Adoption and Religion
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010
David A. Leeming, Kathryn Madden and Stanton Marlan
(1) New York, NY 10010, USA
The Bible doesn’t “speak” to us in words about adoption but conveys great insight through its stories. It teaches us by example. Adoption consists of two parts: the relinquishment of the child by the parent(s) and the adoption of the child by a new parent(s). In the Bible, the relinquishment of the child is always associated with the threat of death to the child. In the first instance, Abraham relinquishes his son Israel to G-d while expecting that it will result in his son’s death. In the next story of adoption, the mother of Moses is forced to relinquish him by placing him in the Nile River in order to save him from certain death. In the story of Esther, not part of the actual Bible itself, relinquishment comes about as a result of the death of Esther’s parents. In a related example of relinquishment in the Bible, two women appear before King Solomon claiming to be a baby’s mother and when the King threatens to kill the baby by cutting it in half, the real mother relinquishes the baby to the other woman in order to save the child’s life. In ancient classical literature this association between relinquishment of the child and death manifests itself in Sophocles’ trilogy about Oedipus. Here the relinquishment of the child Oedipus takes place with the expectation of death to the child as a consequence. The thread running through these stories is that the bond between parent and child is of such primal significance that it can be broken only as a matter of life or death. The Bible does speak to us in words about the attitude toward relinquished orphan children and so does the Qur´an. In the world of Islam, the orphaned child is treated with great love and care. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be unto him) once said that a person who cares for an orphaned child will be in Paradise with him. The Qur´an gives specific rules about the legal relationship between a child and his adoptive family. The child’s biological family is never hidden; their ties to the child are never severed. The adopted parents are like loving trustees and caretakers of someone else’s child. In the Bible there are references to orphans: the repeated attitude is that they should be treated with special consideration and that it is a blessing to those who care for them. This attitude is manifested in the stories depicting relinquished children who are delivered into loving hands. When Abraham relinquishes his son Israel, G-d immediately sends an Angel to protect Abraham’s relinquished son Israel from death and then promises such a wonderful future that all of his family (descendants) will inherit the surrounding lands which were (eventually) named Israel after him. After Moses was relinquished, he was rescued from the Nile River by Pharaoh’s loving daughter who protected him from the Pharaoh’s death decree, arranged for his biological mother to nurse him and raised him to be adopted into the Pharaoh’s family. Esther who was relinquished as a result of her parent’s death was adopted by her loving uncle Mordecai who protected her from the wrath of the Persian ruler by hiding her Jewish origins. And in the related story about the mother who relinquished her baby to King Solomon’s judgment in order to save the child’s life, King Solomon gives the baby back to his loving mother. In the Classical Greek story about Oedipus who is bound and abandoned in the wild by his parents, he is found and delivered into the loving hands of King Merope and his Queen and raised as a noble. And what is the outcome one can expect from this loving care of the adopted child – nothing less than a loving, faithful and loyal offspring.
These scriptural and classical literature stories teach us that our love and support of the adopted child will be rewarded with the love and loyalty of the child in return. In today’s times there is controversy over whether the adopted child should be aware of his adopted status. What insight is shed on this subject by these religious and classical sources? The Qur´an quite clearly spells out in words the view that the child’s awareness of his adoptive status is very necessary. The adopted child must retain his/her own biological family name (surname) and not change it to match that of his adoptive family. There can be no doubt or mystery about the adoptive status of the child. The Bible conveys the importance of this awareness again in its stories. Abraham is accepted and his son adopted into the religion of one G-D, Judaism, and this “adoption” is proclaimed to the world and fought for.
Esther is knowingly adopted by her Uncle and raised in accord with her racial and religious roots. She is loyal to her adoptive parent to the point of risking death to please him by confronting the Persian King. And later when the relinquishment of the Jews by genocide from their adoptive home in Persia is sought by the Prime Minister Haman, Esther again risks her life in loyalty to her adoptive father by proclaiming to the King her secret, that she is a Jew.
These stories also illustrate the contrasting effect on the adopted child of adoption unawareness. Moses’ adoption was trans-racial, a Hebrew child in an Egyptian family. His adopted family was the ruling class of the country while his biological roots were with the enslaved class. We are given the impression that he had no knowledge of his adoptive status growing up until he is regarded as “brethren” by the Hebrew slaves he was supervising. We can surmise that he may have had unspoken conflicts and identity confusion that couldn’t be revealed and acknowledged. Moses is portrayed as a poor communicator who struggled with rage in the Bible. At one point he explodes and kills an Egyptian overseer who was brutalizing some Hebrew slaves. The mixture of anger, fear and guilt often underlies the many reports of the high incidence of anger in adoptees. The strength of Moses’ loyalty to his adoptive family was made evident by his self-imposed exile from Egypt which lasted for as long as the Pharaoh lived.
Not knowing one’s biological roots puts one in danger of violating a fundamental human taboo against incest which the adoptee who lacks specific knowledge of his biological roots is subject to. Islam specifically addresses the issue by insisting on clear demarcation between blood relationships and non blood relationships. The Bible’s solution is exemplified in the story of Moses. In his years of self imposed exile Moses marries a non-Hebrew, thus avoiding the possibility of incest when he establishes a family of his own.
What do we learn about the road from identity confusion to identity resolution? Moses’ identity crisis is resolved and solidified by a the recognition of and reunion with and the support of his birth family. This reunion helps him accept himself as a Hebrew and as G-ds’ spokesman. In his mission to gain the relinquishment of the Hebrews from their adoptive home in Egypt, Moses repeatedly confronts the new Pharaoh of Egypt. Here too the relinquishment of the Hebrews from Egypt is only brought about after their children were threatened with death by the Pharaoh. In this story, the Pharaoh acts on his murderous feelings toward the Hebrews as he tries to prevent their separation from Egypt by ordering the death of the first born Hebrew children and later by trying to kill the Hebrews after allowing them to leave Egypt. The Pharaoh’s murderous decree against the Hebrews results in the death of his own child and the destruction of his army. We see that the suppression of the adoptees true identity results in conflict and ultimately destruction to the suppressor.
In the story of Oedipus we see the consequences of not knowing the true biological identity played out in dramatic fashion. In the story of Oedipus, his adoptive roots are not consciously known to him. He is an unknown puzzle to himself as exemplified by the problem posed to him by the sphinx: Who is man? We know that his biological parents had arranged for his relinquishment by death through abandonment. We know that out of loving loyalty to his adoptive parents he had fled them rather than risk their destruction after hearing the Oracle’s prophesy that he would kill his father. The inevitable outcome is that he kills his biological father and had an incestuous relationship with children by his biological mother. The incestuous dangers of the adoptee’s ignorance of his true biological roots is brought “to life” in this play. The play too adds to the insight that loving care of the orphan by the adoptive parents results in a loving and devoted child whereas murderous action towards the child brings about a murderous reaction. The lack of conscious knowledge of one’s adoptive and biological origins is portrayed here as causing turmoil and conflict in the life of the adoptee.
These ancient insights have also been reflected in the writings of psychoanalyst and adoption specialist Florence Clothier (1943) in “The Psychology of the Adopted Child” who wrote “… the severing of the individual from his racial antecedents lie at the core of what is peculiar to the psychology of the adopted child.” “… the ego of the adopted child … is called upon to compensate for the wound left by the loss of the biological mother. Later on this appears as an unknown void, separating the adopted child from his fellows whose blood ties bind them to the past as well as to the future.”
What are the common threads that run through these writings:
1. Adoptive parents who raise their children in a loving way will have loving children who will not destroy them with their aggression.
2. Acting out of primal hostile impulses by parents toward their children begets the acting out of primal hostile impulses towards themselves.
3. Acknowledgement of adoption can help prevent incest.
4. Knowledge of one’s true “core” is essential for mental well being.
See also: God, Oedipus Myth, Qur´an
Clothier, F. (1943). The psychology of the adopted child. Mental Hygiene, 27(7), 222–226.