This post is a section of a paper titled “God: The Defender of the Oppressed.” This paper was written by Stephanie Franco, one of my students in the course “OT 458 Old Testament Theology: The God of the Old Testament.” This course was taught at Northern Baptist Seminary in the Spring quarter 2014.
God and the Widows and Orphans
“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17–19).
In the patriarchal world of the ancient Near East, women and children often lacked a means to inherit property. Those without a husband or father to protect them were typically the poorest in the community. Additionally, aliens were similarly situated as they were excluded from land ownership.
Ancient Near East (ANE) societies acknowledged the vulnerability of such persons and held that the gods divinely protected and cared for them. Indeed, caring for the poor was a responsibility that deities shared with monarchs of the ANE, which was a point of pride for the latter.
Similarly, Yahweh’s compassion for widows, orphans, and aliens is part and parcel of Mosaic Law. God’s ultimate purpose was to provide these individuals with a measure of economic security and to protect them from those who had the power to abuse them.
In Deuteronomy 10:17–19, he explicitly expresses his compassion for the poor and the alien:
“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, . . . who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
In contrast to other societies, Yahweh desires to share this responsibility with not just Israel’s leadership, but with the entire community. Integrated into the law were promises from the Lord to bless those who cared for the vulnerable and weak people in society: “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake” (Deuteronomy 15:10).
The same concern for the poor is also displayed in the wisdom literature: “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9).
While an Israelite may have become impoverished for a variety of reasons—perhaps a poor harvest during times of drought (a common occurrence in an agrarian economy) or the untimely death of a male leader within the family—God never blames the poor for their state of being.
Instead, he charges those who are rich with the responsibility to care for the poor, assuming that they will bless their fellow brothers and sisters. Prior to Israel’s monarchy, the tribes shared their belongings.
In Leviticus 19:9–10, as the people prepared to enter the Promise Land, Yahweh provided rules for how landowners were to gather their produce: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.”
Rather than achieve complete efficiency in their harvesting and gathering activities,landowners and vineyard owners were to purposefully leave behind remnants of crops and produce for those in poverty. We encounter these verses in a section of Leviticus where the Lord prescribes actions characteristic of a sanctified lifestyle.
When impoverished individuals receive assistance from those who are financially secure, then the people of Israel can bond together and become a close-knit society. God’s regulations counter a human propensity for becoming materialistic during plenteous times; the laws are not burdensome for landowners (in that there is no added expense to gather the produce) and they allow the beneficiaries to obtain food through regular work (as opposed to simply receiving food for nothing), thus preserving for them a sense of self-respect.
Thus we can readily observe from the Hebrew Bible that the people of Israel were expected to fulfill their responsibility to the Lord by caring for the poor, the widows, and the orphans, and also by being socially committed to help one another.
To Be Continued
M. Div. Student
Northern Baptist Seminary
1. Leslie J. Hoppe, There Shall Be No Poor Among You: Poverty in the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 25.
3. Conrad Boerma, The Rich, the Poor and the Bible, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), 16.
6. John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary 4 (Dallas: Word Books, 1992), 314.
7. Norman W. Porteous, Living the Mystery: Collected Essays (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967), 150.
8. Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 266.
9. Hartley, Leviticus, 301.
10. Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 267.
11. Hartley, Leviticus, 314.
12. Gerstenberger, Leviticus, 267.