Care of widows and orphans in the Bible and the ancient Near East (Deuteronomy 24)

In Old Testament laws God commanded the Israelites not to “take advantage of a widow or an orphan” (Exodus 22:22). In fact, Psalm 68:5 describes God Himself as “a Father to the fatherless, a defender of widows“. Israelite farmers were instructed to leave some grain unharvested so that Levites, widows, orphans and foreigners could glean the leftovers in their fields and eat (Deuteronomy 24:17-22). In addition, the tithes of every third year were to provide for widows, orphans, aliens and priests (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). Hebrews, who themselves had been aliens and slaves in Egypt, were never to pervert the justice due to widows, orphans or foreigners (Deuteronomy 24:17-18). In fact, one of the reasons God stipulated for allowing Israel and Judah to fall before Assyria and Babylon was His people’s failure in their obligation to “defend the cause of the fatherless” and “plead for the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).

In the New Testament the widow of Zarephath (Luke 4:24-26, cf. 1 Kings 17:7-24) and the widowed prophetess Anna (Luke 2:36-38) are cited as examples of faith, and an impoverished widow was held up by Jesus as a model of generosity (Luke 21:2-4). In one of Jesus’ parabels a widow provided a clear example of the innocent being easy prey for the unjust and indifferent (Luke 18:3-5). Jesus demonstrated mercy toward the widow at Nain (Luke 7:12-13) and refused to leave His own disciples “as orphans” with relations to His own coming departure from earth (John 14:18). A Jewish widow had the right to expect financial maintenance from her husband’s heirs. Yet Jesus went so far as to accuse religious scribes of stealing widows’ properties (Mark 12:40, Luke 20:47).

The early church continued God’s concern for such otherwise destitute women. Needy widows were fed (Acts 6:1-3), and the disciple Dorcas of her own accord sewed clothing especially for them (Acts 9:39). A ministerial order of widows was begun for the purpose of prayer (1 Timothy 5:3-10), and James, Jesus’ brother, defined true worship as that demonstrated by visitation of distressed orphans and widows (James 1:27).


 

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