Adoption (in the Bible)

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The legal action by which a minor is made the equivalent of a child born in a family and given corresponding inheritance rights. Adoption was practiced in the ancient Near Eastern civilizations of the second millennium, and traces of the custom can be found in the Bible, especially in the stories of the patriarchs. For example, Abraham's expectation that Eliezer would be his heir (Gn 15.23) seems to reflect the practice of the Hurrians preserved in the Nuzu (Nuzi) documents. From these texts it appears that even a slave could be made an heir when there was no son. Such a person would be considered an adopted child. The action of Sara in giving her servant girl hagar to Abraham as a concubine in order that Sarah might accept the child born of this union as her own (Gn 16.25) is a case of adoption paralleled in the Nuzu texts. The same is true of the story of the birth of Jacob's sons, Dan and Nephthali, whom Bala, Rachel's maid, bore on her mistress's "knees" (Gn 30.38), and of the account of Israel's action in regard to Joseph's sons (Gn 48.520); the sons of Machir (the son of Manasseh) also "were born on Joseph's knees" (Gn 50.23). These parallels to the Hurrian practice reflect the ancient Near Eastern background of the patriarchal narratives and are not surprising since haran, a patriarchal center, was part of the Hurrian territory. However, it would seem that these practices of adoption were not made part of the Israelite legal traditions, since there is no trace of them in the biblical law codes. Other examples of adoption in the Old Testament are the cases of Moses (Ex 2.10), Genubath (1 Kgs 11.20), and Esther (Est 2.7, 15); these, however, took place in foreign lands and do not necessarily reflect Israelite practice.

Another instance of adoption customs that appears in the Bible is the relationship of the king to Yahweh, expressed by the formula of Ps 2.7, "You are my son; this day I have begotten you," which, in turn, is based on Nathan's oracle to David (2 Sm 7.816). Since the king represented the people, the people as a whole share in the adoption. This is not a new idea in Israel, for in the Exodus from Egypt God had already entered into a father-son relationship with the people (Ex 4.22; Dt 32.6). The use of the metaphor of Yahweh as father to Israel is expressed in many other texts (Is 63.16; Jer 3.19; 31.9; Os 11.1; etc.).

This concept reached its full flowering only in the New Testament. There Our Lord taught His disciples to address God as their Father (Mt 6.9; Lk 11.2). Similar references are found in the Gospel of St. John (Jn 20.17), and St. Paul refers to the Christian adoption as sons of God as the result of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8.15, 23; Gal 4.5; Eph 1.5).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman, (New York 1963) 3637. r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. hchugh (New York 1961) 5152. e. a. speiser, Genesis (Anchor Bible 1; Garden City, N.Y. 1964) 112, 120121, 230. r. t. o'callaghan, Aram Naharaim (Analecta orientalia 26; Rome 1948) 7374. r. j. tournay, "Nouzi," Dictionnaire de la Bible (Paris 1928) 6:646674. s. o. mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel's Worship, tr. d. r. ap-thomas (Nashville 1962) 5458.

[s. m. polan]