The long-awaited call came one afternoon in November 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 viewed as somewhat strange. After all, God’s Plan A is that we have a family of biological children, while adoption is reserved for those who are unable to conceive (or at least already have a child or two), is it not…?
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). This, we realised, was because our culture views adoption with a certain lens: one shaped by infertility, compromise, and, most prominently, the narrative of ‘Plan B’.
This, we realised, was because our culture views adoption with a certain lens: one shaped by infertility, compromise, and, most prominently, the narrative of ‘Plan B’.
I started praying for this boy as a 21-year-old single woman. When I met my husband, Johann, his openness to adoption was one of the deal breakers when I was considering whether I would go into a relationship him. His 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 26th 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 that. The moment I held him, he was my own. Years of praying over him, prophesying over him, dreaming and fighting for him, all came down to that moment. I could not take my eyes off him. His smell was immediately familiar, and I loved him like he was my own body.
When it comes to the Old Testament, there is no real paper trail for adoption. You may find it interesting to know that there is not even a Hebrew word for adoption. This is because this was not an Israeli practice and the Torah contains no description or rules about it. Childless marriages were remedied by polygamy or concubines, and orphans and widows were cared for by the community. While some possible examples of adoption can be identified in the Old Testament, they mostly function as legitimisations or the transfer of inheritance from one generation to another (see Genesis 48:5-6). The closest examples to adoption in the Old Testament would probably be Pharaoh’s daughter taking Moses as her own (see Exodus 2:10; cf. Acts 7:21) and Mordecai taking Esther into his care (see Esther 2:7; Braaten 2000).
It is only in the New Testament that adoption makes its grand entrance in Paul’s letters. Paul uses the Greek word υἱοθεσία, which literally translates as ‘placing as a son’ to describe the acceptance into the family of God (see Romans 8:15, 23; Ephesians 1:5). Profoundly, Paul saw Israel as the first ones to be adopted by God (see Romans 9:4).
As we have established, adoption does not have Jewish roots. It is actually 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 who did not have 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 his own (the adoption of women was very scarce). Adoption was absolutely set up to be in the interest of the father and, while the new son benefitted from the arrangement, this was not the main aim. In the case where the adopted son came from an existing family, the biological father had the right to give his son away for adoption. The process of adoption was expensive – therefore reserved for the elite – and quality assurance was of the utmost importance.
Since adoption was seen as an investment, the chosen son would usually be the oldest one with the most impressive abilities and healthiest bodily condition (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.
When Paul uses adoption language to describe our entrance into the household of God, he actually 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 (see Romans 3:10-12).
Among the two options for adoption, adopting a slave was the most common. Paul draws on this when he juxtaposes the identities of sons and slaves (see Galations 4:4-7; Romans 8:14-17). Here, Paul is using typical adoption language, arguing that we were delivered from the slave masters of sin and death (see Romans 6), the flesh and law (Romans 7; Galations 4:5), and elementary spirits (see Galations 4:3; Braaten 2000). You see, 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. The Father 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 in the eyes of the Father, urging people to ‘claim’ their sonship as worthy children of God. While our adoption as sons does bestow a value on us, sonship is not about us at all – it is about Him: his love, mercy, kindness, selflessness, honour and power. We were not only useless, we were his enemies (see Romans 5:10) – yet, God, ‘being rich in mercy, because of his great love’ (see Ephesians 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, blood was not necessarily thicker than water. In other words, a biological child’s status as son 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!), resulting in biological children never truly being secure. 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. Some adoptions were done for political reasons. Many of the emperors (including Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Antonius, Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Hadrian and Trajan) were adopted. The reason for this was that their predecessors did not have eligible sons to take over the throne from them. These adopted sons would have a security that a biological one did not have: a secure sonship and guaranteed inheritance.
Like many of us, I used to find myself more drawn to John’s (see John 1:13; 3:3-8; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 5:4, 5:18) and Peter’s (see 1 Peter 1:3, 1:23) use of birth imagery to describe our glorious entry into God’s family. I guess when we hold a view that childbirth is Plan A and adoption Plan B, we tend to miss the beauty and extravagance of Paul’s metaphor.
There was nothing inferior about our son’s entrance into the van Deventer family – he is our first born, chosen, sought-out, desired for almost a decade before his homecoming and celebrated as our Plan A by our families (van Deventer, de Milander and JoshGen). Likewise, 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.
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.