“Good News, Son, You’re Adopted!”
ADOPTION, DIVINE & HUMAN
When Catholics and Christians talk generally about adoption as an alternative to abortion, we tend to speak highly of it. We sing its praises to the skies — for the child, for the pregnant mother, for the adoptive parents. We describe it as heroic, generous, and even self-sacrificial for a mother to carry her child to term and then say goodbye, making perfect strangers the parents of her own flesh and blood. Adoption: What a beautiful choice, we say.
Sometimes I wonder whether we actually believe this. Or maybe we believe it, but our esteem of adoption is only half sincere. Is our full judgment really that adoption is merely the least intolerable outcome for all involved in a tragic and intrinsically undesirable situation? Is adoption, in our minds, really just a necessary evil?
I’ve heard people — good Christian people — say that they could never adopt someone else’s child, or they could never love an adopted child as much as their biological children. I once overheard a woman with adopted children, who had suddenly found that she had conceived, being told, “We’re so happy for you! Now you will finally have a child of your own,” as if her adopted children were not really hers, or only second-rate children. I’ve of course heard far worse from the lips of non-Christians, or narrow-minded and otherwise unthinking people. But when believers speak these things, they are far more incongruous. More subtly, and even more tragically, I’ve known really good people who’ve struggled for years with infertility who quickly dismiss the suggestion that they consider adopting; instead, they grumble about the Church’s rejection of in vitro fertilization. These things lead me to wonder whether there’s something deeper going on. It starts to look like even the owners of cars with the “Adoption not Abortion” bumper stickers sometimes have a mixed opinion of adoption — as something for others, not for themselves.
But what is God’s opinion about adoption? If we watch for it in Scripture, we find a subtle but profound view of adoption, one that bears on our own participation in the divine life itself. Contemplating and then internalizing the divine perspective could change not only our understanding of our relationship with God, but also how our lives intersect with biological family members, as well as adopted children and their birthparents.
Did the Jews Adopt?
The idea that the Bible has something to say about adoption might sound odd. After all, in the Old Testament we see that Judaism is a religion based primarily on blood relation to the line of Jacob. Although there are ways to become a Jew other than by birth, few examples are actually recorded in Scripture. To be a Jewish believer almost always assumes being a genetic Jew.
Indeed, your notion of adoption has to be pretty expansive before you find even a handful of instances in the Old Testament. The first that comes to mind is Moses, who was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. But that wasn’t exactly the ideal family: Moses’s adoptive grandfather had slaughtered Moses’s biological kin, so that might not have made for the most wholesome of childhoods. And, obviously, this adoptive family did not end well: On discovering his lineage and seeing his biological family suffering at the hands of his adoptive family, Moses fled, returning decades later to lead the former out of slavery to the latter. Not the happy ending you hope for when placing a child for adoption.
Likewise, in the New Testament, the closest we come to an adoptive family is the Holy Family, as we might consider Joseph to be Jesus’ adoptive father. But it seems a little awkward to say that God the Father placed His Son, Jesus, for adoption; indeed, as we read the Gospels, we see that the Father never “relinquishes his parental rights,” so to speak. Rather, when speaking about Jesus, He repeatedly identifies Him as His “beloved Son.” Nor do we find Jesus conflicted about who His Father is; rather, much of His mission is wrapped up with convincing the Jews that He is God’s Son. Hence, we tend to call Joseph the “foster father” of Jesus, rather than His “adoptive father.”
Although the scarcity of unambiguous or positive examples of adoption in the Bible might tempt us to look elsewhere for insight, we just need to delve more deeply into Scripture. For while the Bible is short on characters who are adopted, just under the surface there are two closely related instances of adoption. The first spans the entire Old Testament, and the second the entire New Testament. Each is worth examining and using as a measure of our own view of adoption.
The Adoption of Israel
To see the first, we need to take another look at the story of Moses. When Yahweh appears to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Sinai and commands him to return to Egypt to demand the liberation of the Hebrew slaves, Yahweh describes Himself as more intimately related to the Hebrews than merely their nation’s god: “You shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my first-born son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me”’” (Exod. 4:22-23). Nowhere before this does God indicate that He considers Himself to be His creatures’ parent, yet here He identifies Israel as His son. Indeed, Moses makes clear that he has been meditating on this declaration when 40 years later he lays into the constantly rebelling Hebrews finally about to enter the Promised Land:
Do you thus requite the Lord, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?… For the Lord’s own portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye…. You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth. (Deut. 32:6, 9-10, 18)
Moses describes Yahweh as both father and mother — He begets them and gives birth to them — whereas Israel’s rejection of God is a repudiation of their parent. What parent doesn’t recall tearing into his kids in similar, if less poetic, language?
Now, this seems to be just another incident in what today we would call a “dysfunctional family” — poor Moses seems to have bad luck, whether with his adoptive Egyptian parents or with Israel, whom he serves as nanny. The point, however, is that both God and Moses say that a family relationship exists between God and the chosen people, not just a kingly or religious relationship. And yet this is obviously not a biologically begotten family. In spite of Moses’s imagery of God giving birth to them, God is not the natural parent of the children of Jacob — Jacob is. Israel is God’s first-born, yes, but more precisely, they are His adoptive first-born.
We can glean something from Israel’s being described as God’s adopted sons and daughters, the most obvious being that this adoption is a good thing. Left to ourselves, Yahweh is our Creator and our God, but not quite our Parent. By our nature, no human being can be God’s son, since part of what it means to be a father or mother is to beget another of the same nature. This is why we don’t call our other creations or things we bring forth our “children”: I grow hair from my head, draw pictures, and write articles, but none of these things are my “babies,” except metaphorically speaking. As this adoption is not naturally available to us, any segment of mankind that receives it would be receiving a profound blessing, a great good, not a “necessary evil.” This is precisely what it means to call Israel the “chosen people,” for adoption comes from two Latin words, ad (toward) and optio (choosing), meaning “choosing toward” oneself, or even “relative-choosing.” God chooses the sons of Jacob, singles them out, to be heirs to His blessings: to receive not only a land flowing with milk and honey, and not only the daily guidance of His Law, but to be blessed with the intimate closeness of the Creator of the cosmos living in their midst, making a family of them, with Him as their head, thereby making them His children.
Now, it’s tempting to say this is just metaphorical imagery; the sons of Israel were not literally the sons of God, even by adoption. And it is true that, although it occurs a few more times in the Old Testament, we don’t find this paternal and filial language stressed in most of it, and this suggests that the sonship of Israel is not a central teaching of the Old Testament. We could imagine an Israelite saying the important thing is that he belongs to the chosen people, one of the heirs to the promised land, the bearers of the covenant on Mount Sinai — not that he is an adopted son of God. God did not promise to Abraham that He would become his father but that Abraham would himself become the father of a great people who would inherit a land.
So, for the sake of argument, let’s concede these points, though I think that’s not the whole truth about the Old Testament’s view of God’s adoption of Israel. In particular, I wonder whether the Jewish view of the importance of bloodline might have impeded their noticing this part of their own revelation, and thereby prevented them from working out its implications in their traditions. If they have a moderately low opinion of adoption, it’s likely they would not want to reflect on their own adoptive sonship before God. But that’s just speculation, and I grant that the Old Testament doesn’t offer the most robust notion of divine adoption. For that, we must turn to the New Testament.
St. Paul & Christian Adoption
When St. Paul reflects on both the history of the chosen people and what Christ has accomplished for all mankind, adoption is front and center. For instance, in his Letter to the Romans, he expresses sorrow that the Jews, his “kinsmen by race,” have rejected Christ. But then he stresses the Jews’ enduring importance in God’s eyes:
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption,* the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (9:4-5).
Notice that the first blessing Paul singles out is that God adopted them. Yet even here there is a distinction between adoption and natural sonship, for while the Israelites are the sons of God by adoption, Christ became a son of Israel by nature — i.e., “according to the flesh” — even though He is also the Son of God by nature.
What’s new about this adoption, St. Paul says, is that it is now open to all; through the Jewish Messiah, every member of the human race can become a son or daughter of God by adoption. Thus, Paul explains to the Christian Gentiles:
All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For…you have received the spirit of adoption*…. Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants…. It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants. (8:14-15; 9:6-8; italics added)
Thus, the biologically non-Israelite can become an Israelite — that is, can become God’s adopted son or daughter by receiving that same adoption. The genetic sonship that all the Jews have from Jacob is not the sonship that matters — there is no longer any important difference between Jew or Gentile. Biological Israel received the adoption first, but Gentiles have now received it, so they too are heirs to the promise of salvation.
Considering what adoption was at that time and place would also be illuminating here. In St. Paul’s letters to the Romans and to the citizens of the greater Roman Empire, he frequently refers to their adoptive sonship. How would this imagery have been understood by his audience?
Roman Adoption in St. Paul’s Day
Adoption was fairly common among the Romans in the first century A.D. Almost every politically connected family practiced it, and it wasn’t rare among ordinary Roman citizens. Octavius became Caesar Augustus through adoption by Julius Caesar; likewise, most of the best-known emperors — Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius — were adopted. Indeed, in a typical Roman family, the heir would not be determined until the children and slaves reached adulthood, and the designation of a slave as heir happened through adoption. In fact, in Roman law, a biological son could be disowned, whereas an adoptive son could not, since when you adopted him you would have had a pretty good idea of what you were getting yourself into, especially if the child were nearly an adult. But your biological child is always a surprise: The baby could be the “wrong” sex, be weak, sickly, or in some way a disappointment.
As heartless as this might seem with regard to one’s biological children, it meant that adoption was not something done in secret, nor was it shameful. Contrast this “adoption-positive” attitude with the common Western attitude barely a hundred years ago: Not until the early 20th century did an adopted child in Britain or the U.S. acquire legal protection or legal status. Obviously, we’ve come a long way since then, but we still don’t accept adoption to the degree the Romans did.
Think about it this way: In the Greek text of the New Testament, the word for “adoption” is huiothesis, a combination of huios (“son”) and thesis (“making” or “placing”). Today, we tend to emphasize the second half of the word, as if to say adoption is merely a positing of sonship where none in fact exists. But in the Greek and Roman idiom of St. Paul’s day, the emphasis apparently was on the first half of the word: Adopting is making-a-son, not son-make-believe. Indeed, this was how Caesar Augustus could get away with claiming divinity for himself: He pressured the senate to declare his deceased adoptive father, Julius, a god; then, not long after, he noted that this implies that he too is divine. The alleged “divine sonship” of the Roman emperors, then, was accepted by the Romans only because adoption was thought to genuinely make one a son.
These characteristics of Roman adoption suggest a further reason why St. Paul declares the sons of Israel, and Christians as well, the “adopted sons” of God — namely, unlike with biological sonship, an adoptive child is chosen; the specific child is known in advance, singled out, and picked for the family. And, most importantly, unlike biological sonship in Rome, adoptive sonship is permanent. Thus, St. Paul’s words are a profound declaration of God’s personal love for us: Through adoption you have been chosen, and that choice will not be revoked.
St. Paul & St. John on Becoming Sons
St. Paul makes the authenticity of our sonship through adoption even more explicit in his Letter to the Galatians, and he illuminates how this adoption overcomes our natural inability to be sons of God:
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…. God sent forth his Son…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 through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir. (3:26-27; 4:4-7)
Notice that St. Paul doesn’t put our adoption in quotation marks, as though God simply calls us sons, though we haven’t actually become sons. Rather, through the language of Baptism and the “putting on” (the wearing, as it were) of Christ, and having Jesus’ very spirit in us, Paul asserts something more substantial: Our becoming sons is real, and it happens through our somehow being immersed in, surrounded by, and filled with the Divine Son. In this adoption, we seem to enter a relationship with God that mirrors the Trinitarian relationship of the Son with the Father, for in this adoption we receive a share in the very life of God’s Incarnate Son. So, in a way, we become not so much additional sons of God but participants in the life of the natural Son, for we breathe and cry out to the Father with the spirit of the Son within our own lungs. By Baptism, when God hears us, we sound like Jesus.
If we look to St. John, we find him expressing this same mysterious truth with his characteristic directness:
Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ…. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are…. Beloved, we are God’s children now. (1 Jn. 1:3, 3:1-2)
We are not just called children of God; we are children of God. God’s adoption of the believer is creative — it changes not just our status or our rights but our very being. It makes us genuine partakers of the divine life. Maybe this is why St. John avoids the language of adoption but speaks of the believer as being reborn. In the prologue to his Gospel he says, “To all who received him [Jesus] he gave the power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (1:12-13). Shortly thereafter, Christ Himself stresses this to Nicodemus: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew’” (3:7). St. John’s second-birth imagery amplifies the authenticity of St. Paul’s adoption language: “Sonship” is not simply a label delivered from on high but names a metamorphosis of the soul, a process that could reasonably be called a rebirth.
But let’s not get carried away. Just as we do not now experience the Beatific Vision, there is something hidden or unfinished about this new birth. As St. Paul tells the Romans:
Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (8:19, 22-23)
That is, the baptized sons of God here on earth still suffer because we are pregnant and in labor, on the brink of bringing forth a new creation: our glorified selves, who will then fully be conformed to the Son, who likewise once suffered but is now glorified. Presently, we have only the spirit of adoption — our adoption is embryonic. We have not yet been delivered.
The Meaning of Human Adoption in Light of the Divine
New Testament adoption imagery presses upon us a deeper understanding of adoption, wherein God is not merely making the best of an unforeseen and unfortunate turn of events, as though He had hoped not to have to stoop to adopting us at all. Truly, God never wanted Adam and Eve to sin, but the fact that they did sin brought with it the need for the Incarnation of God’s own Son, who would save us by incorporating us into Himself. So, without the sin of our first biological parents, we could never have the profound, albeit adoptive, sonship available to us now. Our adoption was never an improvised backup plan, merely the salvaging of some good out of a disastrous evil. Rather, it made something infinitely better than would have been otherwise. That is, adoption was always the plan. As St. Paul says at the beginning of his Letter to the Ephesians:
[The Father] has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love for adoption* through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (1:3-6; emphasis added)
This adoption has always been our calling, our destiny, our greatest good. The blessing of beatitude is possible only through God’s somehow pulling us up into His life; and by doing this through His only begotten Son, we are lifted up as adopted sons. This is part of what we sing at the Easter Vigil: “O happy fault, that has merited for us such a redeemer,” and the adoption that this Redeemer bought for us.
In light of this, if we consider our own adoption of children, we might see it as though for the first time. When a woman who, for whatever reason, cannot raise a child growing in her womb and must place her child for adoption, it is of course right and even important to admit that something heartbreaking is happening to both her and her baby. But the birth mother’s sacrifice is heroic, even super-human, precisely because it is so painful and even unnatural, and the primal wound the baby sustains at the loss of his biological parents is real.
But the destiny of the child into the arms and home of the adoptive parents is not a patchwork quick-fix. Rather, from the beginning, it was part of the subtle but beautiful divine plan: As we saw above, St. Paul says that from eternity God has “destined” this child “in love for adoption.” Likewise, the birth mother’s willingness to bring to term a child she will have to place with strangers will not go unrewarded. For she too knows that she is doing her child a great good; she too is a participant in the adoption and in a real way joins the new adoptive family. Indeed, she too is called to her own membership through adoption into the family of the sons and daughters of God, and in God’s plan she will be reunited with that child once again.
So maybe we Christians should meditate on the profound symbolism of adoption and not be held back from it by the “fleshly” fear that a lack of biological connection might prevent a real family from existing. The need for my child to bear my genes, or those of my spouse, is a bit self-absorbed and a bit too reminiscent of the Jewish focus on bloodline. We who hope for adoption into the life of God should be cautious about being unwilling to consider doing our own adopting as well. If God has taught us anything about adoption, it is that blood relationship is overrated; natural relations are less important than ones that exceed nature, especially ones that mirror supernatural relations. As Christ said, “Whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mt. 12:50).
Any experienced mother can tell you that carrying a child to term, as tough as it is, is not as pivotal to being a parent as are the years of rearing that come after. The adopted child, therefore, is not merely declared a child of the adoptive parents by a legal contrivance but becomes a child of the adoptive parents. Christian adoption is a foreshadowing of divine adoption, wherein God the Father draws those not naturally His sons into both the status and reality of the sonship of His natural Son, Jesus. Just as St. John could say, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are,” we too can say, See the love present in human adoption, that we can now call these children our own; for so they are.
* Strangely, the Revised Standard Version translates “adoption” (huiothesis) as “sonship.”
©2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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