely by but with Israel’s fate. When they go into the wilderness and rebel against Moses, twice Yahweh threatens to consume Israel. Moses appeals to Yahweh’s name, saying that the Egyptians would triumph in Yahweh’s failure (Exodus 32:12-13). In other words, Yahweh would be a bad Father. The second time He threatens to wipe out Israel, Moses adds that “They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness’” (Exodus 14:14-16).

This discussion also leads to another important theme. It is far too easy, while reading the Exodus narrative, to realize what a massively earth-shattering event the Exodus would have been. Egypt, even in its modern decline, is almost the first great civilization or Empire. The nearest modern analogy would be Iceland taking down the United States. Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness were of international importance. In the words of Yahweh, this deliverance was done “in the sight of the nations” (Exodus 26:45).

But Yahweh does not merely reveal that He himself is a Father, but that Israel is a Father to the nations. Fathers bless children: to bless someone or give them certain types of gifts is to show superiority. Yahweh calls Israel his chosen nation, promises them dominion over other nations, and says they shall be a blessing to the nations. The relationship Yahweh wants between Israel and Egypt is not simple reversal, but a relationship of blessing.

The Fatherhood of Israel is subtly made clear as Yahweh designates Moses as his representative: “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet” (Exodus 7:1). Moses, not Ra, is father to Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s pitiful attempts to assert his mastery over Egypt and later Israel’s attempts to return to Egypt contrast with the relationship Yahweh intends to set up between Him and Israel and Israel and the nations. Yahweh plays by Pharaoh’s principle power: “If you refuse to let [my son] go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son” (Exodus 4:23). After his son dies, Pharaoh ends begging Moses for a blessing (Exdus 12:32).

While Pharaoh failed to learn, many in Egypt surely realized that Moses was the means to blessing and went with them making a mixed multitude (Exodus 12:38, cf. Leviticus 24:10). But whether some did or did not join with them, all of Egypt knew in the end that Yahweh was Israel’s Father and Israel needed to be a Father to them if they were to have the blessing, When Israel finally leaves Egypt, the people offer what is basically tribute (Exodus 12:36). Perhaps part of the immaturity of the Egyptians is that they cannot conceive of any relationship except for that of master and slave. They refuse the blessing and refuse Israel as their Father and end up in the closest relationship they have to it. This is the way of the nations that Israel will need to outgrow in the wilderness.[2]

Perhaps another of the most important events that exhibits Israel’s fatherhood to the nations is Balak of Moab’s attempt to curse Israel. Balak attempts to gain mastery over Israel by hiring Balaam with gifts (Numbers 22:7, 37, 24:11-13). As much as any Canaanite nation that will boast of their power over Israel, Balak trusts in the power of gift-giving and sacrifices to give him dominion and cursing. Yet, Balak’s attempt to change Israel into a curse is also suicidal. Israel is supposed to be a blessing to the nations and for Balak to turn them into a curse is like asking for the ceiling to come down on his head. Balak can only turn Israel into a curse if Israel becomes like the nations, worshipping idols and intermarrying among them (Numbers 25:1-9, cf. 31:16). Therefore, Israel must usually fight and annihilate the nations who refuse to accept a blessing from Israel. The only exception is the Gibeonites who submit to Israel and take part in the house of the Lord.

Ultimately, however, Yahweh’s fatherhood fails. Israel is disciplined in the wilderness and, while the nation is righteous in Joshua’s time, their sons forget their Father. Again and again and again they become like the nations and, instead of obeying Yahweh’s law, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25). Instead of wiping out Canaanite nations and picturing a true Father-Son relationship, Israel follows after the master-slave pattern of the nations. Israel does not “turn out.”[3]

But the hope remains that Yahweh will fulfill his promise, such as in the story of Ruth. Elimelech and his sons leave Israel and travel to Moab for food, but they die there. Yahweh then resurrects Israel, not by Israel joining the nations, but by showing the nations clinging to Israel. Ruth renounces her identity as a Moabitess and Boaz blesses her and in turn Yahweh blesses Boaz and Ruth with sons, showing that if Israel generous to the nations Yahweh will be generous to them. Boaz is a picture of how one day Israel might be a Father to the nations.

The Begotten Son of Yahweh

Biblical imagery and metaphors have the ability to be many and yet unified, portraying the same reality from different perspectives. Although the Father is always God and Yahweh’s relationship to Israel is always in some respect that of Father and Son, but in other ways it is also that of a husband and wife. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all in some respects sons of Yahweh, but Jesus himself called them Fathers (John 7:22).

In the period of Israel’s kings, the imagery of Yahweh and Israel’s Sonship comes to the foreground. Moses is in many ways a Father, the one who gives the commands of Yahweh and trains Israel up, preparing them for adulthood in the land of Canaan. Moses is also not, primarily, a fighter, unlike Joshua who leads many of Israel’s campaigns. He speaks to Israel from above, like a Father, and his vocation comes merely from the calling of Yahweh at the burning bush. David and the Kings are more like sons and they fight the battles of Yahweh. David and the kings speak more like elder brothers to the people. Hence, the people can legitimately rebel if permitted by Yahweh (1 Kings 12, 2 Kings 9). The kings are designated by an anointing, not just by a call.

The anointing made the King a representative of Israel. In Psalm 2, Yahweh declares that David has been begotten this day as a son. The anointing with oil is another bath, an echo of the Exodus that Israel went through becoming Yahweh’s son. It shows that the King of Israel has become Yahweh’s son by embodying the people of Israel and, as the Psalm shows, inheriting the promises that Israel would rule the nations (vv. 7-12). Not only does the King stand for Israel, but the King is a picture of Yahweh to Israel. David cannot dishonor or kill Saul, because, regardless of Saul’s moral status, he represents Israel and Yahweh Himself. By attacking Saul, his elder brother, David attacks the kingdom; he would be giving the daughters of Gilboa cause to triumph.

Also, how the King relates to women symbolizes Yahweh’s relationship with his bride, Israel. Saul meets women by a well before he is anointed king of Israel.[4] Saul becomes jealous of David when he hears the women singing David’s praises (1 Samuel 18:7). When Absalom rebels, he lies with his father’s concubines (2 Sam. 16:20-22), showing that he is the king who has stolen Israel’s hearts. David’s polygamy strikes a more ominous note, but he falls decisively in his sin with Bathsheba. Effectively, David’s action declares that Yahweh has not chosen Israel, but goes after other nations. Instead of taking responsibility, David puts his sins upon a brother, Uriah the Hittite, and is punished by having his son die for him. This is doubly tragic, because of what the King was supposed to represent.

The people of Israel wanted a King like all the other nations, but just as Yahweh overturned the false fatherhood of Pharaoh, He overturns Israel’s false notion of Kingship. At the beginning of the book of Samuel, the Ark goes into exile for the sin of the people.[5] Yahweh is called the Lord of hosts for the first time (1 Samuel 1:3) and He fights for his people. At the beginning of the book of Samuel, the Ark goes into exile in Philistia and defeats the Philistine god Dagon. No analogy could present Yahweh as Israel’s son or brother, but we do have a glimpse of Jesus who fights for his brethren and sacrifices himself for their sins. David is an ideal king because he models this in his two exiles. First he goes into exile because of the sins of Saul, his father, and then, in the latter half of his reign, he goes into exile because of the sins of his son, Absalom. Both times, because he humbles and sacrifices himself, waiting on the Lord his warrior, David is lifted up and exalted.

By contrast, Saul and Absalom are like the kings of the nations. Saul tries to pin David and Jonathan to the wall with spears, but spares the wicked Agag. Absalom begins his political career by killing his brother Amnon and then by burning his brother Joab’s field. Since they choose to rule on the basis of their own strength in battle, Yahweh delivers them to the sword. Ironically, they fulfill their roles as kings, but only by cleansing Israel with their deaths.[6] The best picture of the king’s vocation is in Psalm 22, where the Psalmist is surrounded by his enemies after defeat in battle (v. 20), but waits for Yahweh to deliver him (vv. 20-21), and then fittingly declares, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (v. 22). Even if scholars proved that verse 16 is better translated “like a lion [they are at] my hands and feet,” we would still have a preview of Jesus’ sacrifice and exaltation.

This picture of the Israel as Son and Brother alters the proclamation to the nations. Just as Yahweh wanted to make Israel an obedient child who sought blessing, so he wants Israel to be a brother, a nation that does not oppress their brethren, but sacrifices itself so that they too may praise the Lord.

As the Davidic Tabernacle is filled with music and singing, invitations begin to go out to the nations for them to come. The cry goes out: “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth” (Psalm 67:4; cf. 22:27, 45:17, 46:10). Even though the gentiles could not go far into the temple, they can come to pray. As Solomon prays to the Lord, “Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name” (1 Kings 8:41-43). And some of them come.

The Queen of Sheba comes to hear the wisdom of Solomon (1 Kings 10:1-13). Later, Naaman of Syria comes to be healed and proves more righteous than Gehazi, Elisha’s servant (2 Kings 5). Though they do not come to Jerusalem itself, the Ninevites pray to Yahweh and he has mercy on them. Israel also allies with Hiram King of Tyre and uses the cedars of Lebanon for the Temple (1 Kings 5:6).

Even so, while holy war is less frequent, the Psalms are stilled filled with imagery of the nations being violently subdued by the King: “Kiss the Son lest he be angry” (Psalm 2:12, cf. 47:3, 59:8). The false kingship found among the nations is condemned in the fullest possible sense (Psalm 2:1-5) and the test of a King is whether he follows after the gods of the nations. Solomon falls when he accepts chariots and horses from Egypt (1 Kings 10:26-29). He then proceeds to make alliances by marriages with the daughters of the nations (1 Kings 11:1-3) and finally whores after their gods, truly becoming a king of the nations (11:4-8).

Because he is unfaithful with regard to the nations, he fails in his role as an elder brother among the Israelites. After his death, the kingdom splits between north and south and the brotherhood of Israel is shattered. Throughout their reigns, Israel’s moral status is judged by whether their king leads the people faithfully or causes them to do evil in the way of the nations. Is the King a good husband?

Ahab is particularly noteworthy in this respect. He marries Jezebel, the Sidonian princess, attempting to ally himself with the nations. Jeroboam merely worshipped Yahweh by means of the golden calves, but Ahab serves Baal and Asherah. Ahab allows his wife to kill Elijah’s brothers, the prophets of Israel (1 Kings 19:1-2, 14). After having been called by Yahweh to defeat Ben-Hadad and his chariots (20:1), Ahab invites him into his own chariot. He is a second Saul, sparing Ben-Hada like Saul spared Agag, and accepting the cities Ben-Hadad’s father took (1 Kings 20:34). The prophet tells him, “Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life shall be for his life, and your people for his people” (v. 42). Ahab fails to look after his own brethren, and fittingly his final sin involves a brother, Naboth. Ahab again abdicates his power to the nations by letting his wife use her influence to have Naboth falsely accused and stoned (1 Kings 21). Ahab lets his wife turn him into a King of the nations and Yahweh kills him by the hand of Syria (1 Kings 22).

Hezekiah is an anti-Ahab who destroys the high places and resists Sennacherib, a king who boasts in having horses that the Israelites cannot seat riders on (2 Kings 18:23). Like David, Hezekiah trusts in the Lord of hosts and believes that Yahweh will deliver him from his sickness, even after he is told that he will die (2 Kings 20:1-11). His one mistake is to show his treasuries and storehouses to the Babylonian envoys. Whether he is boasting of his wealth or seeking an alliance with Babylon, Hezekiah turns aside to the ways of the nations. The last of the Kings of Judah become mere vassals. Jehoiakim pays tribute to Pharaoh (23:35), Jehoiachin barely rules three months before being taken to Babylon (24:8), and Zedekiah is a vassal to Babylon and ends in a miserable attempt to rebel against him (25). The Davidic dynasty goes, not with a bang, but a whimper.[7]

The Kings prove to be sons of worthlessness who fail to guard their bride and stumble their brothers. They lead Israel after the nations and end up scattered among them. But the Spirit of God is at work to raise up Israel for the sake of the nations.

Brian Marr is a senior at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho.


[1] I owe this metaphor to Leta Sundet in her paper “To See Themselves Sin,” www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2011/05/13/to-see-themselves-sin/ (accessed on December 20, 2013).

[2] Much of this comes from Jeff Meyers’s lecture, but a recent interpretation of Deuteronomy follows this pattern: Ralph Smith, Hear, My Son: An Examination of the Fatherhood of Yahweh in Deuteronomy (Athanasius Press, 2011).

[3] A good discussion of the Fatherhood of God can be found in Doug Jones’s talk “Absent Fatherhood,” lecture, Annual Christ Church Ministerial Conference, October 16-17, 2008, Moscow, ID.

[4] Peter J. Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003) 73.

[5] Leithart, A Son to Me, 57-63.

[6] Leithart, A Son to Me, 33. It is also significant that Solomon, not David, be the one who build the temple. David fails to restrain Joab, thus allowing for a false picture of Yahweh the righteous warrior. Jesus never wields the sword in his earthly ministry, but can still embody David because he sacrifices Himself for his Father’s glory.

[7] On the other hand, Jehoiachin does end up at the table of the King of Babylon, a small, but sure hint that the Davidic dynasty will be resurrected. It also gives a picture of the next stage in Israel’s maturation.