When Muslims hear Christians speak of Jesus as the Son of God, they usually respond by denouncing this designation as a blasphemous appellation. To say that God has a son is paramount to seismic proportions, of causing the earth to split open, the mountains crumbling, and for the heavens to be rent asunder.
88 And they say: The Beneficent hath taken unto Himself a son. 89 Assuredly ye utter a disastrous thing 90 Whereby almost the heavens are torn, and the earth is split asunder and the mountains fall in ruins, 91 That ye ascribe unto the Beneficent a son, 92 When it is not meet for (the Majesty of) the Beneficent that He should choose a son. 93 There is none in the heavens and the earth but cometh unto the Beneficent as a slave. (Qur’an 19:88-93; Pickthall).
The Qur’an also states elsewhere, “And they say: Allah hath taken unto Himself a son. Be He glorified! Nay, but whatsoever is in the heavens and the earth is His. All are subservient unto Him” (2:116; Pickthall).
The Qur’an is very clear that the appropriate relationship of God to any creature is that of a slave to his / her master. The basic Islamic paradigm in terms of relationship between the human and God is that of a slave-master relationship. All humans, and all of creation are slaves of God. Thus, there is no room in the Islamic worldview for a child-parent relationship between humans and God as we find in the Bible. A master owes his slave nothing, the slave is a mere tool. A slave owes everything to his master. With slavery of any kind, there is always the element of fear.
It is clear that the Qur’an is assailing at least two groups in particular that claim God has a son. The majority of references is certainly to Christians who profess Jesus as Son of God, but it also includes the Jews whom the Qur’an charges with claiming Ezra is the son of God (Qur’an 9:30). This claim is indeed fantastic as there is no evidence in any extant Jewish texts of any such belief among the Jews regarding Ezra.
The Qur’an also attacks Jews and Christians for claiming that they are children of God:
The Jews and Christians say: We are sons of Allah and His loved ones. Say: Why then doth He chastise you for your sins? Nay, ye are but mortals of His creating. He forgiveth whom He will, and chastiseth whom He will. Allah's is the Sovereignty of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, and unto Him is the journeying (Qur’an 5:18; Pickthall)
The idea of Jews and Christians being sons or children of God is one which resonates with the Bible. The Qur’an seeks to expose what it perceives to be an egregious error on the part of Christians who claim God has a son by setting forth the following question:
“To Him is due the primal origin of the heavens and the earth: How can He have a son when He hath no consort? He created all things, and He hath full knowledge of all things” (Qur’an 6:101; Yusuf Ali).
The Qur’an then asserts, “And Exalted is the Majesty of our Lord: He has taken neither a wife nor a son” (Qur’an 72:3; Yusuf Ali)
It should be noted in these two passages that the Qur’an provides its own understanding of what it means to say that God has a son. To say God has a son means that God has a wife or consort. In other words, the Qur’an takes the meaning of “son” in a very literal way and assumes that when Christians confess Jesus as Son of God they are simultaneously asserting that God has a wife. For what purpose? To produce a son. This would involve a sexual reproductive act which would also at the same time necessitate a physical body with sexual genitalia.
This immediately poses a problem. Christians have never believed that God had a wife, or that He procreated Jesus through a wife. This indicates that the author(s) of the Qur’an was / were ignorant of Christian theology. The literalistic belief in God having a wife and a son is so embedded in the Qur’an, that the Qur’an charges Christians with believing in three gods, namely, the father, the mother, and the son (Qur’an 5:116). Thus, we see a gross misrepresentation of the Sonship of Jesus, as well as the Christian belief in the Trinity. This raises a legitimate question. If God or Allah inspired the Qur’an, how could he get this so terribly wrong? Did not God know what Christians in the seventh century believed about Jesus and the Trinity?
What I wish to do in this first part of my article is to present the biblical data on the question of this term “son of God,” sometimes used in the plural as “sons of God,” and inquire whether Jews or Christians ever took these terms in literalistic way in that they demanded some form of sexual intercourse with a wife or consort. I will also bring in some extra biblical writings from other Jewish sources that also make mention of sonship language. We begin first with the Old Testament (hereafter OT).
The Old Testament
The phrase “son of God” and “sons of God” is well known in the Bible. It first appears as a title and concept in OT. The Jews were very familiar with this term as it appeared in their Bible, what we call the “Old Testament”. This is important, because Jesus Himself was a Jew, and the OT was His Bible. It was also the first Bible of the early Church. Therefore Jesus, and His first disciples would have been very familiar with this terminology.
Let’s observe how this term is used in the Bible:
The Heavenly Council and Heavenly Beings, Angels
The first time “sons of God” (bene elohim) appears in the OT is in Genesis 6:2, 4 where “the sons of God” (the heavenly beings) come down and defile themselves with the “daughters of men”. This is the classical interpretation of the text. There are some evangelical scholars who are of the opinion that the sons of God here are the godly descendants of Seth, and the daughters of men are the apostate line of Cain. Regardless, both agree that the phrase sons of God first appears here. We see the “sons of God” (bene elohim) also mentioned again in Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6 where they appear before God at the heavenly council. The satan (adversary) is also mentioned among them. In Job 38:7 the sons of God sing together and shout for joy when God laid down the foundations of the earth. This shows that these heavenly beings pre-existed humankind. We see the heavenly council again in Psalm 82:1-8 where the heavenly beings are called “sons of the Most High” (Psalm 82:6). Some interpreters have taken this passage to refer to human judges, but the language is similar to that in the book of Job. Sometimes the heavenly beings are called “sons of the Mighty” (bene eliym) as in Psalm 29:1; 89:6.
The heavenly beings including angels are called sons of God because they are His creatures in the heavens and are part of His heavenly council (see Deuteronomy 32:8). In none of these biblical passages does God need a wife or consort to create the heavenly beings or angels. They are sons of God by direct creation.
The Corporate Nation of Israel
Another way the term son of God is applied is to the corporate nation of Israel. We see this in a number of biblical passages:
“Then you [Moses] shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, "Let my son go that he may serve me" (Exodus 4:22-23; ESV throughout).
“You [Israel] are the sons of the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1).
“for I [God] am a father to Israel, and Ephraim [another term for Israel] is my firstborn” (Jeremiah 31:9).
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). This passage is cited in reference to Jesus in Matthew 2:15.
As a covenant nation, Israel understood God as their “Father”:
“For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name” (Isaiah 63:16; see also Isaiah 64:8; Malachi 2:10 where God is addressed as “Father”). Israel was chosen as a nation to be the son of God. God was their Father. It is clear that Israel was called “son of God” because they were chosen from all the other nations to be the covenant people of God. As God’s “firstborn son,” Israel was not the first nation on the earth, but rather, she was the heir to the promises of God (cf. Romans 9:1-5). Notice again, that in calling Israel His son, God does not need a wife or consort. The language of “son” here is one of being specially chosen and loved.
The Davidic King
The anointed king of Israel in the OT was also called the son of God. This title was used not only for the human Davidic king, but also pointed forward to the coming Son of David, the Messiah.
“I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:14; 1 Chronicles 17:13; 22:10; 28:6; Psalm 89:26-27)
“I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you’” (Psalm 2:7).
While the Davidic king could be called ‘son of God,’ this title meant that as a human king, he was adopted by God by being elevated to the status of a son with inheritance rights. He was to rule on earth in God’s place as His vice-regent. The king also was the representative of the people of Israel. This concept of the monarchy’s filial relationship to the divine was a common one throughout the ancient Near East.
As in the other cases we have seen, the title of ‘son of God” in reference to the king again does not require God to have a wife or consort. It refers to a change in position where God adopts the human king as His son and installs him as His viceroy over His people.
You will notice up to this point that Israel is called ‘son of God’ (Exodus 4:22-23) in a corporate sense and because they were chosen by God to be His covenant people. The human king of Israel however, also bears this title but in an adoptive and elevated sense. The way this title is used is based again on context.
As we shall see, the ideal Son of David, the Messiah, who was to come, would be more, much more greater than David and different, as He would be a unique, one of a kind Son.
Adam was the first perfect man, and the progenitor of the whole human race. Both Adam and Eve share the unique status of being the only humans who had no human parents. Adam was directly created by God from the dust of the ground and by the breath of life which was imparted to him by the Creator (Genesis 2:7). As such, Adam is also called “the son of God” (Luke 3:38). You will notice again that God did not require a wife or consort to create Adam as His son. God did not procreate Adam, He created Adam. Humans like all other creatures procreate via their corresponding mates (male and female), after their kind, God alone directly creates out of nothing. Just like the heavenly beings and angels who are called “sons of God,” Adam was ‘son of God’ by a direct creation from God.
The OT speaks of One who is to come from the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He will come from the house of David and will be a Redeemer not only to Israel but also the nations of the world. He will be a prophet, priest, and king. The title of “Son” is also applied to the Messiah, but in a special and unique way. A number of OT passages bear this out:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6)
Notice in this passage that the child that is born, is also a son who is given. This language is echoed in the New Testament in John 3:16 which says God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son. If the Son is given, that indicates that the Son already existed before He came into the world. The pre-existence of the Messiah is found in the OT (and in inter-testamental writings such as the book of 1 Enoch) especially in the prophecy of Micah 5:2 where the child who is to be born in Bethlehem is described as One “whose origin is from of old, from ancient days”. The names given to the son who is given in Isaiah 9:6 “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father” are used elsewhere in the OT of God alone. This child, who is the son who is given is someone very special and very different from the human Davidic kings. Even the very conception of this child is a marvelous sign:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14; cf. Matthew 1:23). The meaning of the name of this child is that “God is with us”.
Another pertinent passage in the OT regarding the Messiah is the following:
“Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son's name? Surely you know!” (Proverbs 30:4)
The answers to these rhetorical questions can only be God Himself. However, notice that the transcendence of God is also attached to “his name” and “his sons’ name”. Notice the name of God’s son is just as equally transcendent as God’s very name. The charge that the OT does not teach that God has a son is demonstrably false.
It should also be noted that the prophecy of Psalm 2:7-12 that the king would rule the nations with a rod of iron and that all the nations would surrender to the king was never ever fulfilled in David or any Jewish king. Let’s look at that passage again:
7 I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel." 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
The kings and rulers of the earth are warned to serve God with fear but also to “kiss the Son” who has the power to destroy them. When did such a scenario take place in the life of any Davidic king? Never. This is clearly speaking of the Messianic Son of David. Notice as well the promise that blessed are all those who take refuge in the Son. God is always the object of refuge in the OT (Psalm 5:11; 7:1; 11:1 et al), and yet the Son here is the object of our refuge.
Apocrypha and Pseudepigraph
The inter-testamental literature, which are Jewish texts written between the Old Testament and the New Testament, roughly a time span of about 400 years is a rich cache of theological thinking. It shows us what Jews thought about various theological issues. These collection of texts have come to be known as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (references to this collection are in italics in this article). These are non-canonical writings, they were not considered inspired by the Jews. It is surprising that when we examine these texts they reveal that son of God language was widely used much like the OT. Angels are called “sons of heaven” and “sons of the God of heaven” (1 Enoch 13:8; 106:5). Abel is said to be a judge of souls and is “like to a son of God,” an allusion to the heavenly beings (Testament of Abraham 12).
Israel as a whole as we saw in Exodus 4:22-23, is called “son of God” (Wisdom 9:7; 18:13; Psalms of Solomon 17:30) with God vowing to be a Father to His children Israel (Jubilees 1:22). The Maccabean martyrs are called “children of heaven” (2 Maccabees 7:34). A righteous person who suffers for the sake of righteousness is called a child and son of God who calls God his Father (Wisdom 2:13, 16, 18; 5:5). A wise man is referred to as God’s son (Sirach 4:10; 51:10; Psalms of Solomon 13:8).
It is also in this inter-testamental literature that we begin to see individual Israelites other than the king being called son of God. In the text Joseph and Asenath, Jospeh is called the “son of God” because of his great beauty (6:2-6; 13:10; 21:3). Levi is called “son of God” at his consecration (Testament of Levi 4:2).
In the text known as 4 Ezra (n the Latin and Syriac versions), God refers to the Messiah as “My Son” (17:28-29; also 13:32, 37, 52, 14:9). Some scholars dispute whether the original text had “son” or “servant”. This however is not problematic as the idea of son and servant were viewed as synonymous. For example, Israel was God’s son, and God commanded Pharaoh to let His son Israel go so that he might serve Yahweh (Exodus 4:23). The son faithfully obeys the father by serving him. Thus, the idea that the Messiah was Son of God is also supported in the inter-testamental writings.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls also shows knowledge of son of God language. James Charlesworth, an expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls has argued, “We can no longer report that the Dead Sea Scrolls do not refer to God’s Son or the Son” - James H. Charlesworth, (ed.), The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Vol. 3; The Scrolls and Christian Origins; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006), p.113. One of the scrolls speak of an unidentified figure, “He shall be hailed (as) the Son of God, and they shall call him the Son of the Most High” (4QPs Dana). The similarity of this language with that of Jesus in the Annunciation account to Mary is striking (Luke 1:32-35).
In part 2, I will address this subject further by examining the rabbinic writings, the Targums (Aramaic paraphrases of the OT), and finally the New Testament. Stay tuned.