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Published Date: September 5, 2006

Published Date: September 5, 2006

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Birthfathers

I remember the day I learned the word birthfather

I was 23 years old, sitting at a desk in a sterile office of the Sunny Ridge Adoption Agency. Florescent lights shone down on brochures with pictures of smiling families spread out on the tables. A woman pointed to the “X” on the document in front of me and said, “We’re so pleased to have a birthfather involved in the process.” She gave me a pen and my hand trembled as I signed my name. 

I stood up and walked to my car. I opened the door and collapsed onto the seat with my chest against the steering wheel. I wept and prayed and pounded my clenched hands on the dashboard. And that was the day that I learned the word.

In the years that have passed since that day, I’ve paid careful attention to the stories and images that folks connect to that word: birthfather.

I’ve learned that this person, this birthfather-man, exists as a near mythical figure in most adoption stories. Silent, misunderstood, and frequently reviled, he serves as a sort of foil for adoption’s lovelier characters. When not silent, he warrants only a brief mention, typically as the embodiment of pure evil or pure goodness. 

In these regards, birthfathers’ images in society are fairly consistent with the hints of birthfather experiences that appear in the Bible.

Birthfathers in the Bible

My earliest memory of a birthparent image occurred in a Sunday school class around age 9. Our neighborhood Baptist church had a children’s curriculum like most: we learned the books of the Bible (in song form), memorized key verses (i.e. John 3:16), and read Bible stories. 

There I learned the story of how a baby boy named Moses floated down a river in a wicker basket and was discovered and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. The story also described Moses’ upbringing in Pharaoh’s house, his growth in responding to the call of God, and his role as the deliverer of Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt. The relevance of adoption appeared as little more than an interesting backdrop for the real story of God’s redemptive work for Israel. 

But the teacher complicated things a bit. She talked about the baby’s “natural” mother who had placed Moses into the river. She explained that the woman had to “give the child up” so that he could live (Exod. 1:22). Looking back, I appreciate my teacher’s willingness to acknowledge the birthmother’s role within the story. In our rare mention of birthparents in adoption stories, the conversation usually stops with the mother.

But was there a birthfather in the story of Moses? A glance at that chapter finds him to be a “Man from the house of Levi” (Exod. 2:1). As in most adoption stories, there is no further mention of his thoughts or feelings about placing the child. We gain no insight into his experience, his peace or tension at the unfolding of these incredibly difficult events. Did he struggle with Pharaoh’s systemic injustice that caused his child to be placed into the river? While we know that he helped to hide baby Moses for those three months (Heb. 11:23), did he support or orchestrate the placement of the child along with the mother? 

The absence of such detail regarding this Levite man is considered a “stylized account” of the story. In a stylized account, the author includes only the details that are critical for telling the central story, in this case the story of Moses. For example, the detail of “House of Levi” is significant in that it ties Moses to Levi, one of Jacob’s twelve sons who is essentially cursed by his father (Gen. 49:5). Such details are key for theologians who see Moses as prefiguring Christ; just as Moses arises from a cursed lineage to become the savior of his people, Jesus rises from a disgraced lineage of human flesh to become the Savior of all. 

This birthfather detail is also essential for understanding later events in Moses’ life. When Moses killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew, he seems to be motivated by compassion for “one of his own people” (Exod. 2:11), a reference to his personal identity remaining tied to his birthfather. Similarly, when God appears to Moses within the burning bush, He acknowledges the birthfather connection, saying, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod. 3:6). 

The story of Moses suggests that the birthfather may be a significant factor within adoption stories in two ways: 1) He may play a key part in the identity of an adoptee; 2) God’s call upon the life of an individual may connect to biological heritage. The story does not provide any details, however, that would assist a reader in better understanding the complexity of birthfather experiences. Such stylized accounts of adoption stories remain common today.

Other prominent adoption stories in scripture yield even fewer details about birthfather experiences or ways to think about them. In the adoption of Esther by Mordecai we learn only that her parents had died (Esther 2:7), leaving her more of an orphan than an adoptee in the traditional sense. As with Moses, her cultural connection to her biological parents is significant (Esther 2:20) in that she was supposed to keep it hidden from the King who was courting her. 

Birthfather imagery in the Bible

While the New Testament is devoid of traditional adoption stories, the theme of adoption is foundational to understanding our identity in Christ (Eph. 1:5; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5). Most evangelical Christians are familiar with the teaching that we have been adopted by God through Christ. This commonly understood spiritual adoption story tends to include two of the roles within the adoption triad: the adopted children (us) and the adoptive parent (God). Might a birthfather image exist within this adoption story?

When Jesus spoke with those who refused to hear his message, he declared: “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father” (John 8:43–44). The apostle Paul used similar language when he described the spiritual paternity of Elymas the magician as a “son of the Devil” due to his opposition to the Gospel (Acts 13:8–10). 
 

When considering the full adoption triad within the Christian story of adoption, the birthfather image is one of spiritual evil and rebellion; it is Satan himself. While the story is beautiful for Christians in our emancipation from such a lineage, it is a difficult one for this Christian birthfather seeking scriptural exemplars of the complex birthfather image.

Conversations with birthfathers over the years often include details that connect with such a scriptural image as they mention rebellion, selfishness, or even sin. But I also find much more. I find men who longed for something good to come of a difficult situation. I find men who were (and are) confused, scared, and ashamed about their role. We talk of how we wanted to do the right thing, but were not always sure what that right thing was. 

Stranger still, some birthfathers even sprinkle the word love through their complex tales. Could such a notion somehow connect with birthfather images of scripture? Could there be a biblical birthfather image that might affirm the emergence of such a theme within our contemporary birthfather experiences?

And then I recall the Sunday school class of my childhood. The first verse that we children were asked to memorize was John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And there, in that foundational verse of our Christian faith, I find an image in which a father gives a child out of pure and perfect love. 

While I reject a complete comparison between this holy act of Divine giving and the motives of imperfect men, I do recognize an echo of such a motive in birthfather stories. This verse suggests that the God of the universe was more familiar with my weeping and moaning and sobbing in the car that day than I’d ever realized.

Conclusion

The birthfather images in Scripture are fairly consistent with my experience and many of the men I’ve met over the years. We tend to be identified as significant in the life of the child, as in the stories of Moses and Esther, but little more. In the rare instances of our mention, we appear as flat or one-dimensional: “He loved you so much, that he knew he couldn’t keep you” or “He was such a selfish, messed-up loser that we’re all glad he’s out of your life.” 

While I wish I could claim that the giving of my son was from a motive of love as pure as that of God’s, I cannot. While I wish that I could banish any mention of sin or rebellion or evil from my tale, I cannot do that either. 

The reality is that human birthfather stories are messy, complicated tales that contain elements of both good and evil. Should your next encounter with adoption stories find us absent, I invite you to welcome us in all of our complexity; it seems that the scriptures do.