An ancient practice

Moses rescued from the NileThe Old Testament does not specifically use the term ‘adoption’, and it is not mentioned in the huge list of Laws. However, adoption was practised in ancient Near Eastern areas. It was a legal act in which a person not related by birth was given the responsibilities and privileges of their new family. There are characters within the Old Testament whom scholars consider to have been adopted, such as:
  • Moses: ‘When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son’ Exodus 2:10 
  • Esther: ‘He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother’ Esther 2:7.

Israel: God’s son

The Bible suggests that the Israelites saw themselves as the ‘children’ of God. Their greatest King, David expressed this sense of God’s commitment to him (and, by implication, the whole Israelite nation) in Psalms 2:7-8
7 I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:
He said to me, ‘You are my son; 
 today I have become your father.
8 Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance,
 the ends of the earth your possession.     
Indeed, it was a metaphor for the Jews’ relationship with God. There are instances within the Old Testament in which God calls Israel his son, such as: ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son’ Exodus 4:22 and ‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son’ Hosea 11:1

‘Grafted’ in

In the Old Testament it was those from the nation of Israel, who were known as God’s children Deuteronomy 14:1. However, in the New Testament the Christian message about God’s grace came to everybody, not just the Jews (see 1 John 2:1-2). The apostle Paul described this process using a gardening metaphor - that the new, non-Jewish believers were being ‘grafted’ into God’s family, like wild olive shoots that have been grafted on to God’s nourishing olive tree (Romans 11:17-24). 

Believers ‘adopted’

Roman adoption practices

In both New Testament Greek and Roman society there were elaborate laws and ceremonies that enabled adoption to take place. Indeed, without a male heir of their own, Romans were allowed to adopt a male, either through an arrangement with another family or by adopting a freed male slave, and bestow their inheritance on him. The Bible reflects such practices in its description of Christians’ adoption by God:
.. God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.’                 Galatians 4:4-7 ESVUK     

Metaphor for salvation

The Greek word for adoption, huiothesias, means ‘to place as a son’ and was used by New Testament writer Paul. In Ephesians, he asserted that the metaphor of adoption reveals the full measure of God’s salvation to those who believe in him: 
In love [God] predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will .. In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace. 
                                                      Ephesians 1:5,7 ESVUK     
Christians believe that through this ‘divine adoption’, those who have faith enjoy access to God and the same inheritance as Christ: 
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,                Romans 8:16-17 ESVUK.     

Other cultural references

  • Texts: These texts cover the theme of adoption: The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, King Arthur: Not a Love Story by Dinah Craik, Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Silas Marner by George Eliot, Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

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