To gain a better understanding of Paul’s reference to adoption in the New Testament, it will be useful to look more closely at adoption as it was practiced in the culture of His day.
A. CULTURAL BACKGROUND
- JEWISH AND MIDDLE EASTERN CULTURES
Many of the eastern cultures practiced adoption in one form or another. Ancient historical texts reveal that the Babylonians, Nuzi, Ugarit and other peoples who were contemporaries of the Israelites all practiced adoption.
The actual Hebrew term for “adoption” does not appear in the Old Testament. However, the concept of a child receiving the privileges, name and advantages of another’s family is seen in several Old Testament passages:
- Abram proposing to adopt his family’s servant as his heir (Gen 15:1-4)
- Abram and Sarai being willing to adopt the child of Hagar as Abram’s heir (Gen 16:1-3)
- The adoption of the two sons of Joseph as Jacob’s own sons (Gen 48:5)
- Moses’ adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex 2:10)
- Gerubath being raised in Pharaoh’s court as one of his sons (1Ki 11:19,20)
- Esther’s adoption by Mordecai (Esther 2:7,15)
The idea of adoption is also present in Israelite literature (see Proverbs 17:2; 29:21). These references may refer to the adoption of slaves into a free household. Also, this type of adoption may have provided the way for the child born of a free father and a slave mother to inherit property (Gen 21:1-10; 30:1-13).
ADOPTED BY GOD
But the most profound and important picture of adoption in the Old Testament is that of God adopting Israel as His child.
The people of Israel are referred to as God’s sons or children when they were redeemed from their slavery in Egypt (Ex 4:22; 14:2; 32:5,18-20). Even when God entered into judgment and pronounced His displeasure with Israel, He still called Israel His son (Isa 1:2,4; Jer 3:19; Hos 1:10, 11:1-2).
The concept of adoption is very present in the Old Testament. Thus it was also very present in the culture and religious training of the Jewish people, including during the lifetime of Paul the apostle.
- ROMAN AND GREEK CULTURES
Clearly, Paul’s explanation of spiritual adoption includes the ideas and pictures of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. But Paul was also raised in, and exposed to, the dominant Roman culture of his day. And it was the Romans who fully developed the cultural practice of adoption. This practice served both as a practical civic function and as a legal institution.
Thus when Paul explains our spiritual adoption, he combines the rich imagery and concepts of both cultures by drawing on:
- the history of the Jewish people, and
- the adoption laws and practices of the Roman culture in which Paul was raised.
Keep in mind that studying these two cultural traditions will help us to understand the concepts Paul wrote of regarding spiritual adoption.
In a typical Roman family, the father was the absolute head and ruler. All persons related by blood in that family were under his complete authority. This was also true of all those who had been added to the family through legal adoption.