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She and He may be Abba

October 31, 2013

This is a “so what” post. I really like the comment of my co-blogger, Craig, saying, “I have always found this whole discussion irritating. Our words for our parents obviously come from infancy.” It is irritating, to me too. (This is a third, and final, post in a series; here are part one and two.)

Let me confess why, for me, there really is a “so what” that makes be want to engage in the discussion. It much has to do with how my parents submitted themselves to a certain “biblical parenthood” that had him as the alpha-male dominant Pater (as in Patriarchy, Head of Household, Spiritual Leader) and her as the submitter, with God, even the Trinitarian Christian God as the exemplary, the model, for this hierarchical arrangement. (I think it was Wayne Grudem’s continued publications of how he reads Paul’s letter to the Galatians that prompted my series of blogposts here, btw.)

To begin to do this confession of the why-this-irritating discussion of God-as-FATHER may be important, let me have us look at the MT and the LXX and certain Englishings of the Bible and how the Book represents certain ones by the sounds “Ab” and “Abba.”

Let’s look, for example, at Isaiah 9:6. At Christmastime we hear it in Handel’s Messiah sung:

And His name shall be call-ed,
The Mighty God,
The Everlasting Father,
The Prince of Peace

We hear, the “child,” the “son,” … shall be called … Father.”

To hear this in the Jewish Publication Society’s English is to hear that this way:

“For a child is born unto us, a son is given unto us; and the government is upon his shoulder; and his name is called Pele-joez-el-gibbor-Abi-ad-sar-shalom.”

For this same Hebrew אֲבִי-עַד, Craig Smith in The Inclusive Bible, has “Eternal Protector,” with the footnote that says the Hebrew is “Literally ‘parent forever,’ though the context emphasizes a parent’s protective role.”

The Hebraic Hellene version of this, aka “the Greek Isaiah” that Abram K-J blogger has had several of us reading together this year, has the following “translation”:

Μεγάλης βουλῆς ἄγγελος

So what?

Well, the “biblical” name for this Child, this Son, prophesied as G-d in part sounds like אב. These are sounds children, even boys, have made for their parents throughout human history. The adult meanings attached extend from this intimacy, from this literality, in ways that the adult Father Walter Ong theorized from orality to literacy, as if one is primary and the other much more adult-like.

When adults, scholars, authorities like pastors, and Fathers, and complementarian “head” husbands interpret, they tend to do like Aristotle did. They tend to avoid ambiguities and to teach others to do so if they’re to use language properly and not improperly. They tend to separate the terms, one from another. They tend to divide meanings so that the one in the binary is absolutely not the other. And they tend to put the one as over and in opposition to the other. This is their “terministic screen” to borrow a term from the rhetorician Kenneth Burke.

After my days of atheism (in the household of my parents, who were Southern Baptist complementarian Trinitarian Christian missionaries), I found myself unable easily to refer to (much less to pray to) God as “Father” when the “Bible” so clearly endorsed sexism. In our home, we not only had to tolerate such but we fundamentally saw it as Natural, as the way of God and His Nature, as spoken in his adult Word, where children, and women, had no voice.

As an adult, I’m amused now by the whole discussion (or debate) over Abba. I’m irritated that the adults who taught me the Bible as a child didn’t show Isaiah’s images of God as Father as so different from human fathers, like my own (by reading, say, Isaiah 63:16 and Isaiah 64:8, which respectively have those Hellene translations of sú kúrie patḕr and kúrie patḕr hēmȭn [σύ κύριε πατὴρ and κύριε πατὴρ ἡμῶν]). And now when I find curious items in the Septuagint, like a mother being named Αββα, then I just blog about it; whatever the reason for that “translation” or slip of the tongue or the pen of an editor, it sure sounds like language play, which children and adults engage in with all of their meanings, some intimate like an inside joke. Language, or more precisely, all the ways we humans use our language, is a lot more robust than we often want to give ourselves credit for. The power for some in using language is their ability to contain Reality somehow by it, and even Language or languages or Αββα as Natural and self-evident. That’s hardly all that language is, nonetheless.

I am grateful for the blogging community, especially my cobloggers here, and for Craig’s work in Bible translation and his comment here. (Do read his Bible, and notice how he uses Abba throughout!). I appreciate James McGrath’s conversation and James Pate’s reblog. I also want to say a Thank You to Abram K-J blogger not only for his organizing the reading of Greek Isaiah but also for his ongoing Septuagint Studies Soirée, now with the third installment here.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2013 2:29 pm

    What’s odd in all this insistence that “Abba” means “Father” and not “Daddy,” is that “Abba” certainly was the means by which people (adults and children) addressed their fathers in Aramaic, whereas the English word “Father,” in this day and age, definitely is not. Adult English speaker’s don’t call their fathers “Father.” They usually say “Dad,” at least in America. I think in Scotland they may say “Da.” In England I’m not sure, but I know that the father in “Keeping Up Appearances,” a British comedy, was actually referred to as “Daddy” by his daughters and “Your pop” by their husbands.

    So whatever “Abba” meant, when used as a name for a male parent, it would be inaccurate to translate it “Father.” “Dad” might actually be the best translation, odd as that sounds to our religion-socialized ears.

  2. November 1, 2013 6:22 pm

    Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. And we adult English speakers, even ancient language scholars, may be projecting our recent familiar experiences back on the older foreign tongues – to make ὁ πατὴρ / ho patḕr / mean not ὦ πάτερ ὦ πάτερ / ō pater ō pater /, not πάππαν / pappan / , not ὦ παππία / ō pappia / , and not ὦ πατρίδιον / ō patridion / – since our uses of “Father” tends to be less intimate than our uses of “Dad” and “Daddy” and “Pop” and “Pops” and “Papa” and such.

    Even still, I think there are occasions when young boys, like e.e. cummings when he was but the 6-year-old Edward Estlin, wrote to his daddy:


    And so Luke writes in Greek that his Jesus, at twice this other poet’s age (12 years old), said to his mama and his papa:

    Why were you looking for me? Did you not know I had to be in my Abba’s house? (Inclusive Bible)

    Τί ὅτι ἐζητεῖτέ με; οὐκ ᾔδειτε ὅτι ἐν τοῖς τοῦ πατρός μου δεῖ εἶναί με;

    This may be writing that adult readers would read, but it’s a pre-adolescent boy talking about his dear father.

    And you’ve reminded me how Anna Wierzbicka does finally make all these concessions:

    Compared to ‘Father,’ the word Abba as a term of address seemed to have an intimate and familiar ring and possibly even suggested an element of feeling. Although it is misleading to compare Abba with either “Daddy” (which is childish) or with “dear Father” (which sounds formal rather than familiar and intimate), Abba as a term of address may still have had an attitudinal (roughly speaking, affectionate or warm) component in its meaning, along the lines of “when I think about you I feel something good.” The precise interpretation of such a component would have depended on the context in which the word was embedded, but in any case it would have been more compatible with an attitude of affection, love, trust or respect than of fear.

    To reiterate: Wierzbicka and so many others pin their understanding of the NT uses of Αββα, ὁ πατήρ on very faulty assumptions about the lack of intimacy or even childishness sometimes of the phrase ὁ πατήρ.

  3. krwordgazer permalink
    November 1, 2013 8:16 pm

    Good points, Kurk. I might point out, though, that E. E. Cummings was six years old in the year 1900. I think it was still much more common for English children to call their dads “Father” back then– but that doesn’t mean it really conveys the right meaning to use “Father” for “Abba” today, when it’s being used as a proper name. It’s within modern English usage to say “my father” when speaking to someone else about your dad, but not to call your dad “Father,” nowadays. I understand that the Aramaic word “Abba” worked for both, but I think the English really needs two words. However, it doesn’t sound right to pray to God as “Dad” — too casual, so that it seems disrespectful– so we may be stuck with “Father.” We just need to understand that the Aramaic word didn’t have that formality, that sense of coldness, about it. In some ways “Abba, Daddy,” really does work best, especially for me as a woman, because it’s not uncommon for women to keep calling their dads “Daddy” into adulthood.

    Am I making any sense?

  4. November 2, 2013 8:16 am

    Precisely because our words are so familiar, and I’m choosing mine very carefully right here as I write, Kristen, we may find their meanings when read for others to be a good bit murky.

    In English, in my experience like yours more recent than even that of e. e. cummings, I feel the problem of “Father” as representative of male supremacy.

    Given my own father’s power abuses over my mother and their children, I find myself tending to appreciate the sentiments of poets like Sylvia Plath, who uses the childish term of endearment for Father (i. e. Daddy) to severely express the separation between them, daughter and Daddy, … “a bag full of God.” And, for me, it’s that association of Father-as-God and even God-as-Daddy (not Mommy, not Mother, not any other as silent as she must be) that is now really important to investigate. Thank you for sharing your own language, your own experience, your own preferences using English.

    Craig in a comment on the first post of the series of three posts here expressed “irritation.” If I understand that any, I have to say I do get that.

    In their explication of what “Abba” is NOT in the NT, scholars and now laymen and laywomen rely on what “Pater” is NOT. “Not childish,” they say. “For God would not be called childish names, or familiar names, or just to be very clear about it, girlish names.”

    Precision is the goal, of course. Preciseness in language. Perspicuity. My own father went to my dissertation presentation (aka the defense) where he listened carefully and waited his turn and asked me to answer in public his question, his questioning, of my project. He did not see this thing he was doing, this language act of his, as personal. Which was some the very goal of this dissertation, to show that to work and to work well, our language need not be precise as Aristotle’s view of language and his method of logic attempts to be. So Dad started by saying something vocative: “Kurk,” he said. “I have a problem.” And he went on to say how science cannot work without precision (of language), as if his saying it might undo some feminist reality.

    He had not read my dissertation but had heard me quoting Nancy Mairs saying things like:

    “The fundamental structure of patriarchy [which Aristotle developed] is thus binary: me/not me, active/passive, culture/nature, normal/deviant, good/bad, masculine/feminine, public/private, political/personal, form/content, subjective/objective, friend/enemy, true/false…. It is a structure, both spatial and temporal, predicated upon separation, not relation. It demands rupture, the split into halves engendered by the abrupt erection of the phallus: those who have and those who have not. It speaks the language of opposites…. [in] a dimorphic world.”

    Normally we find it appropriate to beg pardon, to apologize, for being personal (in public, on a blog). There’s certainly enough riskiness in doing this (i.e., in talking about one’s family, and father). Feminists who find themselves activists, political, get misunderstood as shrill, as misunderstanding real Reality, as confusing language (like what the Aramaic Abba must NOT be or linguistically is NOT) with self (as if subjectivity is pure bias or blindness as ways to transgender the male only Father, Son, Holy Spirit God adult). Nevermindthefact that some critics project their own personal familiar experiences of language for their father onto the discussion.

    I will apologize for going on far too much in this single comment reply. I do so very very much appreciate your comments, here and through the years in blogging elsewhere.

    You make a very helpful point about e. e. cummings of the turn of the century, last century, already nearly 114 years ago!

    May I just hypothesize that the 6 year old poet was already infected with the sounds of literary language? To call his daddy FATHER (his capital letters) was maybe a sign of what Father Walter Ong and rhetoric historian George A. Kennedy theorize as the stiffening and formalizing of language that is always more casual and oral before it appears, for readers, in writing. Written language ossifies oral language, formalizes it. We readers, even this father reading his little son’s poem, can hear the young writer’s voice. Both might indeed in person use “Father” for their terms of endearment for their own fathers, because that’s just what people in Cambridge MA did in 1900. And yet something else may be going on also in the writing of “Father.” A letter to Daddy, even in the form of an e. e. cummings poem, may be more formal than a spoken moment of conversation.

    In 1953 e. e. cummings published his book i [a bit of poetic autobiography], in which he writes of his family, and his parents in the first “non lecture,” and later has this line for his Father:

    Here Comes My Daddy Now (O Pop, O Pop, O Pop, O Pop)

    Maybe his language, his familiar address to his father by then, had changed.

    Yes, Kristen. What you’ve said makes a lot of sense. I’m going to think about your comment on our possibly needing two English words (Father and Dad) for a long time.

  5. krwordgazer permalink
    November 5, 2013 1:14 pm

    Thanks for those insights, Kurk. I think one of the problems (as you discuss in your recent post “Difference that Emerges” –

    is that language by its very nature is not precise. Math can be precise because it deals with objective quantities and measurements, but language is words, and words have meanings that are filtered through our necessary subjectivity. To assert that “Abba” cannot ever mean “Daddy” is to try to turn a word – and a relational word at that!- into something more like a number.

  6. November 6, 2013 7:22 am

    And thank you, Kristen. Some peoples don’t use math, or even have numbers or many numbers, in their languages. So points out people like Ken Pike, who resisted formalizing languages, Language, and linguistics to the day he died. “Person above logic,” is a phrase I heard him repeating often. To get this point is not be be Whorfian, to assume that language imprisons its users. Rather, it’s to understand that formalisms are merely tools for humans, constructs and reflections of one’s reality, that may change and be changed.

    What is so irritating about the dogmatic notion that “Abba isn’t Daddy,” is the begging the question logic that is used to assert the notion. What’s wonderful about the 3 NT uses of “Αββα ὁ πατήρ” is that it mixes languages – at least Aramaic and Greek but also maybe Hebrew, or Herbrew as Suzanne jokes, and definitely childlike sounds, as Craig points out. If one simply has to read the Greek phrase here as some formal gloss of the transliterated Semitic utterance, then one fails to get all of the multi- language interplay, the interlation to use Mikhail Epstein’s phrase for “stereo texts.”


  1. Abba Again

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