By the Rev. Joan G. La Barr*
The first Father’s Day celebration in a church took place in what is now Central United Methodist Church in Fairmont, West Virginia. Still, it was not until 1972 that the third Sunday in June was officially designated as Father’s Day in the United States.
As we thank God for dads, it is interesting, appropriate and sometimes amusing to look at some important biblical fathers.
In Scripture, fathers play a dominant role as leaders, providers, protectors, and spokespersons for the larger family unit. It can be a challenge to read these ancient stories with modern eyes. Yes, times have changed, but there is still much to learn about human nature and redemption from how God uses biblical fathers, despite their imperfections, in the creation and salvation of the world. May the following vignettes be an invitation to open the Bible and enjoy these stories anew.
The first father and human being is introduced in Genesis 2:7. God forms “adam” from the dust of the ground, “adamah,” breathes life into his nostrils, and he becomes a living being. God sees that it is not good that man is alone and resolves to make him a helper and partner. God creates all the animals, presenting them to Adam to be named. None is quite right. Finally, God takes a rib from man and creates a woman, whom Adam names Eve, the mother of all living. Alas, the couple disobeys by eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, breaking trust with the Creator. Cast out of the garden, the couple begins life as the ancients knew it. Adam and Eve became parents with the birth of two sons, Cain and Abel. In the space of eight verses, Cain kills his brother in a pique over God’s preference for Abel’s sacrifice. Though marked by God, Cain takes a wife who conceives and civilization is off and running. Adam “knows” Eve once more and another child, Seth is born.
In Genesis 12 the first of the patriarchs is introduced as Abram, “exalted father,” incongruous as he and his wife, Sarai, later renamed Sarah, have no children. Abram follows God’s call to go to a new land. God promises to bless Abram, to make his name great, and to make him a blessing. Abram remains faithful, even as the promise of offspring seems unlikely. It is Sarai’s idea to give her slave girl, Hagar, to Abram to bear a son for them. The son, Ishmael, is born to Hagar. He will become a great nation, but is not the child of the promise. God initiates a second covenant with the 99-year-old Abraham and promises a son by the aged Sarah. Though Sarah laughs at the thought, the son Isaac, meaning “laughter,” is born. Abraham’s faith and faithfulness to the covenant with God is dramatically illustrated by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac in Chapter 22. God stops the sacrifice and promises a new blessing to make Abraham’s offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven or sand on the seashore.
Isaac, the child of laughter, must have experienced the greatest trauma of his young life in Genesis 22 as Abraham demonstrates his loyalty to God in willingness to sacrifice his beloved son and heir. Later, Abraham initiates the plan to find a suitable wife for Isaac among his own kin. A servant discovers lovely and gracious Rebecca at the well. Isaac is the only patriarch who is not described as having other wives or concubines. Genesis 24:6 notes Isaac loves Rebecca, a rare and tender sentiment in the culture. Isaac prays for his wife because she too is barren. Rebecca becomes pregnant with twins, who struggle in the womb, a foreshadowing of what is to come. Isaac favors the rough and ready Esau, whose name means “red,” but Rebecca prefers the wily Jacob, whose name means “heel grabber.” Jacob, with the help of Rebecca, steals Esau’s birthright, then his blessing from Isaac, now frail and blinded by old age.
The second son of Isaac and Rebecca is the “heel grabber” or one who supplants. His trickery gains him the blessing, birthright and place as the heir of the promise to Abraham. Jacob flees from Esau’s wrath and finds refuge with his Uncle Laban, quite the trickster himself. Jacob works for seven years with the promise of marriage to Laban’s younger daughter Rachel. At the end of the time, Laban gives him the veiled older sister, Leah, instead. Laban gives Jacob the loved and desired Rachel on the promise of seven more years of service. The two wives and concubines give Jacob 12 sons and one named daughter. The sons’ names represent the 12 tribes of Israel. After numerous adventures and misadventures, Jacob has an epic struggle with God and is renamed Israel, “one who strives with God.” Though the story line continues with the spotlight on Joseph, son of Rachel, who is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and subsequently saves the family, the line will continue through Leah’s son Judah.
Joseph (New Testament)
Genealogies in both Matthew and Luke trace the lineage of Jesus’ earthly father through King David, to Judah and Abraham. Luke goes back to the beginning, tracing Joseph’s line back to Seth, son of Adam, son of God. Matthew 1:19 describes Joseph as a righteous man, unwilling to put his betrothed wife to shame, even though she is pregnant. An angel comes to him in a dream and assures Joseph that the child is of the Holy Spirit. Joseph is told to name the baby Jesus, or “savior,” because he will save his people from their sins. The angel reappears to Joseph in a dream instructing him to flee to Egypt with the child and his mother to save the babe from King Herod. The angel comes a third time to tell Joseph of Herod’s death. Wary of Herod’s successor in Judea, Joseph relocates the family to Nazareth in Galilee. The last scene involving this kind, just man occurs in Luke 2 as the 12-year-old Jesus frightens his parents by remaining in the temple to dialogue with the teachers.
*Joan LaBarr is a retired elder and former director of communication for the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference.