Shortly after their escape from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai, listening to this new God, Yahweh, explain to them how they were to live as a nation reflecting His unique character.
§ Justice for Widows
In Exodus 22 God outlines the values that were to be fundamental to their lives - politically, socially, economically, healthwise, spiritually, everything.
In 22:22-23 He says, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry, my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.“
In the Near and Middle East of that time, a king/ruler would customarily commit to caring for widows and orphans as part of a just government, so in itself this wasn’t a revolutionary concept.
But what may be noteworthy is how God takes it as a personal outrage if His people fail to care for these vulnerable people.
And the record shows that God did, in fact, allow judgement to fall on the Jewish people just as He warned. First, when they were taken away into Assyrian and Babylonian exile in 700 and 600 BC. And later when the Roman emperor Titus sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70 AD, with hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered and a national identity crushed.
Jesus had highlighted the extent of the abuse being experienced by widows and other disenfranchised members of society when he rebuked the wealthy Scribes (the supposed guardians and teachers of the Law) for pious hypocrisy and for “devouring widows’ houses” (Mark 12:40). They taught the Law, but they didn’t live it, so judgement came.
What does God mean by “abusing” a widow”? Other versions translate this as exploiting (TLB), cheating (ICB), afflicting (KJV), mistreating (CSB, EV, MSG).
Later in Deuteronomy 10:18 Moses reminds the next generation of Israelites who their God, Yahweh is, and what their relationship with Him needs to look like. In the context of declaring that their God is the greatest and mightiest, he describes God as the One who “executes justice for the orphan and the widow.”
This concern seems to be part of Yahweh’s uniqueness, such a fundamental part of who He is that His people too must live out the same care and concern.
It’s worth noting that not all widows were destitute or even poor. Some were very well off and exercised considerable influence in the community. The “widow” in biblical times wasn’t just a woman whose spouse had died; she was one who had no adult male child nor a father-in-law or a brother-in-law who would advocate for her. In other words, she had no male support whatsoever; no male relative to plead her cause, no voice in society, and therefore no recourse to justice.
Yahweh identifies Himself as the One who “executes justice for the widow.” What kind of justice would she need?
Her lack of male support made her
more vulnerable to
In the developing world today, widows are subjected to all of this and worse (check out the World Tour of Widowhood for plenty of examples). Despite inheritance laws and laws against the abuse of women on the books in many countries, there is little or no enforcement of these laws, because traditional jurisprudence prevails, or because widows don’t know their rights and have no power to fight for them.
§ Food Bank for Widows
In Deuteronomy 14:28-29 the Israelites were told that every third year they were to bring all the tithe of their harvest for that year to the collection place in their own town/village, rather than taking it up to Jerusalem as was the norm.
The reason for this was so that landless Levites living in their town, along with foreigners, widows and orphans would be able to access this supply for food. Like a community food bank for those who had no land and therefore no means of growing food to live on.
(Possibly the “third year” would be different for different farmers, so that there would be a replenishing of the store each year, providing adequate for the needy in their town.)
It’s noteworthy that this foodbank was equally the food supply for the Levites as well as widows, so from God’s perspective there was to be no stigma attached to widows because they used the food bank.
Did Israel follow this directive? It’s hard to say, though the later condemnation of God’s people by the prophets for not caring for widows would suggest that they had conveniently overlooked this provision. And yet God promised significant blessings as the outcome for faithfully bringing the tithes of grain to feed the widows and others.
Could it be that we are missing some of God’s blessing on us because we fail to adequately provide for widows? What percentage of your church’s budget goes to support for widows in your community, and support for ministries in other countries trying to alleviate the plight of widows? What percentage of your own giving goes to widow care?
§ Inclusion of Widows in Festivals
In Deuteronomy 16:11 and 14 Moses reviews God’s directives for celebrating the Festival of Weeks and the Festival of Booths. In both cases, foreigners, orphans and widows were to be included in the celebrations of God’s goodness and historic deliverance of the nation.
God specifically ensured that widows would not be excluded from religious and community celebrations, unlike many countries (e.g. India) in our world today where widows, considered to be “bad luck”, are barred from participating. Check out the documentation on the customs in various countries for more information.
§ No Injustice in Taking Collateral for a Loan
In Deuteronomy 24:17 they are told, “You shall not deprive the foreigner or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge” (i.e. as collateral for a loan). Why would God specify this?
The only reason why a garment would be taken, would be that the widow literally had no other possession to put up as collateral.
But to take the widow’s garment would mean that either she would be exposed indecently or she would have nothing with which to keep herself warm at night (not unlike millions of destitute widows in our world today).
God cares, and He expects His people not only to be just but also to exercise mercy in their dealings with one another.
§ Leaving Some of the Harvest for Widows
God knows that the desire to make a profit is a strong motivator, so he inserts these very practical directives, like not taking a garment as collateral. In Deuteronomy 24:19-22 He gives another one: farmers are told that in harvest they’re to leave ungathered some grain/olives/ grapes and other crops (accidentally or on purpose). This was so that widows might glean in their fields, gathering food for themselves.
This certainly implies that the widows in mind were those who had no fields of their own.
God goes on to give Israel the reason for this practice: it was a way of repeatedly paying forward to the destitute in their communities the kindness they had received from God when they were utterly destitute foreigners in Egypt.
§ Levirate Marriage
In Deuteronomy 25 God institutes “levirate marriage” in instances where the widow had no son to carry on the family name. This was because it was very important in that culture to keep the dead person’s line going in the family tree and keep that man’s inheritance within the family.
Therefore the late husband’s brother was to marry the widow in hopes that they would have a son – who would retain the name of the widow’s late husband, and inherit his land. God did provide the widow with the option of refusing this arrangement.
While it may seem rather repulsive to us, it was originally intended as protection for a widow who had no son, to ensure that she would have the security of land.
Unfortunately levirate marriage as practiced today in numerous cultures around the world is experienced as an abusive and harmful practice which is forced upon widows.
§ Ruth, the Moabite
The story of Ruth, even though it reads like a love story to us, is actually the arranging of a levirate marriage. Boaz declares before the townspeople (Ruth 4:10) that he is enacting the provision of the law in order to keep alive the name and inheritance of Ruth’s late husband. This was how the law was supposed to work, and resulted in happiness and security for the widow Ruth, and also in blessing for Boaz. [Note that he, rather than Mahlon, gets listed in the genealogy of King David and of Jesus (Matt 1:5; Luke 3:32)].
§ Job the Patriarch
In the book of Job his friends unkindly accuse him of failing to care for widows, a charge which Job hotly denies. In fact, he claims that because of his practical care, “I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy” (29:13) and in chapter 31 he calls down terrible curses on himself if he has failed to live righteously, including having cared diligently for widows and orphans.
§ The Psalms and Proverbs
These poetic books similarly include numerous references to Yahweh as the defender of widows, and the One who protects the property of widows.
In the Prophets, God appeals to His people by whatever means He can, to return to following the way of righteousness, obeying the details of the Law as laid out by Moses.
He denounces the specific failures which were most egregious to Him, and appeals to them to reform their ways. Top of the list was, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
It seems that God’s heart is so concerned for the plight of the destitute that if we would live His life and represent Him faithfully in our world, then practical and significant care for widows must be one of our primary ways of demonstrating that.
In the preceding verses God had reproached Israel for endless offerings and sacrifices, endless religious observances which revolted Him, because their “worship” didn’t extend to the practical issue of caring for the least in society. In light of this, we have to ask ourselves, what does God think of our worship?
In Isaiah 1:23 God denounces the princes of the land (their version of government and law courts) as rebels, takers of bribes, and those who fail to provide justice to the widows who seek it.
They don’t even hear the cases brought by widows, such is their contempt for those without a man, without a voice, without rights.
Then in 10:2 He indicts them for writing oppressive laws that permit the taking advantage of widows, robbing them of the little they have.
Sadly this is entirely common in many societies in our world today, where widows fight to get unjust laws re-written; or - where there are laws giving them inheritance rights etc. - to have these laws enforced so that they are able to secure their land, or their pension, or whatever the in-laws are trying to rob from them.
In Jeremiah 7:6 God rebukes the Jewish people for chanting “the temple of the Lord” like a magical mantra that would protect them, while indulging in every kind of sinful behaviour. He pleads with them to amend their ways: in other words, to enact justice in mutual relationships, not oppress widows, not murder, not practice idolatry.
Again one is amazed at how significant this is in God’s hierarchy of just behaviours. Oppressing widows (and other marginalized) is equally as offensive to God as taking another’s life or worshipping a false god!
In Ezekiel 22 Yahweh makes another appeal and warning through the prophet; and once again, near the top of the list is God’s indictment of people for mistreating and oppressing widows. This is one of the major reasons why God has determined to let judgment fall on His people and their land.
After the exile, when many have returned to Judah, God speaks to them through the prophet Zechariah to motivate them to live righteously, not the way their ancestors did. God reminds them of the key pillars for living as a righteous nation, and again, third on the list is “do not oppress the widow” (7:10). They now had a chance to revamp their societal values, and care for widows as God does.
Finally in Malachi, the last book of the Hebrew Scripture, an anonymous prophet urges the people (who’ve returned from exile, rebuilt the Temple, rebuilt their homes) to assess their financial situation and recognize that they’re not experiencing God’s material blessing - because they have still failed to make caring for widows a priority in their societal norms. Once again God reminds them that if they will not change their practice, there will be negative repercussions.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures one gets the impression that caring for widows is not just "God’s favorite charity".
Rather it is so integral to His character that people cannot claim to be His people, if they fail to proactively address the needs and rights of widows.
It is so integral to God’s character that our degree of likeness to Him will be expressed, not primarily in our church attendance, but in our actively caring for the widows in our global village.
“He has shown you, mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
What does the New Testament teach about how we are to treat the widows in our world?
The local faith community becomes responsible to care for these who are destitute, taking on the earlier role of the nation of Israel in Old Testament times.
Here's a study about the New Testament perspective on widows.