With little over a thousand adoptions being officiated in South Africa last year, it is no exaggeration to state that adoption is not part of the lived reality of the vast majority of believers. Yet, when it comes to Pauline soteriology (doctrine of salvation), adoption is of no marginal concern. The apostle employs it as a primary metaphor to describe our entry into God’s household. Tainted by the brokenness that often surrounds this familial practise, the true significance and beauty of Paul’s metaphor is often lost on us. For this reason, we (two mothers who have both chosen the path of adoption) thought it prudent to briefly delve into the topic. But first, our stories.
“The long-awaited call came on the afternoon of November 19 th , 2019. Our adoption profile had been chosen and we would be parents in one week! To many of our friends and family, our longing to adopt was initially somewhat misplaced. Questions regarding our fertility were thus unavoidable, and we were not able to provide closure to those who enquired. We often found it nearly impossible to translate what God had deposited in our hearts into understandable English (or Afrikaans), but perhaps I could try here: As a young believer I heard the Holy Spirit whisper that my first child would be an adopted son. I thus started praying for this boy as a 21-year- old single woman. Then I met my husband, Johann. Him sharing the desire to seek out and father beyond our own blood was the second reason I married him (the first being his love for Jesus). We brought Ezra home on the 26 th of November 2019. I don’t know what it feels like to hold a newborn after hours of labor, but what I experienced that day could not have been far from it. The moment I held him he was my own. Years of praying over him, dreaming and fighting for him, all came down to that moment. His smell was immediately familiar, and I loved him like he was my own body.” —Cornelia
“It was during my seventh pregnancy and miscarriage that God brought baby Ezekiel into our lives and from the first time he was in my arms it was as if I had given birth to him. We had both our boys from 4 months, and we were a place of safety for them. It took time for the paperwork and court cases and we could not wait until the boys were officially in our name. Through this costly process, God reminded us that he sent his son Jesus to die for us—a costly payment that we may never fully understand—so that we might be adopted into His family. The bond between us and our boys is incredibly deep and continues to grow. God has given us the privilege of seeing him work in Ezekiel and Gabriel’s little minds and hearts. We are learning about true discipleship through raising our sons. Praying often for wisdom and understanding, for love and patience and thankfulness that they are in our lives.” —Catherine
So, what does the Bible say about adoption?
When it comes to the Old Testament, there is a very thin paper trail for adoption. There is no Hebrew word the practice and that the Torah contains no description of or rules for it. Childless marriages were remedied by polygamy or concubines, and orphans and widows were cared for by the community (Selman 1996, 16). While some possible examples of adoption can be identified in the OT, they mostly function as legitimizations or the transfer of inheritance from one generation to another (e.g., Gen 48:5–6). The closest examples to adoption in the OT would probably be Pharaoh’s daughter taking Moses as her own (Exod 2:10; cf. Acts 7:21) and Mordecai taking Esther into his care (Esth 2:7) (see Braaten 2000:21).
It is only in the New Testament that adoption makes its grand entrance in Paul’s letters. Paul uses the Greek word υἱοθεσία (literally, “placing as a son”) to describe the acceptance into the family of God (Rom 8:15, 23; Gal 1:5; Eph 1:5. Profoundly, Paul saw Israel as the first ones to be adopted by God—Rom 9:4). As we have established, adoption does not have Jewish roots. It is a Roman practice that Paul draws on. This is not because the Romans were a compassionate people, but because ancient adoption was a practice meant to serve the interests of the paterfamilias (father of a household). In ancient Rome, affluent males without a son to inherit their wealth and carry along the family heritage would look for a post- pubescent slave or another man’s son to adopt as their own (the adoption of women was very scarce) (Palmer 1996, 16). The adoption was absolutely in the interest of the father and, while the new son benefitted from the arrangement, this was not the objective.
Where the adopted son came from an existing family, the biological father had the right to give his son away. The process of adoption was expensive—therefore reserved for the elite—and quality assurance was of the utmost importance. Usually, the oldest son, the one with the most impressive abilities and healthiest bodily condition was chosen (see Morris 2016). A son was adopted not because he was orphaned, but because he was needed for the honour and legacy of the new father. This means that the selection process for adoption was not done based on who was the most vulnerable but based on who was the most eligible (the best investment). When Paul uses adoption language to describe our entrance into the household of God, he does a profoundly counter-cultural thing. He makes it clear that we were not attractive, useful or necessary to the Father, but that we were unrighteous, without understanding, rebellious, worthless and unkind (Rom 3:10–12). Other than Paul’s Roman contemporaries, God did not screen us and adopt the cream of the crop for his own benefit. He scraped the bottom of the barrel and adopted us because of his great mercy and love.
While many sons we adopted from existing families, the adoption of slaves was the more common practice. Paul draws on this when he juxtaposes the identities of sons and slaves (Gal 4:4–7; Rom 8:14–17). Here, Paul is using typical adoption language, arguing that we were delivered from the slave masters of sin and death (Rom 6), the flesh and law (Rom 7; Gal 4:5), and elementary spirits (Gal 4:3; see Braaten 2000:22). In the first century, orphans did not go to orphanages or governmental institutions awaiting prospective parents. They were sold or given into slavery. What we thus misunderstand when we look at adoption in the Bible is that we were not orphans, belonging to no one—no, we were slaves, belonging to sin, death, our flesh, the law, and the elementary spirits. Adoption does not provide us an escape from loneliness, but an escape from slavery and destruction. Sadly, most contemporary sermons on sonship are geared to evoke a false sense of elevated identity, urging recipients to “claim” their sonship as worthy children of God. While our adoption as sons does bestow a remarkable value on us, sonship is not primarily about us—it is about Him: his love, mercy, kindness, selflessness, honour and power. We were not only useless, we were his enemies (Rom 5:10)—yet, God, “being rich in mercy, because of his great love” (Eph 2:4), chose to redeem us from slavery, call us sons and provide us with an inheritance.
Another observation is the privileges that adopted sons had in the first century. In this context, water was thicker than blood as a biological child’s sonship depended on the will (and whim) of the father. A father was perfectly entitled to disown his biological child for a variety of reasons, among which disobedience was chief (don’t get any ideas, parents!). Abandoned children mostly ended up as slaves. However, an adopted child had a permanent and safe identity within the family and could not be disowned. This is because the child was chosen and sought out by the father. While this makes little sense to the modern mind, adoption was often the plan A of the ancient world. Many of the emperors (incl. Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Antonius, Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Hadrian and Trajan) were adopted because their predecessors did not have eligible sons to take over the throne from them. These adopted sons would have security in their sonship and a guaranteed inheritance. When God adopts us, he is thus not bestowing on us a lesser identity or including us in his plan B. He is bestowing upon us something far more secure and eternal than we can imagine. We have a security in the house of the Father who willingly chose us and who will not let us go if we remain in Him.
While it is understandable that some might be more drawn to John’s (John 1:13; 3:3- 8; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18) and Peter’s (1 Pet 1:3, 23) use of birth imagery to describe our glorious entry into God’s family, the metaphor of adoption is far more beautiful and extravagant than we can imagine when we understand it in its proper context. God’s adoption of us into his family is radical and counter-cultural. It demonstrates that we were not simply lonely and rejected, but that we were enslaved, yet, we were sought out by a Father who embraces those who have nothing to offer and bestows on them his Name and an incorruptible inheritance.
Cornelia obtained her PhD in New Testament from the University of Stellenbosch in 2018. She is currently the Associate Editor of Conspectus and works for the South African Theological Seminary as a lecturer and postgraduate supervisor. Her research interests lie primarily in the Letters and Gospel of John.
Catherine Falconer completed her masters in theology at the South African Theological Seminary(SATS) in 2019. She was a missionary in various parts of Africa for more than ten years. She served in Sierra Leone with Mercy Ships and later with African Inland Mission for more than 6 years in South Sudan, in a tribal Lopit village in the mountains. During that time she studied her Bth with SATS. She has particular interests in missions and eschatology. Catherine is married to Robert and they have 2 boys named Ezekiel aged 4 and Gabriel aged 2.
For more information about SATS, visit www.sats.edu.za
The views expressed in this interview are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of SATS.
Morris, MJ 2016. ‘Adoption,’ in JD Barry et al. (eds.). The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham: Lexham Press.
Braaten, LJ 2000. ‘Adoption,’ in DN Freedman, AC Myers & AB Beck (eds.). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Palmer, FH 1996. “Adoption: In the New Testament,” in DRW Wood et al. (eds.). New Bible Dictionary. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Selman, MJ 1996. “Adoption: In the Old Testament,” in DRW Wood et al. (eds.). New Bible Dictionary. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press.