Grace Journal 6.2 (Spring 1965) 16-23
[Copyright © 1965 Grace Theological Seminary; cited with permission;
digitally prepared for use at
THE TERM "SON OF GOD" IN THE LIGHT OF
OLD TESTAMENT IDIOM
S. HERBERT BESS
Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament
Grace Theological Seminary
The Second Person of the Trinity is frequently referred to in the New Testament
as the Son of God (Luke ; John ; ; Acts ; Romans 1:4; et passim). In
developing a statement of the doctrine of the Trinity, the early church encountered a
problem arising from the use of the word "son." Early church fathers stressed the word
logos, but when attention, shifted more to the term "son," the problem became more
acute. The difficulty stems from a too-literal interpretation of the word "son," and from
assuming that the expression refers to origin or to generation, rather than to relationship;
from understanding the word too much on the analogy of human experience and therefore
supposing the existence of a Father who existed, prior to the Son.
Church leaders of the third and fourth centuries composed a doctrine of the
Trinity and a statement on the nature of Christ which took account of the problem and
sought to deal with the word "son" in such a way as to do justice to the deity of Christ as
well as to his human nature. This was not done without many conferences and councils,
nor without many restatements of doctrine so as to correct heretical views or distortions
occasioned by too great a stress on one factor to the neglect of some other. A satisfactory
formulation was arrived at finally at the Council of Nicea in 325 A. D., after a long
history of discussion and controversy.
The Alexandrian scholar, Origen, had in the preceding century contributed to the
formulation of the doctrine when he discussed what he termed the eternal generation of
the Son. He did not mean by the term, however, exactly what the Nicene theologians later
meant by it. For while Origen used the term eternal generation, he nonetheless taught
that Christ was less than God the Father in respect to essence. He maintained that the Son
did not participate in the self-subsistent substance of the deity, and he should not be
thought of as consubstantial (huomoousios) with the Father.1 Origen's inadequate and
unfortunate definition of the Sonship of Christ laid the groundwork for the heretical
views of Arius and his followers on the nature of Christ. Their heresy is being
perpetuated today by the so-called Jehovah's Witnesses.
The Nicene Council in clarifying the doctrine of eternal generation adopted the
statement that "the Son is begotten out of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of
Light, very God of very God, begotten not created, consubstantial with the Father
(homoousion toi patri).”2 Exposition of this position and controversy over it proceeded
for years following, but the statement stood as the orthodox view on the nature of Christ.
THE TERM "SON OF GOD" IN THE LIGHT OF OLD TESTAMENT IDIOM 17
It is not my intention to try to improve on the statement. Rather, I intend to show
that the idiomatic usage of the word "son" in the Old Testament supports the above
statement and sheds light on it. I believe that such a study will show how Jesus is
properly called the Son of God, the term not implying anything about his origin, or that
he had an origin. For we must admit that such an expression as "the eternal generation of
the Son" is a highly sophisticated concept quite difficult for some professed theologians,
to say nothing of the laity. I suggest that an inductive study of the idiomatic use of "son"
will make it easier to explain how Jesus is the Son of God, while avoiding the heretical
idea that he ever had a beginning.
The word "son" is used in the Old Testament so frequently as to discourage the
effort to count the occurrences. In the overwhelming majority of cases it is used in
the literal sense of offspring or descendant. In a significant number of cases, however, the
word "son" is used in the non-literal sense, indicating a person's profession, his status or
circumstance, or his character. Following are some examples of this usage, the number of
them being more than sufficient to demonstrate the point, but employed to show how
common was this usage among the Israelites.
I. Showing membership in a profession or a guild
1. Sons of the prophets (bene-hannebi’im, 1 Kings ; 2 Kings 2:3 ff.) refer to
men belonging to a prophetic band. Likewise, Amos' assertion (Amos )
that he had not been a prophet or the son of a prophet meant that he had not
been a member of such a professional group, but God called him to the
prophetic office while he was pursuing another line of work.
2. Sons of oil (bene hayyishar, Zech. ) are ones anointed with oil, in this case
members holding the priestly office.
3. Son of the perfumers (ben-haraqqahim, Neh. 3:8), a member of the perfumers'
4. Son of the goldsmiths (ben-haraqqahi, Neh. ), a goldsmith.
5. Sons of the gate-keepers (Ezra ) are simply gate-keepers.
6. Sons of the troop (2 Chron. 25: 13) are men of the army.
Non-biblical texts from ancient times make use of the word in the same idiomatic way.
The Code of Hammur'abi, para. 188, uses the expression "son of an artisan" to refer to a
member of the artisan class.3
II. Showing participation in a state or condition
1. Sons of the exile (bene haggolah, Ezra 4:1; ; etc.) were Jews who had
lived in exile but were now returned to the homeland. The expression is
equivalent to exiles.
2. Son of a foreign country (ben-nekar, Gen. 17:12, 27; Exod. ) is a
foreigner. The term is translated "stranger" in the KJV.
3. Sons of pledges (2 Kings ) are hostages, and the term is so translated in
4. Sons of affliction (Prov. 31:5) are afflicted ones.
5. Sons of passing away (bene halop, Prov. 31:8), are orphans. The KJV failed to
catch the sense of this construction.
6. Son, or sons, of death (1 Sam. , Psa. 79:11) refer to those who are
condemned to die.
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Again, the Code of Hammurabi gives us an example of the non-biblical usage of this
idiom. Paragraph 196 refers to the son of a free man and the son of a slave. The
expressions may be translated properly as a member of the aristocracy and a member of
the slave class.4
III. Showing a certain character
1. Son of valor (ben-hayil, 1 Sam. ) is simply a brave man.
expression "valiant man.”
2. Son of wise ones (Isa. ) refers to one of the wise men.
3. Sons of rebellion (Num. ; in English Bible) is properly translated in
4. Son, or sons, of wickedness (Psa. 89:23; 2 Sam. ; ) are wicked people.
5. Son of murder (2 Kings ) denotes a murderer.
6. Sons of foolishness (Job 30:8) refer to senseless people.
7. Sons of no name (Job 30:8), translated in KJV as "children of base men, "
means a dis-reputable brood.
8. Son of smiting (Deut. 25:2) signifies a person who deserves to be beaten.
9. Son, or sons, of worthlessness (1 Sam. 25:17; Deut. , English Bible, v. 13)
be translated "worthless fellow," or "base fellow." The KJV has virtually left
the term untranslated when rendering it "son of Belial. "
10. Sons of tumult (Jer. 48:45) are tumultuous people.
IV. Possessing a certain nature
The expression "son of man" clearly exhibits the use of the word "son" to show
the possession of a certain nature. Numbers reads: "God is not a man, that he
should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent. . . ." This part of the verse might
be paraphrased as follows: "God is not like a man, who frequently lies; nor does he
possess the nature of man, who by reason of his own limitations must often change his
mind." In Psa. 8:4 (Hebrew, 5) man and son of man are put in parallel to each other and
obviously are used as synonyms. The same is true in Psa. 80:17 (18), and in Job 25:6 and
35:8. In Job the phrase "son of man" is translated simply as "man" in the KJV. The
term "son of man" is used frequently in Ezekiel as addressed to the prophet (Ezek. 2:1, 3;
3:1, 3, 4, 10; ; etc.) and means something like "O man,” or "mortal man.” The term
puts the emphasis on the nature of man.
All the examples in the above categories show that we are being consistent with a
well established usage of an Old Testament idiom when we maintain that the expression
"Son of God,” when applied to Jesus Christ, means possessing the nature of, displaying
the qualities of, God. By comparison with Old Testament usage, the term need not refer
to his origin.
Some may object that the New Testament was not written in the language of the
Old Testament, and that therefore the above examples do not really apply. The obvious
answer is Old Testament thought patterns and Old Testament idioms abound in the New
THE TERM "SON OF GOD" IN THE LIGHT OF OLD TESTAMENT IDIOM 19
spite of the difference in language. This is certainly true of the idiom in question. Below
is a table of some of the New Testament examples of the non-literal use of the word
Barnabas (Acts ) was so named because the word literally means "son
of consolation." He was called that because he was a consoling person.
Sons of thunder was the appellative applied by Jesus to James and John
(Mark ) because it signified something outstanding about their charac-
Son of peace (Luke 10:6) refers to a peaceful person.
Sons of Abraham (Gal. 3:7) are those like him in the exercise of faith.
Sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:2) are those characterized by disobedience.
Son of perdition (John ; 2 Thess. 2:3) is the lost one.
It is clear from the above that the New Testament uses the idiom in the same way
as the Old Testament, especially when indicating nature or character. We are not
misguided then, in applying this connotation to "son" in the term "Son of God."
Since we are dealing then with a Semitic idiom, we can test ourselves for
accuracy in the understanding of it as applied to Christ, by observing how the Jews
responded or reacted when Jesus taught concerning his relation as Son to the Father.
They understood that when Jesus said God was his Father he was making himself equal
with God and sought to kill him for it (John ). At another time when Jesus spoke
concerning the Father and Son relationship they accused him of blasphemy and would
have stoned him, because with such terminology Jesus made himself God (John -
36). Now the enemies of Jesus did not respond this way because they misunderstood his
terminology, but because they understood him perfectly well. They knew that when Jesus
said he was the Son of God he was claiming to be of the nature of God and equal with
God. It was on this basis that they demanded his death in the trial before his crucifixion
(John 19:7; Luke 22:70; Mark 14:61-64). We are to understand the expression "Son of
God" when applied to Jesus just as his enemies did.
If the term "Son of God" when applied to Jesus is to be taken in the sense not
strictly literal, that is to say, if the term when applied to him does not allow for any
thought of his having been brought into existence, of his beginning, then certain terms
will have to be dealt with which might imply the contrary. I refer to "firstborn," "only
begotten," and "begotten."
The Term "Firstborn"
The word "firstborn" is employed in reference to Christ in five places in the New
Testament (Rom. ; Col. 1:15,18; Rev. 1:5; Heb. 1:6). Most theologians
rightly understand that the word refers to rank rather than origin. He is first rank
in the whole creation, first rank in the inhabited world, first rank among the
resurrected, and first rank among the glorified.
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None is comparable to him.
This meaning can be illustrated from the Old Testament. In the economy of
responsibility than the others, and was rewarded with honor and given two shares
in the family inheritance instead of the single share that each of his younger brothers
received. Occasionally, however, the eldest son fell out of favor with his father and was
replaced in the favored position by a younger brother. Some examples of this are:
Joseph, who replaced Reuben (Gen. 4:3, cf. 1 Chron. 5:1,2)
Ephraim, who replaced Manasseh (Gen. 48:13-20)
Jacob, who replaced Esau (Gen. 27)
Solomon, who replaced Adonijah (1 Kings 1:5-53)
can also be adduced from the cuneiform documents from
particularly from Nuzi.5
In such cases as the above the younger became the firstborn, i. e., he attained to
first rank. The term will not confuse us if we remember that in the Old Testament it was
not always the one born first who became the firstborn. The word is used in this sense of
the nation of
upon the scene much later than others, God elevated the new nation to the place of the
most favored. Therefore He said: "
Therefore, in the light of Old Testament usage, when the term "firstborn" is applied to
Christ it means that he rightly deserves the preferential share in honor and inheritance; it
does not refer to his origin.
The Term "Only Begotten"
The word translated "only begotten" (monogenes) is used nine times in the New
Testament. It is used in reference to a certain widow's son (Luke 7:2), to Jairus'
only daughter (Luke ), and to another only child (Luke ). It is used five
times in reference to Christ (John , 18; , 18; 1 John 4:9), and once in
referring back to an Old Testament character (Heb. ).
The Greek translations of the Old Testament
also employ the word nine times, each time translating a form of the Hebrew word yahid.
Each one these occurrences refers to an only child, seven of them to an only child in the
ordinary sense. But twice the term is used of Isaac the son of Abraham (Gen. 22:2,
Isaac was called Abraham's only son (yahid, monogenes), although Abraham had
father another male child who was still living. However, the other male offspring,
Ishmael, never at any time enjoyed the status of son, as Isaac did. The Code of
Hammurabi illuminates this
THE TERM "SON OF GOD" IN THE LIGHT OF OLD TESTAMENT IDIOM 21
point. Paragraphs 170, 171 show that a man's offspring by a slave Woman were not
ordinarily given the rights which belonged to the sons borne of his wife. Only if the
father in the course of his lifetime had said to the male offspring of his slave woman (in a
public and official manner), "Thou art my son," was the slave woman's offspring treated
as a real son of the father. If the father had made such a declaration, then the slave
woman's offspring was counted among the sons and given an equal share in the
inheritance of the father's estate. If no such declaration was made, the offspring of the
slave woman were given gifts and separated from the household before the inheritance
Abraham was evidently at one time eager to legitimize the child of his slave
woman and count him as a son and heir. At the incredible announcement that his
own wife Sarah would bare a son, he said: "O that Ishmael might live before thee"
(Gen. 17:18). But God did not look with favor upon this, and in due course of time, after
Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Ishmael was expelled from the household. "Cast out this
bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son,
even with Isaac" (Gen. 21:10; Gal. ). Isaac remained Abraham's only son in the legal
sense. Though Abraham had several other offspring (Gen. 25:1-4), he had only one son in
the unique sense, and to him he gave his entire inheritance (Gen. 25:5, 6). Isaac was his
unique son, and when the New Testament refers to Isaac (Heb. ), it calls him his
only begotten (monogenes).
It is clear from the above that the expression "only begotten" refers to status. It is
certainly used this way of Christ. He has status as the unique Son of the Father.
The term does not signify that He had a beginning, and the consistent testimony
of Scripture is to the contrary; He was and is eternally God's unique Son.
The Term "Begotten"
Psalm 2:7, in a passage that traditionally has been treated as Messianic, reads:
“. . . Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee." The verse is quoted and applied to
Christ three times in the New Testament (Acts ; Heb. 1:5, 5:5), thus introducing the
word "begotten" into the doctrine of Christ.
The verb translated "begotten" is used a great number of times in the Old
Testament both in the simple (qal) and in the causative (hiphil) conjugations in the
ordinary sense of to generate, or to beget, just as anyone familiar with the content of the
Old Testament would expect. It appears twenty-eight times in the fifth chapter of Genesis
alone in this ordinary sense. As the verb appears in Psa. 2:7, it is pointed by the
Massoretes as from the simple (qal) conjugation, and is so understood by Gesenius-
Kautzsch-Cowley,6 by Brown, Driver and Briggs, by Franz Delitzsch, and others.
There is no compelling reason, however, why one may not take this verb to be in
the causative (hiphil) conjugation. No consonantal changes would be required to so
understand it. The causative conjugation is more natural in this context moreover, since
its function is not only causative, but declarative. I will show below the necessity of
seeing the force of this verb
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to be declarative. That the causative (hiphil) conjugation sometimes functions as
is demonstrated from the following examples:
hisdiq, which means to declare righteous or justify, as in Exod. 23:7;
Deut. 25:1; and elsewhere.
hirsira’, which means to declare guilty, or condemn, as in Deut. 25:1;
Exod. 22:8 (English, v. 9); Job 9:20; and elsewhere.
he’eqis, which in Job means to declare perverse.
Taking the verb in Psa. 2:7 to be declarative, i.e., hiphil, that verse may be
translated as follows: “. . . Thou art my Son; this day have I declared thy sonship."
To understand the verb as declarative removes from it, of course, any necessary
reference to beginnings.
Whether one takes the verb translated "begotten" in Psa. 2:7 as hiphi1 or as
some other grammatical form, its meaning in that verse must have to do with the
declaration of sonship. This assertion is supported by four arguments from Scripture:
(1) The argument from parallelism. It is of the nature of Hebrew poetry to phrase
itself in parallels. The parallel exhibited in Psa. 2:7 is of the type called synonymous
parallelism. In such the idea expressed in the first clause is repeated in the second clause
with different vocabulary. In Psa. 2:7 the clause "Thou art my Son" is matched by the
clause "this day have I declared thy sonship," which repeats the same idea.
(2) The presence of the phrase "this day" (hayyom). The day referred to is the day
of the declaration the decree,--the decree which announces the coronation of the king (cf.
v. 6). The coronation day could certainly not be the day of the king's generation, but it
certainly would be a day in which the proclamation of his sonship would be in order!
(3) The fact that the New Testament quotes this verse as a prediction of the
resurrection. Acts , 34 refers the words in question, "this day have I begotten thee,"
not to the incarnation, but to the resurrection of Christ. That being so, the action of that
clause must be declarative, for it is the resurrection which declares to all the world that
Christ is the Son of God. As it is stated in
Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; and
declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the
resurrection from the dead."
(4) The content of the following verse (Psa. 2:8) requires such an interpretation.
Verse 8 has to do with the inheritance rights of the Son, who is to have the nations for his
inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for his possession. Now it has been shown
above that formal recognition of sonship was a prerequisite of heirship. The Son of God,
whose sonship has been publicly declared by means of the resurrection, is constituted the
proper heir to the nations of this world.
The fifth chapter of the Revelation depicts in a vision the Son's acceptance of his
heirship, offered to him in Psa. 2:8. There one beholds the Lamb that was slain (and
thereafter resurrected) step forward and receive that seven-sealed book, the inheritance
document of the
THE TERM "SON OF GOD" IN THE LIGHT OF OLD TESTAMENT IDIOM 23
nations, and thus assume heirship of the world. When this vision shall have become a
reality, then shall it be said, "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our
Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever" (Rev. 11:15).
The above arguments show that the verb translated "begotten" in Psa. 2:7 does not
refer to generation. The terms "firstborn," "only begotten, " and "begotten, " as used in
the Old and New Testaments concerning Jesus Christ, do not contradict, but are in
harmony with, what it has been written concerning the meaning of the word "son" as
applied to him. The terms "son," "firstborn," "only begotten," and "begotten," as defined
by the Bible's own use of them, all declare that Jesus is the uncreated, ungenerated, co-
eternal, co-equal Son of God the Father.
William G. T. Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine (
Ibid. ct. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (
6th 1931), I, 29.
3. Conveniently consulted in English translation in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating
to the Old Testament, ed. by James B. Pritchard,
2nd ed. (
4. Ibid., p. 175.
5. Collected in the author's unpublished (except by microfilm) doctoral dissertation,
of Land Tenure in Ancient
Grammar, ed. by
Cowley, 2nd English ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1910), p. 120.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
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