An important biblical theme often overlooked by Christians is the sonship of Israel. When we hear the expression, son of God, we think of Jesus (as we should), but we forget that the first son of God mentioned in Scripture is the nation of Israel.
Through the correspondence of two of Israel's privileges listed in Romans 9:4 ("They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, and the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises."), we learn that God adopted Israel as His son at Mt. Sinai when He gave Israel the law. Israel officially became God's son through adoption when He constituted Israel a nation at Mt. Sinai.
It was common for ancient Near Eastern nations to boast of having a father-son relationship with their gods. Most ancient religions believed that the gods bore their sons through consorts. These nations considered themselves to be the "natural" born sons of their particular god(s). This was the religious and cultural context in which Israel entered into a Father-son relationship with God. The difference was that Israel entered into this relationship through adoption. Romans 9:4 makes that clear.
Although Israel was not a "natural" son of God, they were not to demean their adoptive sonship or consider it a second-class sonship in any way whatsoever. Rather, Israel was to cherish and value its adoptive sonship. They were not to look at the sonship status of the other nations and think of theirs as somehow inferior because they were adopted. In other words, Israel's adoptive sonship was not to be viewed negatively at all, even though there would have been pressure from the surrounding nations to do so.
Given the religious and cultural context of the ancient Near Eastern world and Israel's adoptive sonship, it's significant that God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh to inform him that Israel is His firstborn son (see Exodus 4:22). This declaration to Pharaoh was followed by Moses' warning that God would kill Pharaoh's firstborn son if he refused to let Israel go (Exodus 4:23). Here's why this is significant: God treated His adopted son, Israel, as if he were the firstborn son. In other words, God did not treat Israel as if Israel's sonship were inferior. The implicit message of Exodus 4:22-23 is that Israel was the same to God as Pharaoh's firstborn son was to him. It is clear from Moses' words to Pharaoh that it was God's great pleasure to give His adopted son all the rights and privileges enjoyed by a firstborn son.
God demonstrated His Father-son love for Israel not only through His deliverance of them from their affliction in Egypt (cf. James 1:27), but also through His unfailing care for them in the wilderness. The subsequent history of Israel, as God continued to deliver and guide them providentially, was a display of God's deep love for His son.
The New Testament teaches us that God was so committed to Israel, His adopted son, that He sent His natural Son (see the wording of the Heidelberg Confession on adoption) to deliver him (i.e. Israel) from his habitual sin and prodigal unfaithfulness. Jesus, God's natural Son, became a curse for God's adopted son so that He could redeem him (Galatians 4:13-14). On the shoulders of His natural Son God the Father laid the responsibility of bringing His unfaithful son back, succeeding where His adopted son had failed, doing the Father's will where Israel had rebelled.
So the Scriptures - Old and New Testament together - elevate the status of "adopted child" by showing God's unswerving commitment to Israel, the son He adopted.
Something to think about: Should this theological truth have any bearing on our adoption language? There are many who are opposed to calling a child who has been adopted an "adopted child." They believe that the expression implies that the child is a second-class member of the family - whether or not the child is actually considered to be one. The line of reasoning goes like this: "adopted child" speaks of identity, whereas "child who was adopted" simply relates a historical fact about how the child entered the family. Opponents of the phrase "adopted child" say that a child's entrance into a family through adoption is no more relevant to that child's personal identity than the fact of a child's coming into a family through C-section. Given this context, what bearing, if any, should the theology of this article, "Israel, God's son through adoption," have on our adoption language? We hope to address this issue in future posts.