Many people don’t know this but I minored in the philosophy of religions and continue to be fascinated by the differences yet incredible similarities within many religions. What I am most fascinated about is that "adoption" has deep roots within religion.
As an example, I have outlined different religious perspectives regarding the topic of adoption. As someone who is currently unaffiliated with a church or synagogue or mosque, I am hoping you won’t mind the "academic discussion" of how various religions have taught us about adoption.
In Christianity, we become, by adoption, children of God. The lineage of Jesus is fulfilled through Joseph. Joseph is fully and completely Jesus’ father–participating in his naming, protecting him from danger by traveling to Egypt, teaching him a trade and presenting him at the temple. The significance of this permanent promise relationship was not lost on the apostle Paul. In the time that Paul was using the adoption analogy in his writings, his likening of the Christian faith to “adoption as sons” made sense to his contemporaries. Interestingly, according to a Roman-Syrian law-book, a man might be able to disown his biological son if he had good reason, but he could never disown his adopted son. The adoption analogy used by Paul was a strong one indeed. This is not to say that children adopted into families today have a greater standing than children born into a family. But rather clarify any misconception that somehow adopted children are second-best, or not really members of the family.
In Islam, the word for “adoption” is called kafâla, which literally means sponsorship, and comes from the root word meaning "to feed." It is the promise to undertake without payment the care, education and protection of a minor, in the same way as a father would do for his son. The importance of taking homeless children to care for them is well established in Islam. The most famous orphan in Islamic culture is, without doubt, the Prophet Muhammad. His father died before he was born and by the time he was eight he had lost both his mother and the grandfather who named him. His Uncle, who continued to be his protector, until his own death, subsequently raised him. Muhammad himself can be considered an adoptive father as his wife gave him a slave named Zaid, and Muhammad freed the boy and raised him as if he were his own son.
In Judaism, the Talmud, which is the most significant collection of the Jewish oral tradition interpreting the Torah, says that he who raises someone else’s child is regarded as if he had actually brought him into the world physically. "Whoever brings up an orphan in his home, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had begotten him."
For those who do not give birth, raising adoptive children satisfies the Jewish obligation to be fruitful and multiply. The child may be formally named as the child of the adoptive parents, he owes the adoptive parents the same duty of respect as he would a birth parent, and observes formal mourning for the adoptive parents when they die. In all ways, the adoptive parents are to the child as any birth parent would be.
Within the Bible there are a number of stories of children who were taken care of, loved, and raised by other families, as their own child. Not all were cases of providing for orphans, although the Bible states that God specifically calls his people to care for orphans. Some were occasions of placing a child in adoption for a specific purpose, but all were cases of providing for the well being of the child.
I love the stories of all religions because you don’t need to believe in God or the Bible to discuss and analyze its stories. I believe we can be inspired by these writings in the same ways that we can be inspired by the works of Shakespeare.
Here are two Bible stories that touch about adoption even informally that I fondly remember from childhood:
Pharaoh’s Daughter and Moses
Moses was born to Israelite parents, Amram and Jocheved, at a time when all baby boys were being killed by an edict of Pharaoh. As the result of a plan by Jocheved to save Moses’ life, Pharaoh’s daughter took Moses from the river at three months of age. She recognized his heritage and knew that his birth parents had placed him in the river to save his life. Pharaoh’s daughter gave the baby to Jocheved to be nursed, probably until about age five. At that time, “she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son.” However, we read that,
Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.
The book of Exodus describes Moses’ subsequent forty years with his in-laws, his meeting with his birth brother Aaron, and his return to his birth family. Moses’ adoption enabled him to have influence with Pharaoh yet identify with God’s people, not only because of his genetic ancestry but also because of his faith. Moses did not so much reject his adoptive family as he did their sinful and unrepentant ways as a nation. We can summarize Moses’ adoption by seeing it in the context of two loving mothers whose first concern was a child–Jocheved, who parted with her child knowing that his life was at stake if he remained with her; and Pharaoh’s daughter, who felt compassion on a child she knew by edict was to be killed and because she wished to be a mother. These two women saved Moses’ life and provided him with a safe and secure childhood. Jocheved’s decision is a great example of a birth mother’s love for her child. Her example sets straight the misconception that birth parents don’t love their children. Her love for Moses prompted her to make the adoption plan.
Mordecai and Esther is a special Biblical story to share as two weeks from today Jews around the world will celebrate the Holiday of Purim, which tells the story of Esther, an orphan, who was adopted by her cousin Mordecai. The story of Mordecai and Esther is a beautiful example of respect and care between a father and daughter. We see simultaneously his love and concern for her—
Every day he walked back and forth near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her.” Her respect and obedience toward him–“but Esther had kept secret her family background and nationality just as Mordecai had told her to do, for she continued to follow Mordecai’s instructions as she had done when he was bringing her up.
Their cooperation while Esther was in the king’s favor saved the Jewish nation.
Connected to the story of Esther is the deeper theme of identity—what makes up who we are and how we understand and create our unique identities. While historically, adoptions and the real identities of children were often kept secret, thankfully we now all live in an era where we believe that children have the fundamental right to know who they are and where they came from. We believe that adoption is not something to hide or be ashamed of. And yet, we make choices every day about when, who, where, and how much we reveal of our family’s personal adoption story.
There are other examples of adoption stories as well including Jacob’s adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh, the story of Abram and Eliazar, and of Eli and Samuel.
Clearly adoption—both in the physical sense and in the spiritual sense—is shown in a favorable light in Scripture.
The overarching theme in the examples I have shared, as it continues to be today, is two-fold. The first and most important is that adoptions take place for the well being of the child and with his best interest at heart. And secondly adoption may be viewed as a metaphor that emphasizes the permanence of our relationships.
Images and metaphors are not just helpful in our understanding of the adoption process, but can deepen our understanding of a spiritual covenant of identity, family and love.