mother with son

Adoption in Ancient Israel

With Tim Harmon

Adoption is a doctrine that both warms our hearts and also informs our minds. Because of adoption, we as believers can experience the warmth that attends knowing God as our Heavenly Father. Further, the doctrine of adoption explains how those with no right to be called God’s “children” or “heirs” can now claim these titles.

When considering this doctrine, our first inclination may be to turn to Paul’s letters (Rom. 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal. 4:5-7; Eph. 1:5). However, as with so many New Testament doctrines, exploring the Old Testament background of adoption helps to enrich our understanding of it.

Adoption in the Ancient Near East

There appear to have been two main reasons for adoption in the Ancient Near East:

  • To provide a child to a childless couple. In these cases, a younger child would be adopted. Such an option was attractive, considering that childlessness was considered to be a blemish on a marriage.
  • To assist the adopting parents in their old age, and to perform their funerary rites once they died. In such cases, the adoptee was often an adult, and the adopting parents were not necessarily childless. In return for performing the prescribed duties, the adoptee was often promised a portion of the adopting parents’ estate.

Adoption could lead to being established as an heir of the estate of the parents, but this was not a certainty. If the adoptee was a slave, his or her share could have been limited to becoming a free man or woman upon the death of the adoptive parents.

While adoption contracts were diverse, and not always even placed in writing, a common feature involved the responsibility of the adoptee to honor the parents by way of providing them with food, clothing and oil.

In a number of tablets we see the use of verba solemnia (solemn declaration), publically identifying the child with the adopter:

  • By the adoptee, with the words, “You are my father, and you are my mother.”
  • By the adopter, with the words, “You are my son.”

Adoption tablets further show the verba solemnia to be a possible means of breaking the agreement:

  • By the adoptee, with the words, “You are not my father, and you are not my mother.”
  • By the adopter, with the words, “You are not my son.”

Adoption in the Old Testament

There are three relatively clear references to human adoption in the Hebrew Scriptures:

  • In Exodus 2:10, Moses was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, receiving all the rights, privileges and duties of a biological son, being educated as a prince.
  • In 1 Kings 11:20, Genubath was brought up by the queen, and was said to be among the sons of Pharaoh.
  • In Esther 2:7,15, Esther was adopted by her uncle Mordecai after her parents had died.

There are some additional texts that seem to hint at adoption:

  • In Genesis 16:2, Sarai gives her husband her female slave, so that “it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” This seems to indicate the possibility of Sarai adopting these children and regarding them as her own.
  • In Judges 11:1-2, Jephthah is described as being the son of Gilead and a harlot, who was driven out of his hometown by his half brothers so as to deny his inheritance. To gain an inheritance, his father would have needed to adopt him.

Though explicit Old Testament references to adoption are relatively few, it is likely that adoptions were common in Israel. One possible reason for the practice would have been to provide an heir to the adoptive parents’ estate. This person would inherit the wealth of the family, and also continue the name of the deceased (Gen. 15:3).

Israel as an Adopted People

Along with the above instances of individuals being taken into human families, the Old Testament refers to Israel as having been brought into God’s family. In Scripture, Israel is referred to as the son of God (Hos. 11:1), by election and adoption (Deut. 14:2).

In referring to this, we find the use of verba solemnia terminology that is reminiscent of Ancient Near East adoption tablets:

  • “I will take you for my people, and I will be your God” (Ex. 6:7).
  • “And I will be your God and you will be my people” (Lev. 26:12; Jer. 7:23).
  • “And you will be my people and I will be your God” (Jer. 11:4; 30:22; Ezek. 36:28).

Hosea 1:9, is an example of this formula being negated, with God declaring that the Israelites are not His people, and that He is not their God. However, just a chapter later, God points to a restoration of Israel as His people: “You are my people, and he will say: My God!” (Hos. 2:23).

It is this last passage that Paul picks up on in Romans 9:25-26. There, Paul uses the restoration described in Hosea to illustrate the amazing mercy displayed by God in His choosing to bring Gentiles into His family.

Indeed, God’s choice to adopt both Jews and Gentiles never was about merit, but about mercy (Rom. 11:30-32). This is what makes God’s adoptive love so spectacular – that He does not choose to adopt those who deserve inclusion in His family, but rather those who deserve to be excluded from it. By God’s mercy, wretched paupers are made royal heirs together with Christ. By God’s mercy, wayward sinners are embraced as righteous sons. By God’s mercy, those whose birth father was the devil can now call God their Father.





About Jan Verbruggen

Dr. Jan Verbruggen is a Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He originally came from Belgium, where he taught for 6 years at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Heverlee and ministered as a pastor for 3 years. He has published a number of articles in Dutch at various magazines and journals in the Netherlands and Belgium. Jan Verbruggen serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church, Portland Oregon. His most recent publication is "Deuteronomium" (commentary on Deuteronomy in Dutch), Groen, Heerenveen, 2008.