What Is Fictive Kinship?

My wife, who is a Yankee, makes fun of me for saying, “He’s kin to me.” I didn’t realize until the first time she mocked me that “kin to me” was a Southernism. Apparently it is. (For everyone who didn’t grow up saying their cousins were kin to them, kin means “related by blood.”) So, fictive kinship is the creation of family relationships where they do not exist by blood, thus “fictive” or “made up.” The clearest example of this is of course marriage, where two families that are not related (unless you’re from Arkansas, maybe!) become related through marriage.

To use another example, I’ve been a foster dad for about three years now. My wife and I started this journey anticipating being a way-place, a stopover for kids who needed a place to stay while their folks got their struggles worked out. Well, our foster son came to us when he was just six months old, and we’re the only family he’s ever known. Lord willing, he’ll be adopted into our family in a few months. Right now he’s a ward of the state. Practically speaking, that means we have all sorts of rules to follow, like how big his room has to be, when to take him to the doctor and dentist, what doctor and dentist we can take him to, and whether or not he can leave the state. Once he’s adopted, though, we’ll be free to make those decisions on our own. His name will change, and even though he still won’t look like me (thank God for that!), he’ll be my son—with a new birth certificate listing me as his dad. He’ll be 100 percent a Meek boy, with all the rights that come along with it. Even though he wasn’t my son, suddenly he will become my son. Even though we are now of no relation to each other, then we will be related as father and son. Even though we share no DNA, we’ll be family. That is what is called fictive kinship; it is a kinship that was created (“fictive”) rather than happening through normal biological processes.

Fictive Kinship in the Old Testament

In a culture like that of the Old Testament, where family relationships were the most important aspect of life, the creation of kinship bonds was crucial for relationships between people who were not related to each other by blood. This creation of family ties happened through cutting a covenant with another person or group of people. Two basic types of covenants existed in the Old Testament world: the parity treaty (between equal parties) and the suzerain-vassal treaty (between a greater and a lesser party).[1] The parity treaty was between equals, and, the two parties agreed to act as “brothers” toward each other. If you have a sibling, you probably understand what this means—for example, my older sister beat me up quite a lot when we were kids, but she also fiercely protected me. This type of treaty is similar to modern-day treaties between nations such as the United States and Canada (without the beating up that happens between siblings). They agree to come to the other’s aid, not attack each other, and include provisions for trade and the like. Think also of Solomon taking all those wives from foreign nations—the purpose was to create family ties with the leaders of other nations for the purpose of national security (or trade, wealth, etc.).

In suzerain-vassal treaties, the created familial relationship was akin to parent-child relationships. The greater party (i.e., the suzerain) provided benefits such as military protection and land grants to the lesser party (i.e., the vassal).[2] In response, the vassal owed the suzerain financial tribute and “consummate loyalty.”[3] Consequently, vassals could have only one suzerain, for to take another “lord” or “father” would be tantamount to treason.[4] This is the sort of covenant that God established with Israel at Mount Sinai. It created a father-son relationship between Israel and God where before no such relationship existed. God was now responsible for Israel as its father, and Israel was now responsible to God as his son.

Fictive Kinship and the Gospel

Okay, so who cares, right? Fictive kinship is crucial to our understanding of the gospel because, just like God created out of thin air a relationship with his people in the Old Testament, he’s done the same with us in Christ. The New Testament uses the language of adoption to talk about who Christians are in Christ and how they should relate to one another. Paul states in Ephesians that we are “adopted into God’s family” (Eph 1:5 CSB), and over in Romans he says that we are God’s very children, “heirs of God and coheirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17 CSB). Jesus, of course, is not God’s son by adoption; he is the eternal Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. We, though, are heirs by adoption. Just like my foster son will be adopted into my family, Christians have been adopted into God’s family, with the Father as our own Father and as coheirs with Christ.

And here’s the kicker: just like my foster son will have all the rights and responsibilities that my biological sons do, so we have all the rights and responsibilities of a child of God. That’s huge, right? Me! You! Children of the living God. It’s almost too much to consider, if I’m being honest. And once I’m a child of God, I’m always a child of God. That means I have the rights and responsibilities of a child. God is my Father, and thus he is responsible to take care of me (just like he does the lilies of the field and birds of the air, as Jesus reminds us). And it means I have a responsibility to love, cherish, and obey God. Further, it means that God’s family is my family. All those Old Testament stories? Those are your stories now. The story of the Bible is your story. It’s not about foreigners in a foreign land; it’s about God’s redemption of you and me and all of our siblings.

The story of the Bible is your story. It’s not about foreigners in a foreign land; it’s about God’s redemption of you and me and all of our siblings. Share on X

[1] Sandra Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 73.

[2] Ibid., 73–74.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 74–75.

Russ Meek

Associate Professor of Old Testament at William Tennent School of Theology