God and Humanity: A Continuously Growing Relationship like that of a Parent and Child

Number 2.1       
July 2009      


God and Humanity: A Continuously Growing Relationship like that of a Parent and Child

By Lance daSilva

When the Israelites received the commandments at Mount Sinai revealed by God through Moses, they embarked on a relationship greater than they could ever imagine: a relationship between themselves and God.  The initial relationship between the Israelites and God would in time translate into a relationship between all of humanity and God.  As a result, this relationship was dependent on those who chose to be a part of it.  What did this relationship entail?  Did God have the upper hand in the matter?  What roles did both God and humanity take on?  One may be led to believe that obviously God had the advantage.  He made the rules, but with these rules, or commandments, came huge responsibility.  This responsibility was not only for humanity to follow, but also for God to fulfill his promise to the Israelites and essentially all of humanity.  This paper will explore the connection between God and humanity and how humanity's obedience to God is what shapes this relationship.  Throughout the paper, a parent-child analogy will be used to describe the God-human relationship that seems to be portrayed through various scriptures that I have chosen from the Tanakh (Deuteronomy 6:3), the New Testament (Matthew 6:24), and the Qur'an (24:54).  Each text adds a slightly different spin or element to the parent-child metaphor, allowing for greater understanding of both God and humanity's role in their relationship to one another, while simultaneously connecting the three Abrahamic faiths, highlighting both their uniqueness and their similarities. 

Before we dive into the texts, the parent-child relationship must be explained thoroughly so one can make sense of the connection between God and humanity in the texts.  In the household that I am trying to portray, there are parents (for the sake of consistency in this paper, the term "parent" will be used, in its singular form, in discussion) and children present.  Essentially, one cannot exist without the other.  If there are no children, there is no adult who must play a parental role.  Conversely, if there is no parent, then there are no children, and the parent-child metaphor fails.  Furthermore, the growth of the relationship between a parent and child is dependent on their being fully engaged with one another, not simply existing.  Understanding the importance of both the parent and child being involved with one another will be beneficial for seeing how the relationship between God and humanity is molded.  Through the three texts that I have chosen to study, we witness a nurturing and growing relationship between God and humanity.  There is a progression of growth, starting in the Deuteronomic text and continuing through the New Testament and Qur'an.  This progression, which will be explained later, resembles how a parent and child's relationship grows: starting with a parent's merely telling his child the rules to a parent's advising his child in the hope that what he has taught his child in prior years will serve as the basis for the child's conduct in future years.

To paint the picture of how I see the child in relation to the parent, the child is relatively young (maybe between the ages of 5-7).  This is an age where one can be influenced and is a crucial age for learning and growth.  The child's only real responsibility is ensuring that he obeys his parents.  This is an age in childhood where much of a child's happiness depends on his relationship with his parents.  In contrast, the parent's responsibility is quite weighty compared to the child's.  Along with 'laying down the law,' the parent is responsible for providing shelter, protection, guidance, teaching, and discipline.  A child's well-being depends on a parent's ability to guide and teach his child.  Thus, the relationship between a parent and a child requires a commitment from both parties: a commitment to provide and a commitment to obey.  I will demonstrate this idea in Deuteronomy 6:3, Matthew 6:24, and the Qur'an 24:54, connecting the texts by maintaining the parent-child metaphor throughout and essentially connecting people of different faiths in seeing that the texts convey the same message.  Each text offers another element of significance, strengthening the overall message, which the individual texts may not indicate on their own.

"Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you." (Deut 6:3, NRSV)

This is one of the messages that Moses revealed to the Israelite people at Sinai.  It is basically a conditional statement that says, if you obey (observe) the commandments that the Lord your God gave you, then things may go well for you, and you will multiply greatly in the land promised to you by God.  If humanity obeys, then God will provide (simple concept).  This is the plain sense of Deuteronomy 6:3 as I see it.  Furthermore, to expound on the plain sense, God's commandments almost serve as the contract that binds the relationship between humanity and God.  I would say that this relationship is dependent on humanity's obedience to the commandments.  However, there is an incentive to follow the commandments.  It is not like humanity would be obeying the commandments for nothing.  They are promised a land, a nation, where they will live well and multiply greatly.  For the relationship to be on good terms, commitment is required from both God and humanity.  There is a sense of a mutual relationship in that both God and humanity have obligations to each other as well as incentives for fulfilling these obligations.

When I mentioned "mutual relationship" in my study group, the group had many questions for me, such as, "how can you say that God is in a mutual relationship with humanity and not downplay God's power" or "what does humanity have that God needs, wants, or cannot provide for Himself?"  Those questions really made me think of ways to justify my bold claim.  The last thing I wanted to do was portray God as being weak or being dependent on human obedience.  However, verses such as Deuteronomy 6:15 that say "because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God.  The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth" (NRSV) give me the inclination to think that God does in fact need and want His creation, humanity, to obey His commandments.  This is not because God needs us per se, but it is blatantly obvious that God does have emotions and becomes hurt or "jealous" when humanity does not obey the commandments.  The same way that a parent loves his child, the commandments can serve as a sign of God's love for His creation, humanity.

Returning to the relationship between God and humanity as analogous to the relationship between a parent and a child, we are starting to get a clearer picture as to how this concept fits so well.  Combining Deuteronomy 6:3 and 6:15, the parent-child analogy can be seen as the following: if the child (humanity) obeys his parent (God), his parent is obligated to provide for the child.  The truth of the matter is that the child's parent is actually obligated to provide for the child whether the child obeys him or not.  That is not to say that the parent (God) does not get angry and feel the need to punish his child (humanity).  Therefore, in the same way that a parent tries to teach the child right from wrong through guidance and discipline, God teaches humanity right from wrong through the commandments. Therefore, if God is humanity's 'parent' then it can be said that He becomes disappointed when His 'children' transgress from what He has laid out for them to observe, because following the commandments is actually in humanity's best interest.

Turning to Matthew 6:24 in the New Testament, we can see that there are other elements that become part of the parent-child metaphor that were not seen in Deuteronomy.  "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and Wealth" Matt 6:24 (NRSV).  Read according to the plain sense, the first clause, "no one can serve two masters," means exactly what it says, and it is understood that one can only serve one master.  Within the verse itself, there are signs of figurative speech: for example, wealth is referred to as a potential master that competes with God.  Essentially, the verse says that one cannot serve both God and Wealth.  How do you serve wealth?  What does this mean?  Wealth can be viewed as the material world that does not contain God.  When one is caught up in the material world, it is easy to forget that God even exists.  It is the equivalent of taking advantage of everything that God has to offer but not even acknowledging that everything in the material world was created by God.  God does not want humanity preoccupied with material things that essentially do not ultimately affect humanity's happiness.  God wants humanity to have faith in Him, to obey His teaching, and to feel comfortable knowing that serving God will consequently result in the material goods that humanity needs.  Put simply, when one serves God, one receives God's love and guidance as well as wealth.  However, when one serves wealth, one receives nothing.  Hence Matthew 6:24 says that if you obey God, then you receive the benefits of both masters, a loving God and material wealth.  This claim is proven in Matthew 6:33, which says: "But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (NSRV).  The plain sense of Matthew 6:33 says that if one obeys or seeks God, all the material goods that one needs will be given to one.

Reading this in terms of the parent-child metaphor adds a little more to the understanding of God as a parent.  The parent (God) does not want his child (humanity) to crave material goods, because then the parent essentially competes with the material world in providing for the happiness of his child.  The parent (God) wants his children (humanity) to have faith in him (God) that by living by the parent's expectations everything else that his children need in life will follow.  In other words, if one follows the commandments one really cannot fail as far as one's reward as a result of one's obedience.  For a parent and a child, it is imperative that the child believe in what the parent teaches.  The whole nurturing process is what molds the relationship between the two.  When the child has faith in the parent, and the parent sees that the child is learning, the parent should feel good about what he is doing for his children and the fact that his child is learning.  This builds confidence and faith for both the parent (God) in his child's (humanity's) ability to learn, and the child (humanity) in his parent's (God’s) ability to provide and teach.  That said, this is a relationship built on trust, which puts more emphasis on my previous remarks about the mutal relationship between God and humanity.  Both parties need the other to commit to fulfilling their respective obligations.  To examine the other perspective, when the material world consumes humanity, it is the equivalent of an ungrateful child living life with all of the benefits of the material world without acknowledging that his parents are the reason he is living "the good life."  This is detrimental to the relationship between a parent and a child.

The link that really connects these texts is in the Qur'an.  While each text could be seen as self-sufficient, the Qur'an adds an element to the parent-child concept that may not have been obvious from reading only the Old and New Testament texts.  The text of 24:54 reads:

Obey God, and obey the Messenger; then, if you turn away, only upon him rests what is laid on him, and upon you rests what is laid on you.  If you obey him, you will be guided.  It is only for the Messenger to deliver the manifest Message." (Qur'an 24:54, Arberry)

If we look at the plain sense of "obey God and obey the Messenger," this could arguably be saying that one has two masters that one needs to serve.  It is almost as if God and the Messenger (Mohamed) are on equal playing fields and their level of authority is indistinguishable.  Who is the parent?  Well, obviously, for the sake of my message, God is the parent.  Then how does the Messenger come into the parent-child concept?  What authority does the Messenger have?  According to the plain sense, the Messenger's primary responsibility is to deliver the message, God's message.  Thus, the text is not putting God and the Messenger at the same level of authority but rather telling humanity to take the message as revealed by the Messenger, saying that what one decides to do with it (the message) is up to him or her.

"If you obey him, you will be guided" means exactly what it says, but what does this statement imply if one chooses not to obey?  The plain sense here seems to suggest that nothing explicitly bad happens.  Avoiding the parent-child relationship for now, focusing only on the text, I can say that out of the Tanakh, the New Testament, and the Qur'anic text, the Qur'an suggests a more modern-day reading.  For example, the text does not say that if you do not obey the message, you will be destroyed from the face of the earth, as it says in Deuteronomy.  It is no surprise that the Tanakh was written before the New Testament, and the New Testament was written before the Qur'an.  Therefore, we see a progression in the relationship between God and humanity, parent and child.  There seems to be more of an understanding of the commitment that both God and humanity have for each other with less interaction.

In Deuteronomy we see that God gave humanity the commandments and expected them to be followed.  If humanity did not obey, then God reserved the right to discipline humanity--at times, by extreme measures.  God's discipline was an act of love because God did not want to see humanity making the same mistakes.  So, in Deuteronomy, the child can be seen as being in his most vulnerable and most susceptible state.  Moving on to Matthew 6, we see a God that is less likely to 'discipline' his children (humanity), and more likely to seek a relationship with them.  As said before, God wants humanity to trust in Him; and if they do, they will receive the goodness of both worlds (the goodness that both masters have to offer).  An element of trust could be said to have emerged in Matthew 6.  Finally, the Qur'an offers an entirely new element to the picture.  It is as if God is taking a step back because He has faith that humanity has been nurtured to the point of His not needing to declare a punishment for disobeying his commandments.  In 24:54 of the Qur'an, humanity has 'grown up' and is obviously still to be considered God's children; however, there is only so much influencing that God can do at this point.  Much of the teaching and disciplining has been done in the Old and New Testament.  Basically, the message, God's word, is delivered through the Messenger, and what humanity decides to do with that message is completely up to them.  There are no absolute repercussions for not obeying the message.  There is an emphasis on the free will of humanity: to obey or not to obey in this world.  This idea of a child's growing up and a parent's role shifting on the way is expounded on in Melanie Killen and Daniel Hart's book, Morality in Everyday Life: Developmental Perspectives.

Children first see parents as essentially existing to meet children's needs.  They later develop a unilateral concept of parental authority in which parents love their children and children respond with obedience.  In this system, parents use punishment to educate and protect the child.  In later childhood children's concepts of the parent-child relation become more reciprocal; parents are seen in terms of the emotional support they give children.  Obedience is no longer viewed as absolute, but voluntary, and punishment is viewed as a form of communication.  Finally, in early adolescence parents are seen as persons with psychological characteristics and parents and children are seen to interact with mutual respect. (Killen and Hart, 135-6)

How does the Qur'an 24:54 add to the parent-child metaphor?  24:54 adds the element of the big brother.  Here is a scenario using non-biblical terminology: There are two sons.  They are both old enough to understand instructions.  They are both relatively young; however, one son is old enough to stay home with his little brother alone to watch and take care of him while their parents go out for dinner.  The parents instruct the older son, telling him everything the sons are allowed to do and not to do while they are out of the house.  The parents do not tell the younger son what they told the older son, except that they want him to listen to his older brother because he knows what to do.  In other words, the older brother is the model for how to behave and act for the younger brother while the parents are gone. Momentarily, the parents leave the house, and the older brother conveys the message to his younger brother.  At this point the younger brother has a choice.  He understands exactly what he should do to be on good terms with his parents, because his parents explicitly told him to obey his older brother.  If the younger brother chooses to obey, good for him; however, if he chooses not to obey, what is the older brother authorized to do by means of punishment?  I would say, nothing.  The older brother has no authority to discipline his younger brother.  The older brother can only be an example to his younger brother and tell him everything (all the wisdom and knowledge) that their parents told him.  Therefore, the younger brother, if he chooses to disobey his older brother, will not be punished until his parents return home.  Relating this back to 24:54 of the Qur'an, "it is only for the Messenger to deliver the manifest Message."  The outcome of his work is out of the messenger's or older brother's hands.  So, when we see "obey God, and obey the Messenger" in 24:54, that does not imply that the Messenger, Mohamed, has the same authority or power as God, but rather that he is the 'big brother' of humanity.

How does this big brother idea correspond to the Tanakh and New Testament?  Essentially, Mohamed plays a similar role to the roles of Moses and Jesus for the Tanakh and New Testament, respectively.  God's message was manifested through Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed for each respective Abrahamic faith.  In summary, through each text, we are able to see a relationship between God and humanity that grows, and that consequently has its ups and its downs.  This relationship, as seen above, can be compared to that of a parent-child relationship.  Taking note of the chronology of scriptures from the Old Testament to the Qur'an, we see shifts in God's role in relationship to humanity, from being more involved, in that God actually disciplines humanity, (Tanakh) to God’s taking a step back (Qur'an).  This is the growth of a deeper understanding from both God and humanity.  God understands that humanity has been given the tools (commandments) to live a good life and has been punished in the past for transgressing.  Similarly, humanity remembers the history of its past and its responsibility to obey, even if there is not necessarily reward in this life time.  So, what does the relationship between God and humanity entail?  It requires trust, understanding, commitment, sacrifice, love, and the obedience to perform all of these qualities. 


Killen, Melanie and Hart, Daniel. Morality in Everyday Life: Developmental Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 1995. 135-6.