When OT writers use parent-child imagery to describe the relationship between God and Israel were they borrowing imagery from (for want of better terms) ‘biological’ or ‘adoptive’ relationships? For Janet Melnyk there seems to be a preference for the latter.
I’ve been reading Melnyk’s fascinating 1993 essay, “When Israel was a Child: Ancient Near-Eastern Adoption Formulas and the relationship between God and Israel” (see the bibliography page for full details). She uses texts from Israel’s neighbours that record adoption ceremonies or declarations to provide an understanding of the nature and process of adoption of the period in the Ancient Near East. She then shows how parent-child imagery in the OT echoes this language, suggesting that the idea of adoption would have been prominent. Here is her conclusion:
The biblical writers were interested in portraying Israel as chosen and adopted by God. One wonders why the parent-child relationship was often portrayed as one of adoption, rather than one of biological birth. Perhaps because the metaphor of Yahweh as parent is almost exclusively a male image, there must be a mother if Yahweh is to father a nation. Although the land is sometimes given a role, the adoptive process conveniently circumvents the need for a birth-mother, and Yahweh is shown to be capable of every other maternal nurturing. By conceiving the relationship as adoption, God’s election of Israel, his beloved son, was emphasised. This, in turn, distinguished Israel as the people chosen by God over all the nations, and as the recipient of a desirable land for all generations of God’s [extended family] to enjoy. By identifying Israel as God’s child, the biblical writers wrote Israel into a state of legitimacy, recognition, and inalienable inheritance. (p.259)
While it would be possible to overemphasise the significance of some imagery, Melnyk provides an insightful exploration of the adoptive relationship as the background to what is, after all, a central biblical image: God as parent. The adoptive relationship (albeit the Ancient Near East understanding of it) was the normal way of thinking about God as parent and his people as children.
Doesn’t it then follow that the more we understand adoption, the more insight we will gain into the biblical story and our relationship with the God we call Father?