This is the second part of a series I am doing for my own personal journey and healing. All parts in this series will be linked back to the introductory post here: God and Adoption: The Series.
This piece will focus on the origins of Adoption itself.
In the Old Testament, one is hard-pressed to find an adoption story that is similar to modern US adoption practices. Adoption was simply not a Hebrew tradition. I can remember during my own teenage pregnancy, the agency workers telling me that Moses had been adopted. This struck me as odd even though I was not a well-read Christian as a teenager. I knew how the story of Moses’ “adoption” ended. It did not bode well for the “adoptive” Egyptian family considering they were appealed to many times by Moses to “let my people go.” After multiple refusals, they were then plagued and essentially exterminated by God Himself. To this day, the Egyptian extermination or the saving of the Hebrew families via Passover is celebrated worldwide. Moses’ “adoptive” grandfather, and instigator of an infanticidal rage, was drowned in the Red Sea.
What I didn’t know all those years ago, was that Moses’ biological mother, Jochebed, was actually never separated from Moses when he was an infant. It wouldn’t be until years later, when I decided to do a Bible study on God and motherhood, that I learned that God managed to keep Jochebed and Moses together in what seemed an impossible situation. Pharaoh’s daughter, who would eventually be considered Moses’ “adoptive” mother, had in fact hired Jochebed to be Moses’ wet-nurse and caretaker. (Exodus 2:8-10 )
In the very next verse, Moses sees “an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people.” Moses proceeds to kill and hide the Egyptian. Pharaoh, his “adoptive” grandfather, finds out Moses’ deed and attempts to kill him. That is when Moses flees to his people, the Hebrews. The Exodus follows. In the Old and New Testaments, Egypt often represents Sin and Bondage for believers.
This is THE story of adoption that many young, scared pregnant women are told in order to convince them that placing their infant for adoption is biblically sound. I thought it odd as a teenager who felt she had no place to argue with authority figures. I find it enraging now as a grown woman who is more confident in my studies. It’s quite ironic that the Modern Gospel of Adoption is founded upon and elevates an act that was carried out by God’s former enemies; Pharaoh et al.
If the Old Testament does not give us a clear and concise example of modern adoption practice, where exactly can we find one?
In the New Testament, the writing of a number of books is attributed to Paul. When speaking of adoption, it is incredibly important to keep in mind that Paul was a Roman Citizen. As with all things biblical, context is key.
There are 3 books where Paul speaks briefly on God and Adoption to Sonship; Ephesians, Romans, and Galatians. (As a side note, in Romans 8:23, Paul tells us that no one has been adopted by God as of yet, “we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”) So who exactly are these people Paul is addressing in these books? They too were Roman citizens with a strong Greek influence. Romans and Greeks both practiced a version of adoption, but still nothing that resembles modern US adoption practices. These were people who would have understood Paul’s references to a King and his Adoption to Sonship.
What was Roman and Greek Adoption? Probably the most famous adoptee of all time is Caesar Augustus. He was born Gaius Octavius to a Roman senator and his wife who happened to be Julius’ niece. Julius Caesar was Augustus’ great uncle and eventual adoptive father. The two were related and very close personally; not strangers to one another. What most people don’t know is that Octavius-turned-Augustus was not adopted until after Julius Caesar was dead. He was adopted posthumously through Julius’ will. And Augustus had a choice whether or not he would accept the adoption. His mother was hesitant because she had seen what happened to her Uncle Jules, but Augustus did accept the terms of the adoption and the glory and riches that came with it.
Glory and riches. That pretty much sums up Roman and Greek adoption. A synopsis from Hugh Lindsay’s book “Adoption in the Roman World “ says, “The reader will quickly realize that there is a diversity of adoption practices. Two of the most striking differences between modern Western adoptions and the ancient Roman practice are related. First, the adoptee in Rome was usually an adult male. Second, the reason for adoption was usually to pass on one’s inheritance (and one could add, to provide responsibility for the adoptee to care for the parents) rather than the modern reason of nurture. Although not supported in any significant detail, Lindsey suggests that adoption began to diminish in the fourth century AD once the church was able to own land, because the church preferred to be the recipient of inheritances from childless couples…Among other things an adopter had to be legally independent, thus a father of a household (a paterfamilias). Generally women could not adopt because they were not in such a position, but some exceptions may have occurred…Although unusual, minors could be adopted (in the imperial household this was intended to make succession secure), and it was rare for women to be adopted.”
Roman adoption: 1) was usually an adult male being adopted 2) was to pass on inheritance 3) women were not allowed to adopt 4) it was rare for minors to be adopted unless it was an imperial household 5) girls/women were rarely adopted.
These were people who would just as soon leave an infant to the elements on a hill than give a second thought. Adoption in Rome was not an issue of compassion, but inheritance.
What does this mean in regards to scripture?
Paul is speaking to a people who saw adoption as an institution of royalty; a King. It was a means of inheritance, wealth, and status. What better way to invite non-believers into your faith than by using a metaphor they understood and respected? An invitation to be adopted by the King of Kings? But metaphors only go so far. How else do we reconcile Exodus 4:22 where God calls Israel his firstborn son and Romans 9:4 where Paul says that Israel was adopted into sonship?
I think there is much more than meets the eye with today’s Gospel of Adoption. I’m not certain that we’re getting it right in the Christian pulpit or institutions. I know that there are a lot of hurting adoptees and birthparents who have left the Church specifically because of how adoption loss has played out in their lives. When they seek help or guidance, they are dismissed by the very Church who calls their suffering a “blessing.” I don’t think God intended the language of adoption in scripture to be a free-for-all nor the creation of a family-bond-musical-chairs. If anything we should glean from scripture, it is that God does not view humanity as a hodge-podge of interchangeable parts.
There seems to be this idea that we can pluck a child willy-nilly from one family, place them in another, and never look back nor have adverse consequences. But adoptees are speaking about their losses of biological family and identity more and more today in places like Dear Adoption, Adoptees On, and ICAV. And good on them! I am in awe of their courage and tenacity. They are making great strides for the next generation of adoptees.
I believe it is imperative today that the Church revisit its theories and teachings on adoption and its modern practices. Perhaps, adoption has a place in society? Perhaps, it is a good time to have that conversation? When should adoption be implemented and when should it yield to Family Preservation? If we’re going back to the source, it is more than clear that adoption as practiced today bears no resemblance to adoption spoken of by Paul. And we certainly should not base a supposed Christian institution on acts carried out by God’s Old Testament enemies.
Lest we forget that God is also the Creator of biological family. He says that we are created in His image. We should probably take a more solemn and cautious approach to separating the very children He knit together in the wombs of mothers He says He has rewarded,without qualification.