By Deirdre Good
I’m always astonished that Christian folk don’t esteem adoption more highly in the context of “family values.” Adoption has been part of biblical traditions about the family for 5,000 years. Moses is thought to be the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter. Better to be an adopted Egyptian son than a birthright Hebrew slave. Paul uses the metaphor of adoption language several times in letters to describe the relationship of a new believer to God in baptism. Infused with the Spirit, new believers could make a claim on God in the cry, “Abba, Father!” In Galatians, Paul sees this claim moving a believer out of the bondage of slavery into the freedom of dependent childhood, since legally slaves could be manumitted through adoption. Jesus was adopted by Joseph, as the gospels make clear. When God declares at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased,” it’s not possible to determine whether God is announcing an existing relationship or creating a new one through a formula of adoption. Mark’s gospel appropriates language of adoption from the Psalms (Ps. 2:7) to clarify the relationship of Jesus to God at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: as elect, chosen, beloved Son.
Jesus was a common name. To distinguish Jesus from others of that name, the gospels of the New Testament sometimes show individuals identifying Jesus by a place of origin, “Jesus of Nazareth,” rather than by a father’s name. When the gospels of Matthew and Luke do get around to discussing Jesus’ parentage, the writers identify Mary as his mother but never call Joseph Jesus’ father. In fact, there’s only one father in Matthew’s gospel and that’s the Heavenly Father. Jesus teaches disciples and crowds of listeners about their relationship to the Heavenly Father in the Sermon on the Mount. This is the one the community addresses in the opening petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, the one in the heavens” (I am translating from the Greek literally). In a sense, Matthew’s community prays the prayer with Jesus as (adopted) children of the Father.
There’s intentionality about this language. It self-consciously explains the relationship of believers to God using the language of adopted children to a parent in a way that would be thought redundant were the children of biological families subjects of discussion. It is just this intentionality that makes families of choice recipients of special grace because they have to articulate rather than assume relationships between family members.
In our household, we’ve been reading How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman. Groopman intersperses riveting stories of misdiagnoses with reflections on how doctors might, with the help of their patients, go beyond training and rote answers suggested by diagnostic manuals and insurance company policies. One chapter tells the story of a fifty-year-old woman Rabbi, Rachel Stein, and her newly adopted infant daughter, Shira. Sick with a mysterious illness from the moment she arrives in the US, Shira is admitted to hospital and treated in the ICU for an unidentifiable condition diagnosed first as sinusitis, then pneumocystis pneumonia.
Rabbi Stein is plunged into the terror and anguish of a mother for her child without knowing exactly what is wrong. She never leaves her daughter’s side. On transferring the infant for a last-ditch, potentially lethal, invasive treatment, a nurse detaches her from the pure-oxygen respirator and begins manual respiration through an ambu bag forcing air into Shira’s lungs.
Suddenly, the level of Shira’s blood oxygen increases. Watching this first sign of life, a verse from Psalm 27 comes into Rachel’s mind, “Hope in God. Strength and courage will be in your heart.” Rachel realizes with all doctors and nurses that every clinical event has a core of uncertainty and that no outcome is predictable. She learns all she can about tests given to her daughter and the preliminary diagnosis of her condition, severe combined immunodeficiency disorder (SCID). But she wonders about it. She asks Groopman in the ICU, “What could cause a baby to have so many infections other than AIDS or SCID?” Groopman evades the question but Rachel expresses growing certainty that Shira has a nutritional problem causing her immune system not to function. After 33 intense days in the ICU, with Rachel singing and praying fervently, Shira breathes on her own. She begins to recover. Before consenting to further invasive and risky treatment options, and against all doctors’ recommendations, Rachel insists that Shira’s blood be retested. This time, the results come back normal. When Groopman and Rachel reflect together later on the harrowing story, Groopman analyses what made Rachel so tenacious: her faith gave her the courage to recognize uncertainty, both her own and the physicians’, and thus she contributed to the search for solutions.
Groopman doesn’t discuss the extraordinary bond between newly connected mother and child but he articulates it: “Rachel observed Shira’s every move. There was an alertness to her eyes and a deep hunger to encounter the world. So, to satisfy this imagined need, Rachel sang and talked to Shira about the wonders of God’s creation.”
Rachel didn’t carry Shira in her womb for nine months but her bond with her adopted daughter was immediate and strong enough to help bring her back from death’s door. As biblical tradition about adoption indicates, consanguinity alone does not define a family. To use adoption imagery (for example in a baptismal context) is to describe intentionally what the relationship is between God and the baptized and to declare what rights and responsibilities exist. How is it then that we still tend to think of adoption as second best?
Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary in New York City and author most recently of Jesus’ Family Values (Church Publishing 2006). She keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.