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.
The Roman legal adoption process was completed by a ceremony of conveyance. This ceremony took place before a Roman court of justice, where the person being adopted was transferred to the family of the adopter. This transfer had to be witnessed and attested to by another trustworthy person. Roman adoption could be carried out regardless of the age of the person being adopted.
The keys to understanding the process of adoption in Roman society are: (a)the authority of the adopting father; (b) the complete change the adoption brought into the life of the person being adopted.
Adoption included many changes for the adopted person, such as:
- All prior relationship or loyalties were severed.
- All former debts and obligations were cancelled or paid by the new family.
- The adopted person was made an heir to the father’s estate.
- The adopted person experienced a more full relationship with the adopting father and new family, which would define and shape the adopted person’s views on life, himself and the world around him.
The adopted son was also under the complete authority of his new father, which meant the new father:
- was considered the owner of all the adopted person’s possessions and life;
- had the right to discipline and guide the adopted person’s behavior;
- became accountable for the actions of the adopted person.
The act of adoption also meant that both parties were committed to supporting and helping maintain the other. The father would support and take care of the adopted person, and the adopted person would support and contribute to his new family.
Adoption clearly gave many important rights and privileges to the new heir. However, it also required the adoptee to accept his own set of duties and responsibilities.
Obedience and submission by the adopted person to his new father was justly expected. The adopted person was also not to bring shame or dishonor upon his new father and family; instead, he was to live in a way that added to the honor, influence and prestige of his father and family.