History of adoption?

Does anyone know the history of transracial adoption, going back to before there were any laws? I’m wondering what historical examples there are, especially in ancient Asia.

I’ve been thinking about Moses as a transracial adoption story, how terribly it worked out for his adoptive country. Also, how he needed a burning bush to give him purpose and confidence. The story of Moses is the first transracial adoption story I ever heard. It’s a complicated tale, and not much is said about the confusion Moses must have felt to have grown up the adopted grandson of the pharaoh, his brother set to the be next in line and Moses always aware of his differences. I wonder how he treated the Hebrew servants, better or worse than his peers. I wonder what the equivalent of Twinkie was, whether people held their tongues because of his position. Whether he wished he could be accepted as a member of the pharaoh’s family and not looked at as an adoptee. I wondered about his struggle with/inside himself.

Then once he’s grown, he goes out and sees a Hebrew being beaten by an Egyptian, and he kills the Egyptian–a fit of rage/identity?–and he realizes he is in trouble, not only for murder, but for being a Jew who murdered an Egyptian. His birth race is clear now, clear in consequence. So he runs away, wandering confused for 40 years until God appears out of nowhere and speaks to him. He returns to Egypt, bringing death.


Someone give me an example from Eastern history/myth?


6 thoughts on “History of adoption?

  1. This is a great question, and its answer, I feel, will go far to “undo” adoption as we currently understand it.

    There is a great cultural and linguistic “double bind” involved here that has been explored by David Smolin regarding misinterpretation of the Bible [ link ]. In terms of pure kismet, I also started writing along these lines in reference to the Qur’an [ link ].

    It will be easier for me to quote from the latter:

    Most telling is that 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”. One such term, translated as “your adopted sons”–ad‘iya’akum–comes from a root that means to be claimed by or advocated for, such as a townsperson is claimed by a town; they are an extension thereof, a part of a greater whole. Here we see a positive use of the term. Another word used in the Qur’an (itakhadha) means moreso “taken in”, as in this example from the story of Joseph: “perhaps he might benefit us or we might take him in as a son”. This is more like acquiring a boy servant than it is adopting a child into one’s family. More to the point, Joseph’s “adoption” comes after he is bartered “as a merchandise”, according to the Qur’anic description; furthermore the Qur’an is very explicit that these are temporary and invalidated situations, and here we might say that this is a negative use of the term.

    Our analysis here is aided by the English use of “adoption” which has strayed from its original meaning as well, especially since we know that adoption conceptually within the Anglo-Saxon tradition was about indentured servitude, and not family creation. This is made most obvious to me by the fact that the use of this word only has currency within a certain class of the population here in Lebanon, which lives closer to a globalized and globalizing Anglo-Saxon model than anything locally relevant culturally speaking. For everyone else not of this stratum I cannot say “mutabanna”, I have to state that I was an “orphan” (yatiim), or that I was in an “orphanage” (dar al-’aytam). My adoption, as understood locally, involving a “bartering of merchandise”, maps much more closely onto the example of Yusuf–seen as negative–than any other invocation that might be painted in a positive light.

    Linguistically, Arabic and the original Aramaic of the Bible share more than Aramaic and the current translations thereof. Furthermore, the story of Joseph is found in both the Bible and the Qur’an, and likewise stands as a condemnation of adoption, or at the very least, an advocacy for family and not any notion of “taking in” children for whatever reason.

    Quoting again:

    Everyone who is claimed to have been “adopted” in both the Bible and Qur’an, most notably Joseph (Yusuf) as mentioned, but also Moses (Moussa) (pbut), in fact pose a contrary argument to those who would read these Books so literally. For both were adopted against the wishes of their parents; their removal caused great anguish to their families; they did not start the true calling of their lives until they were returned to their rightful place, status, and people.

    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). 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”. The Qur’an also forbids forced conversion, one of the primary motivating factors for missionary adoption practice historically speaking.

    Analyzing the Qur’an even further, we can state that the removal of someone from their family is an ultimate act of self-inflicted alienation, since the only instances of such separation used in the Qur’an are 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 (Noh) drowned, the wife of Lot (Loteh) left behind and destroyed, the progeny of Abraham (Ibrahim) as being “on their own” in terms of their deeds and the judgment thereof, etc. The point being that such a separation–as punishment–supercedes the strong familial bond otherwise implied. How then, could there be a willful separation of child from parent, condoned by God at that?

    I think we need to be really careful in terms of our use of the term adoption, especially in terms of historical accuracy as well as cultural relevancy. I am at the point where I define adoption as we know it today as belonging to a particularly dominant Anglo-Saxon view of family that is not universal. I don’t want to go back in time and give it a legitimacy that it does not deserve, if that makes any sense.

    Interestingly enough, and coming back to your request for examples from the East, I have come across references to “adoption” within Japanese society, still practiced today [ link ], in which business scions are “adopted” into a family, due to the fact that their dependance brings allegiance. Apparently this has a long history culturally speaking. This isn’t exactly what you are looking for perhaps? But it might be a fruitful lead.

  2. A reference might also be found in the book by Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961 which discusses adoption at length, and its portrayal in popular culture.

  3. I should be able to provide citations, but I can’t recall at the moment where (from my memory) I’m pulling this up, but here it is nonetheless.

    There are many narratives from all sorts of places around the world about the one who is abandoned but who returns ultimately to become (generally) a culture hero. If I call everything that exists “beyond the compound” (i.e., outside of the culture as recognized by a given society) as being the wilderness, or nature, then it is that children are abandoned into the wilderness and the ones who survive tend to return with the marks of heroes and heroines. Obviously, from the standpoint of the abandoning culture, how the returning heroine survived “the wilderness” will be up to the abandoned child to explain, either because she found another civilization and dwelt there, or figured out how to live in the wilderness per se.

    Such heroines and heroes sometimes function as culture figures precisely because they are not stereotypically acculturated. They don’t do things “like we do” but the things they do, which might be superstitiously interdicted by our culture, actually work and/or are effective, never mind that they may have worked out whole knew technologies for making things, finding food, writing poetry, etc.

    The disingenuous part of the story is that the culture that threw them away generally has no problem taking them back and generally the one abandoned seems not to hold a grudge. (I think this is the case because the abandoning culture assumes, by abandoning the child, that if she’s fated to survive, she will–and since it’s a matter of Fate, why would anyone bear the culture any ill will?) Perhaps we could distinguish between those who were abandoned and returned, compared to those who were abandoned but found another civilization in the wilderness. These receiving civilizations may be less willing to extend trust because the abandoned one is definitively an Other, but all of this starts to take the narratives available in world mythology further afield than they actually support.

    Notice in all of this, I didn’t use the word adoption, partly to avoid the anachronism that Daniel warns about, and mostly because the stories themselves do not refer to these things as adoption. Also, I don’t mention these narratives only to suggest the flattering notion that, if we return, we potentially stand in the position of culture heroes (though those who have “found other civilizations” and returned seem, in real life, to get shunned by the abandoning culture), but also to point to the fact that in the narrative casting children out into the wilderness is taken as having some magical mechanism (nature) that will morally and correctly sort out the deserving from the undeserving, the good from the bad. Arguably, one could use this point to demonize the birth mother, but the abandonment of the child to nature takes a village as well, especially where kinship systems do not distinguish individual (blood) relatives from systemic (tribal) relatives.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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