Exodus’ answer may surprise Christian readers.
Ask most Christians, Who is the son of God?, and they likely will answer Jesus. That is the answer enshrined in our ancient creeds. So it may come as something of a shock when we read the answer given in Exodus 4:21-23.
In this passage God instructs Moses on what he is say to Pharaoh when he appears before the king. In verses 22-23, God gives this message to deliver to Pharaoh:
Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’
In these verses, God calls the people Israel his firstborn son. Sonship becomes the metaphor for describing the close, family-like relationship that God is bringing the people of Israel into with himself. Behind that metaphor lie all the associations that ancient peoples tied into firstborn sonship. That status conveyed special privileges in inheritance (a double portion over than of any other brothers) and the assumption that the son would be closely aligned with his father’s interests.
God gives this special status of Israel as the rationale for how God will deal with Pharaoh. Moses is to ask Pharaoh to release the Israelites so they can go and worship God. God knows Pharaoh will not. So if Pharaoh will not release the Israelites, then Pharaoh will lose his own firstborn son as will, it turns out, all Egyptians as well.
The battle between God and Pharaoh then becomes a struggle over whose “offspring” will flourish. Will it be God’s people, the Israelites, or will it be the sons of Pharaoh and his fellow Egyptians? Both peoples could have flourished together, but as the story turns out, that is not to be because of the obstinacy of Pharaoh.
The Multi-layered Concept of Sonship in the Old Testament
As the Old Testament unfolds, the metaphor of sonship becomes a multi-layered one. In the prophets we have a continuation of describing Israel as God’s son. Let me cite two.
In Jeremiah 31 the prophet speaks of the days in the future when God will restore a remnant of the exiled Israelites to their land. In verse 9, the prophet quotes God as saying:
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations[a] I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.*
And in the prophet Hosea God expresses his displeasure with Israel’s unfaithfulness by reminding the nation of their liberation from Egyptian bondage. God expresses himself in these words:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1)
But in other places in the Old Testament we find the metaphor of sonship used to describe the status of the king. Let me cite three examples. All are addressed to or describing Israel’s kings.
2 Samuel 7:14:
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father,
my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’
I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth.
Sonship in the New Testament
When we get to the New Testament, we find God calling Jesus his son in two critical moments in Jesus’ life. One is Jesus’ baptism. The gospels say that as Jesus emerges out of the water of the Jordan River, the heavens open and the voice of God proclaims:
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11, see also Matthew 3:17 and Luke 3:22)
Again in the event of the Transfiguration, the voice of God proclaims:
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7, see also Matthew 17:5 and Luke 9:35)
When we read this New Testament language, we should note that the metaphor of sonship as applied to Jesus links Jesus to both the nation of Israel and to the kingship of Israel. In both cases sonship has been narrowed down to just one individual, but an individual who is intimately linked to a people and its governors.
In the resurrection the concept of sonship begins to once again expand beyond an individual back into a more corporate meaning. For as Christians are baptized into Christ, they are united with Christ by a spiritual adoption and come to share in that status which is uniquely his: sons of God. The apostle Paul is quite explicit about this when he is discussing baptism in his Letter to the Galatians.
But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:25-26)**
Jesus, too, shifits the meaning of sonship. In the Old Testament, sonship is associated with the privilege that comes with the relationship to the father. I noted earlier how the Old Testament talks of sonship within the context of inheritance. The son has the privilege of sharing in the inheritance. This gives the son his special status within the family.
With Jesus, however, the associations connected to sonship shift from the emphasis on privilege to the emphasis on responsibility, in particular the responsibility of service. Jesus lives out his sonship in his obedience to his father and in his service to his other brothers and sisters in the human community.
This, I think, helps us to see a dimension in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) that we don’t often notice. The errant son never loses his status as a son, even though he dishonors his father and squanders his inheritance. When he returns to his father, the father acknowledges that status immediately in welcoming his son home. What the son does by his return is ask to restore and repair the broken relationship.
When God declares to Pharaoh that Israel is his first-born son, we (and Israel) do not understand the full meaning of what God is saying. I would contend that it is only with the coming of Jesus that we come to understand fully the depth of the status that God is conferring when he declares Israel his son.
* The name Ephraim was another name for Israel.
** The cultural context of the New Testament writers was thoroughly patriarchal in its assumptions. So Paul along with other New Testament writers will use the standard practice of referring to believers as sons. But the verse that immediately follows makes clear that when Paul uses the words sons in verse 26, he is including women as well as men. Verse 28 reads: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. It is for this reason that modern translators of the New Testament prefer to translate sons by the more inclusive children of God.