This is the 23rd question in the series: “Anti-adoption month: 30 answers to 30 questions on adoption” [link].
The following question shows up in various forms, often as a triumphant rhetorical question.
Are there not examples of adoption in the Bible? Are we not all adopted into the “family” of God as Christians?
Answer: In light of the evangelical push for adoption and its ramifications in supply countries, it becomes important to point out something on the purely linguistic level concerning languages of the Bible and their translation. First we must understand that language is not neutral; it reflects a given culture in terms of worldview and family structure. It “allows” for some thoughts and actions, and “disallows” others. In learning other languages we see the limitations of our mother tongue, and how our thoughts, actions, and very lives are shaped and conform to a given mindset that comes to us through our shared communication.
I returned to my birth country of Lebanon ten years ago, and have been researching my adoption through a Catholic charitable organization since then. Learning Arabic, and reading Qur’an in Arabic, has given me an idea of what Aramaic might have been like in a purely conceptual sense, since both of them are Semitic languages of the same region. Furthermore, Levantine Arabic differs from Standard Arabic in its use of Aramaic and Syriac words, likewise Semitic tongues that are still actively spoken. Given this greater vocabulary, I can state that the word used for the modern-day idea of “adoption” is a conceptual back formation from the English or the French since it also carries the meaning similar to the English “to start using [something]”, as in “cell phone adoption”. In order to examine the concept of adoption linguistically speaking, it will be helpful to see how it is used in both current and historical usage.
Along these lines, the word I use in Modern Standard Arabic to describe myself–mutabanna (vaguely, “en-son-ed”)—is not the same word translated in the Qur’an as “adopted”. There are in fact two words used in the Qur’an that are both usually translated into English as “adopted”. In doing so, the original cultural context is lost and modernized in one fell swoop, for the sake of convenience and not understanding. The first word so translated in this way—itakhadha—means “to take in [someone]”. From the story of Joseph (peace upon him) it reads thus: “so that we might take him in or find some use for him”, which is more like acquiring a boy servant than it is adopting a child.
Meaning in the Semitic languages is carried by consonantal roots of usually three letters, and there is resonance between the different languages. For example, the root S-H-f which is the basis of words having to do with writing in Ethiopia’s Amharic, for example, resonates in Arabic in words such as “press” and “journalist”. And so given the close link of consonantal roots among the languages of the era—reflecting shared ideas and a common lifesense—it is a far stretch to give a modern meaning to a Biblical translation which is all the more tainted by the absence of an original text. By this I mean to say that linguistically speaking, the act of translation carries forward the tropes of the language of translation, and its contexts and prejudices, not necessarily the original language; furthermore this political and economic usage is then formalized theologically speaking.
In the case of itakhadha, we can see the English use of “adoption” straying from its original meaning, coming to represent a current familial usage from a primarily object-based one, especially since we know that “adoption” conceptually within the Anglo-Saxon tradition was about indentured servitude, and not family creation. This is made obvious for me locally by the fact that the use of this word only has currency within a certain bourgeois class of the population in Lebanon, which lives closer to a globalized and globalizing Anglo-Saxon model than anything locally relevant culturally speaking. For everyone else on this “street” level I cannot say “mutabanna”, I have to state that I was an “orphan” (yatiim), or that I was “in an “orphanage” (dar al-‘aytam), and that I was “taken in” by a family overseas. The linguistic concept of “Western”, modern-day adoption is absent from the language.
The main point still holds true: The modern-day notion of adoption, as practiced in primarily “First-World”, capitalist nations, has no precursor from Biblical times that would allow the imposition of this more-current notion on Biblical readings or texts—it’s current use is a fabrication of modern-day needs and conceits. It thus becomes disturbing the lengths to which current interpreters of the Bible will go to twist the language and the stories to suit their purposes, such as a recent example found in Cruciform Press’s Reclaiming Adoption. Sadly, the precedent here is similar to the previous use of Biblical verse to justify slavery, and the divine right of kings, among other traditions and actions that we dismiss today. Nonetheless we can point to the evangelical revival of such tropes, such as slavery disgustingly recategorized as a salvational experience for slaves.
Comparatively speaking, the Qur’an becomes rather enlightening in this regard, if only because its language is unchanged and untranslated since its inception. This gives us insight into the culture and practices of the time of its writing. Readings of the Qur’an reveal that its supreme invocation concerning orphans—representing the most vulnerable members of society—is that they be taken care of, that they remain within their community, that their filiation remain intact, that the community preserve their property until they should be of age to make use of it. This is very much in line with the given social fabric of the countries of this region, despite it being stretched to the breaking point by globalization and other foreign pressures. This also reflects, interestingly enough, what is found to be most distressing to adult adoptees concerning their own adoptions, namely, removal from family and community, and absence of filiation.
This lack locally of a concept of nuclear family, or anything outside of what is a given here—extended family and communal solidarity—explains the reaction of most of those who hear my story from this perspective: They apologize that I was removed from my family, my place, my land. The term they use to express this—haram—means colloquially “that’s too bad” but literally means “that’s a shame/forbidden”. They sympathize, because historically and culturally the notion of “adoption” or “guardianship” is about the importance of place, as well as a family or group’s ties to that place. This is a welcome relief from the “you were chosen”, or “you are lucky” that most of us grew up hearing. Furthermore, it explains why these tropes of being “chosen” or “lucky” are rather misleadingly projected onto Biblical accounts, ignoring the historical context of the Book and its cultural underpinnings.
For example, in many of these modern-day accounts, there is a focus on metaphorical stories such as the Prodigal Son, which make reaching linguistic efforts to link this “son” to all of us as “God’s children”. Yet Paul, for example, equally refers to himself as a “slave of Jesus Christ (puh)”, yet this isn’t taken as literally as the “adopted” trope, for obvious reasons; no one joyfully refers to themselves as a “slave” of God. More apparent are the stories that are also cited by such proselytizers, namely those of the prophets Joseph and Moses (put) and their “adoption” by others. As usual, this is done without context, focusing only on the act itself—they are the fortunate chosen ones. But the context is much more revealing, both in the Bible as well as in the Qur’an, since their re-unification with their true families is the central focus of both stories. As such, these justifying claims have no basis whatsoever.
Furthermore, and likewise ignored by adoption revivalists, is that each and every invocation concerning the “fatherless” in the Bible also contains within the same passage a call to care for widows and others who are unable to sustain themselves. Would not a logical conclusion of this be that the expectant mother—especially if she be single, or widowed—be afforded this same zealous care and protection? As opposed to being preyed upon, condemned, and ostracized? The question remains: How do you single out the word “orphan” from that sentence from millennia ago, and then use it in its modern-day definition ignoring its context? The concept that the orphan should be removed from a given community, both literally in terms of the Bible and on the ground, only reveals the moral bankruptcy of those whose primary concern is, in fact, their own nuclear family, their own salvation that might come at the expense of others, as well as what is left unsaid in these works: the desired conversion of the heathen multitudes, a neo-colonialism writ large.
This is nowhere more clear than here in Lebanon, where the past sordid history of children trafficked from the nether regions of the country and beyond, often via missionary intrusion, is starting to come to light. By my observations into paperwork in my orphanage, I can safely say that a full 40 to 50 percent of infants circulating through its halls were from non-Christian families (including myself). Based on stories of reunion here, as well as the quite different Islamic concept of the orphanage, it is fair to say that many of the parents of these children had no idea that they would never see their infants again. Yet again missionary disdain for the religion of these children and their families is a prime motivator in their being targeted for adoption/conversion in the first place. This targeted action, based in theological precepts, defines a particular kind of hypocrisy that is equally condemned in the Holy Writs. This brings us back to the originating efforts of those such as Pearl S. Buck who saw the world through this particularly obnoxious lens of colonialism, conversion, oppression, and universalism.
Given that this same Anglo-Saxon/Calvinist culture has done nothing to alleviate poverty, racism, classism, and mono-culturalism on its own home front much less in the world at large, why should anyone believe that it truly desires to improve conditions elsewhere in the world? Given the history of the English attempts to destroy the clan-based familial structure of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, how else are we to interpret the efforts of grand-scale adoption on the foreign communities it so targets? Can we really imagine a God who would allow his “children” to wage economic and political wars on others, and then claim some state of grace in adopting their children from them? How is this different from the Romans enslaving the children of the peoples they conquered, if we want a more relevant Biblical analogy? Here we see revealed the humanitarian imperialism that is a more fitting definition of adoption historically speaking.
And they will ask thee about orphans. Say: “To improve their condition is best.” And if you share their life, they are your brethren: For God distinguishes between the spoiler and the ameliator. —The Cow, 2:219
In this ayat from the Qur’an, it might be possible to interpret support for our modern-day notion of adoption, but only if one espouses supremacist notions of certain cultures being better or more valid than others. The one translating cannot help but impose a viewpoint upon the target language, and by extension, the speakers of that language. Obviously, given the inability to read one ayat of the Qur’an out of the context of the whole, this is not a valid interpretation. Furthermore, like most invocations, it is followed by a “tempering mode” which grounds that invocation in very particular ways. In this example, the point is to make family (communally speaking) of those without, and it comes with a warning that one who “despoils” (the greater good) is negatively viewed, while one who “makes better” (this greater good) is seen in a positive light.
And so with the Bible, where it is possible to argue quite readily against adoption, since everyone that is claimed to have been “adopted”—coming back to the stories of Joseph and Moses—were, to re-iterate, adopted against the wishes of their parents; their removal and absence caused great anguish to their families; the mother of Moses and the father of Joseph are never defined as anything but the children’s true parents; the despair of loss of these parents is an elemental aspect of the story of these two men; and they did not start the true calling of their lives until they were returned to their rightful place, status, and people. This brings us to the second term used in the Qur’an that is usually translated as “adopted”—ad‘iya’a–which means “to be acknowledged or claimed by”, as a townsperson is acknowledged by his or her town or people. There is something quite tragically lost in this translation.
This is especially poignant in the Qur’anic story of Joseph, who is sold to and “taken in” by first a wealthy lord and then the king but whose destiny is to be returned to his family (note the class differential here, and the categorical rejection of the so-called “better life”). The Qur’anic story of Moses is even more pointed, when it states that Moses was “taken in” by “those who were his enemy, and the enemy of his people”. In fact, we only see the removal of someone from their family in the Qur’an as an act of self-inflicted total alienation, since the only instances of such separation are used as metaphors for the punishment of removing oneself from the community of God—meaning, the result of one’s own sin. Thus you have the son of Noah drowned, the wife of Lot left behind, the progeny of Abraham as being “on their own” in terms of their deeds and the judgment thereof, etc. The point being made that such a separation—as punishment—takes precedent over the strong familial bond implied. How, therefore, could there be a willful separation of child from parent, condoned by God at that?
Adoption revivalists need examine the contextual and linguistic nature of the Bible, and thus its link to a given culture from a given place and a given time. Furthermore, there is no innocence or objectivity in terms of supporting foreign policies of bombing, pillaging, and marauding, while simultaneously pretending to advocate for the “orphans” that result from such actions. Any examination of human trafficking in the world points a very accusatory finger and paints a very scathing picture of the majority of “First-World” nations that remain at the center of such trades and practices; this is where Biblical references might best be applied first—and then the “orphan” problem will most likely take care of itself. For such supposed saving grace is always resented by those on whom it is imposed against their will. And the reaped fruit of such crimes is just as bitter.
As adoptees, we may have been “taken in” temporarily speaking, but our “acknowledgment of belonging” continues to point somewhere else. Here lies the tragedy of our displacement, and the root of our loss via dispossession and disinheritance. To ascribe religious justification to such an act remains—no matter how you parse it—the work of the ungodly.
Man and Islam, by Ali Shari‘ati.
Justice and Remembrance, by Reza Shah-Kazemi.
Wittgenstein and Philosophy of Religion, edited by Robert L. Arrington and Mark Addis.
Black Religion and Black Radicalism, by Gayraud S. Wilmore.
Orphans of Islam, by Jamila Bargach.
Debate Tactic: There is no greater inversion than the preposterous claim of a religious basis/divine reasoning for adoption. To understand is that the particular “brand” of Christianity that allows for rapacious capitalism, slavery, individual salvation over the commonweal, as well as adoption—namely, Calvinism—is not only the basis for the dominant mode of thinking concerning “orphans”, but also as concerns the poor, the destitute, the marginalized, and the needy. To argue against adoption is thus to equally argue for those most in need. This cannot be done in a way that focuses on symptoms and not on disease. This collectively destructive notion of the individual supreme over the community has its counterparts in other faiths, and these need be similarly called out. They cannot be seen as a validation of the dominant mode of Christianity, but should be seen instead as a poisonous spreading of a nihilistic worldview, and need be condemned in equal terms. On a final note, it is intriguing that the Arabic consonant root k-f-l—meaning to feed, support, provide for—has not only come to mean “guardianship” in a foster care/adoption sense, but is also used to describe the despicable act of “taking in” or “sponsoring” a domestic slave by the local bourgeoisie. And so we come full circle yet again.