In this edition of my series on the contemporary practice of adoption, I’d like to discuss narratives from the Bible that are pertinent to our discussion. We will discuss the examples of Moses’s being raised in Pharaoh’s household, Hannah’s praying for a child, and Esther’s being raised by her older cousin. These particular narratives from the Bible are of interest to our evaluation of the contemporary practice of adoption in one way or another. In addition, we will look at some New Testament injunctions related to widows, given the connection between the needs of widows and orphans. We will begin with Moses and his “adoption” into the household of Pharaoh.
The compelling drama of the Exodus of the Israelites in bondage to the Egyptians begins with an order by a new Pharaoh for midwives to kill all Israelite male children so that the nation of Israel would be cut off. Moses’s mother covertly slips him as an infant into a basket and sends the basket down the river while sending Miriam to see what happens. Pharaoh’s daughter is bathing in the river and discovers the infant Moses, and has compassion on him. She then determines that she will rescue the helpless child, knowing that he will die if she doesn’t, and she raises Moses as her own. This story is used by some advocates of the contemporary practice of adoption as an example of how God used adoption to advance His Kingdom. I believe that the example of Moses is relevant to our discussion on adoption, since this is a case of a child being taken in and raised by someone who is not a relative.
Does the example of Moses provide scriptural support for the contemporary practice of adoption? I believe that the answer is no because the example of Moses diverges from the contemporary practice of adoption in several ways. First, it is clear that Pharaoh’s daughter, in taking Moses in as her son, is acting out of a commendable sense of love and pity in response to dire circumstances. To the best of her knowledge, Pharaoh’s daughter knew that if she did nothing, this baby that she encountered would die. Her intervention is a commendable act of love and compassion. In the providence of God, she happens upon the infant Moses in the river while bathing. This differs significantly from the contemporary practice of adoption in which whites in general and white Christians in particular intentionally seek out orphans from different countries and races. Pharaoh’s daughter demonstrates genuine charity given the extraordinary nature of her situation. To infer a responsibility for the Church or individual Christians to scour the world in search of orphans from the example of Moses is a stretch, to say the least. This is especially true when we consider that the Mosaic Law specifically required the Israelites to care for the orphans within their own territory, and to do so while honoring the laws of inheritance.
Furthermore, while Pharaoh’s daughter lovingly raises Moses as a son (Ex. 2:10; Acts 7:21), the Scriptures are clear that Moses was only her reputed and not actual son (Heb. 11:24). Throughout his time in Pharaoh’s household, he remained an Israelite, and his biological family is still his true or proper family. Moses is identified as a descendant of Amram and Jochebed and brother to Aaron and Miriam (Num. 26:59) in spite of being raised in Pharaoh’s household.1 Moses is also listed in the genealogies of Levi amongst the tribes of Israel (Ex. 6:16-20; Num. 3:15-27; 26:58-59; 1 Chron. 6:1-3; cf. 23:13). From this information we can safely conclude that Moses’s adoption into Pharaoh’s household does not erase his tribal or national identity or change his proper familial identity. While there shouldn’t be any doubt that Moses retained his national, tribal, and familial identity even though he was raised apart from his family, there is also no doubt that what Pharaoh’s daughter did was honorable and genuinely compassionate.
Certainly Pharaoh’s daughter ought to be praised for her courageous act of saving a helpless baby. There is no hint from the narrative that Pharaoh’s daughter was motivated by guilt for being an Egyptian or a desire to raise a child racially different from herself; instead her motives are presented as being entirely noble. I would personally like to believe that she was allowed to follow the Israelites during their Exodus and take up residence among them as per the provisions of Deuteronomy 23:7-8. We are not told of what becomes of her, but her conduct is no doubt most praiseworthy. Still, we ought to take away that for all intents of the Law, a man’s family was his hereditary or biological family, even when he is generously taken in by strangers under unique and dire circumstances.
Hannah and Samuel
The story of Hannah presents a poignant example of childlessness and the pain and grief that can often accompany these circumstances. According to 1 Samuel 1-2, Hannah is married to a man who also has another wife named Peninnah. We are told that Peninnah has children while Hannah is barren. Penninah is called an adversary of Hannah, and evidently provokes Hannah due to her barrenness (1:6-7). Hannah prays fervently for a son, promising God that if she would conceive a son, he would be a consecrated Nazirite from birth (1:11). God hears Hannah’s prayer and grants her request. She conceives and delivers Samuel, who was to be one of Israel’s most famous judges, instituting the monarchy through his anointment of Saul and later David as king. After her womb is opened by the Lord, Hannah gives birth to three sons and two daughters, and Hannah commits Samuel to the Lord’s service as she had promised. The story of Hannah’s prayer for a son presents many points worth pondering for our current discussion.
The pangs of childlessness are unfortunately all too common in our modern world. There are many plausible explanations for this, but for the purposes of our discussion I am content to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and call attention to the fact we are told in this narrative that God had shut up Hannah’s womb.2 Whatever the causes of infertility are in particular circumstances, God is ultimately sovereign over when women conceive. Hannah deeply wants to bear a son to her husband, and her desire is certainly natural and admirable. Hannah’s response is worthy of our consideration. She prays most fervently. Yet in my own personal experience, Christian couples are encouraged or sometimes even instructed to believe that temporary fertility issues are a sure sign that God wants them to adopt. Without a doubt, many of these couples have “prayed” about what they should do, but in many cases the result is predetermined in their mind. Their pastor’s misapplication of certain biblical passages, coupled with the pressure of the spirit of the age, leads many couples to adoption when they encounter fertility issues (or in many cases irrespective of fertility). There seems to be the expectation that children are a right that married couples have come to expect.
This is not the attitude that Hannah assumes in her prayers to God. Hannah understands that having a son means more than simply having a child to raise or nurture; it means that she will get pregnant by her husband and bear his children. Hannah takes the opposite approach of the modern church. The modern church incessantly seeks opportunities to adopt children from foreign lands, whereas Hannah considers no alternative to conceiving her own children from her own husband – and this is despite the presence of many orphans in the land, as indicated by the various laws commanding Israel to care for their orphans. By praying for a son, Hannah demonstrates that her priorities accord with biblical teachings on the blessings of children, as well as bearing covenant children as a means of taking dominion (Ps. 127:3-5; Gen. 1:28). This contrasts with the modern church’s inordinate fixation on the welfare of foreigners even to the neglect of their own people, even as they justify this by appealing to the very Scriptures enjoining care for orphans that, as we can see, clearly did not spur Hannah to seek an adoptive child. This doesn’t mean that raising children besides our own biological children is never permissible or commendable, however, as the example of Esther and Mordecai will demonstrate.
Esther and Mordecai
The final narrative that we will consider as pertinent to the modern practice of adoption is the case of Esther. We are introduced to Mordecai, an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin who brings up his younger cousin Esther or Hadassah (in Hebrew) because her mother and father had died, raising her as his own daughter (Esther 2:5-7). The narrative presents this as the natural solution to the unfortunate reality of children without parents to raise them. It is natural for children to be raised by close relatives in the absence of their parents due to death or other unfortunate circumstances. This lessens the emotional and psychological turmoil that can sometimes accompany the tragedy of the loss of parents. Ideally, a child can be raised amongst the same extended family members, in the same community, and with the same culture that he would have experienced if the child had never lost his parents.
The Bible provides us with a distinct, sanctified example of a man raising a younger cousin in the stead of her parents. Conversely, there is no indication that the righteous would raise children from around the world as a normal course of extending charity to them. This is precisely what we would expect given the previous discussions delimiting the permissible practice of adoption. Since adoption is intended to approximate the ordinary parent-child relation, and since heredity is ideal in the family (as any adopted child would attest in his desire to “reconnect” with his “real” parents), it stands to reason that the adoption of orphans would be generally limited to those in one’s extended family or tribe. Concerns for inheritance bear this out as well, as was previously discussed. Consequently, the example of Esther harmonizes with and confirms the foregoing discussions on the principles governing adoption.
Injunctions to Care for Widows
As was mentioned previously, the care for orphans is intimately connected with the care for widows. To this end, we should take note of how the Apostle Paul deals with the issue of the care for widows in his pastoral epistle to Timothy. St. Paul states, “If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed” (1 Tim. 5:16). This statement comes right on the heels of Paul’s statement that a man should provide for his own, and especially those of his own house in verse 8. The context indicates that the provision that all Christians are required to render includes our own widows.
When Paul states that a man should relieve his own widows, he obviously is not talking about a man’s own wife, since she could not by definition be a widow while he is still alive. This must refer to widows amongst his extended family relations. Only in the absence of a competent family member should the local church be charged with the care of widows. As witness to this interpretation, John Gill comments upon verse 16:
If any man or woman that believeth have widows, That is, if any member of a church, whether a brother or a sister, have mothers or grandmothers, or any near relations widows, in mean circumstances, and incapable of taking care of themselves:
let them relieve them; out of their own substance; which is what the apostle before calls showing piety at home, and requiting their own parents:
and let not the church be charged; or burdened with the maintenance of them:
that it may relieve them that are widows indeed; that the church may be in a better capacity, its stock not being expended on others, to supply the wants of those who are really widows; who have neither husbands, nor children, nor any relations, to provide for them; nor anything in the world to support themselves with.
Paul considers the local church to be responsible for “widows indeed,” i.e. widows without any near family to care for them, only in the absence of any familial support for the widows, as their extended families were presumed responsible to care for them. In the absence of any family, the local church was then responsible. The fact that this is necessarily limited to the local church is evident based upon the impossibility of a universal burden for any individual Christian or congregation to care for all widows in the world.
This is further confirmed by the formation of the diaconate in the early church for the care of specific widows. We are told that the Grecians complained against the Hebrews that their widows were neglected in the daily ministrations (Acts 6:1). As a result, the Apostles formed the ministry of deacons to address these charitable needs in the church. The fact that the Grecians considered Grecian widows to be their widows, as opposed to Christian widows in general, speaks to how the apostolic church considered concentric loyalties and responsibilities. The Apostles do not rebuke the Grecians for their particular loyalty to their own widows by telling them that their concern should be equally devoted to the needs of all Christian widows. Instead, the concerns of these Grecians are affirmed, and the problem is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
The connection of the care for widows to the care for orphans is plain and evident, since both widows and orphans are grouped together in prescriptive verses that have already been presented. Just as Christians have a natural responsibility for their widows as a subset of all widows in the world, this same responsibility exists for our own orphans. This is how it is possible for us to fulfill what St. James commands in his epistle when he states that pure religion is to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction (1:27). This visitation that James mentions itself assumes the geographic nearness of the orphans and widows to be visited, and thus can only loosely be linked to ministries aimed principally at aiding foreigners.3 To visit all widows and orphans in the world is impossible, so we must prioritize our own widows and orphans, just as the Grecians prioritized their widows in Acts 6. Mordecai’s raising and caring for his orphaned cousin Esther is a perfect example of this principle in action.
The passages considered here are relevant to any discussion of the contemporary practice of adoption, and they comport well with what the Bible commands in terms of care for orphans. In Mordecai and Esther, we see an example of a righteous man caring for his younger orphaned cousin. In Hannah, we see a powerful example that contrasts with modern Christian teaching on childlessness. Instead of interpreting her barrenness as a clear sign that she was to adopt and raise someone else’s child, she instead prays fervently for a child of her own, never considering what we call adoption as a practical alternative to bearing her own children. Modern Christians that struggle with barrenness or childlessness would do well to follow Hannah’s example.
Finally, there is the example of Moses’s upbringing in Pharaoh’s household by Pharaoh’s daughter. While Pharaoh’s daughter is certainly to be commended for meeting the needs of an infant in desperate circumstances, the Bible is clear that Moses was still considered to be a member of his biological family, tribe, and nation. Being raised in Pharaoh’s household didn’t make Moses an actual Egyptian or a member of Pharaoh’s actual family. This doesn’t delegitimize the close relationship that Moses likely maintained with his foster mother throughout his life, but it does reaffirm the propriety and primacy of the family as rooted in hereditary lineage.
It should be clear from our study of biblical teaching on adoption, as well as the care for widows and orphans, that the modern practice of adoption does not conform to what the Bible teaches. The modern practice of adoption is recent, having only been largely popularized since the Second World War. Since the modern practice of adoption does not conform to biblical teaching, it should not surprise us to discover that the modern practice of adoption also does not conform to historic Christian practice. In the final essay on the issue of adoption, we will discuss the various traditional Christian solutions in caring for orphans.
- There are several additional passages in which Moses is identified as the brother of Aaron. ↩
- A New Testament parallel to Hannah’s barren womb giving birth to a great prophet as an answer to prayer is Elizabeth giving birth to John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25, 57-80). ↩
- In fact a universal responsibility to adopt (or at least care for) all the world’s orphans and widows is exactly the logical conclusion of what Kevin Swanson advocates in this video. ↩