The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: Widows and the Law of Pledges

Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath
by Jan Victors (1619 – 1676)

The Deuteronomic concern for promoting the dignity of women in Israelite society and protecting them from flagrant abuse is reflected in the revision of the law of pledges in the book of Exodus. The law of pledges in the Covenant Code states: “If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down” (Exodus 22:26). In the book of Deuteronomy the law of pledges was revised to protect a woman who was without the protection of her husband or her father: “You shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge” (Deuteronomy 24:17).

The law of pledges in the book of Exodus allowed a garment to be taken in pledge provided that it was returned by the end of the day. But in the Deuteronomic legislation the widow is exempt from this law. One reason is that the book of Deuteronomy portrays Yahweh as the defender of the widow, God is the one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow” (Deuteronomy 10:18). From a social perspective, since the widow had no protector to defend her or to provide for her, the taking of the garment in pledge would provide an added burden to her plight as a widow.

A law in the Covenant Code prohibited the people of Israel from taking advantage of widows: “You shall not abuse any widow” (Exodus 22:22). Widows could be easily oppressed in court or by creditors because they were destitute of a husband or a male protector. In 2 Kings 4:1, the widow of one of Elisha’s disciples was threatened by a creditor to take her children away as slaves because she was unable to pay the debt of her late husband: “Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets cried to Elisha, ‘Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the LORD, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves’” (2 Kings 4:1).

A widow was a woman without a family, someone who “was also without a male who ordinarily provided a woman with access to the public sphere.” [1] Because widows were women without protection, widows were counted among the destitute persons in Israel; they were vulnerable and easily victimized because they were alone. God was the protector of the widows (Psalm 68:5) so that they would not become the subject of harsh treatment or the object of abuse and oppression.[2]

The Law of Pledges in Exodus

The law of pledges in the book of Exodus states: “If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate” (Exodus 22:26-27).

Loans in Israel were not considered commercial transactions in which the lender expected to receive interest from the debtor. Rather, loans were designed to help poor Israelites deal with difficult economic situations. The law in Exodus 22:25 prohibits creditors from receiving interest when loans were made: “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” A similar law also appears in the book of Leviticus: “If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, . . . Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them” (Leviticus 25:35-36).

In case of financial need, an Israelite would go to a person of means for a loan. However, in order to make sure that the loan was repaid, loans were secured by the use of collateral. In the case of poor people, they had to offer a valuable item as collateral to the creditor as a guarantee that the loan would be paid. Poor people could offer a cloak as a pledge that the loan would be repaid. However, if a cloak was taken as a pledge, the cloak had to be returned by sunset, since the cloak also served as a blanket, so that the person could find comfort at night.

A person’s cloak was the most extreme collateral a very poor person could offer to the creditor. The Hebrew word for “cloak” refers to an outer garment which served as a garment during the day and as a blanket at night. The cloak was used as a blanket to protect the individual from cold and provide warmth at night. If the cloak was taken and not returned, then the debtor would be exposed to the night cold.

The book of Amos indicates that many people in Israel failed to obey this law. Amos 2:8 says: “they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge.” Although the prophet does not clearly say that the law of pledges is being violated, the stretching out of garments taken as collateral beside the altar in preparation for sleeping at the temple clearly indicates that many creditors were violating the law meant to protect the poor in Israel.

The Law of Pledges in Deuteronomy

The law of pledges in Deuteronomy was greatly revised to provide dignity and protection to the borrower: “When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 24:10-13).

Whenever the lender lent money to a person, the lender had the power to take an item of value as a pledge that the loan would be repaid. However, Deuteronomy limits the power of the creditor in order to preserve the dignity of the debtor. Deuteronomy preserves the dignity of the borrower by prohibiting the lender from entering the borrower’s house to take the poor person’s property as collateral or as a pledge. Thus, the home of the debtor becomes a secure place where the creditor could not enter to take as collateral anything of value he wanted. Debtors could not oppress poor persons when a loan was made but must keep the dignity of debtors and treat them humanely, as persons of worth.

Some widows could pledge an ox as collateral for a loan (Job 24:3). That someone would pledge a garment as collateral reflects the destitute situation of that individual. Some landless people like widows and orphans were so poor and destitute and had so little possessions to offer as collateral that they could only offer their garments as pledge. If the cloak was given as collateral, then the creditor must return it every night so that the debtor could find some comfort before going to bed. The law of pledges implies that such an arrangement could continue as long as the loan was outstanding. However, according to Brueggemann, “This requirement perhaps intends to make the daily pick up and return of collateral so inconvenient that the need for the collateral is waived.”[3]

In Deuteronomy 24:12-13, the law restricts the right of the creditor to take a cloak as collateral. Although the law allows creditors to take garments of poor people as collateral, the law does not allow creditors to take a widow’s garment as collateral because she has little or no means of support. When it comes to the widow, the lawmaker says: “you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge” (Deuteronomy 24:17). Three groups of persons are mentioned in Deuteronomy 17: the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow. These are considered the most vulnerable groups of people in Israelite society because they are landless. A widow was considered one of the most defenseless and vulnerable persons in Israelite society.

Thus, the law of pledges is Deuteronomy 24:17 is unique because it singles out the woman to protect her against the abuse of a creditor. The Deuteronomic revision of the law of pledges limits the power of lenders when lending money to widows. The garment of a widow cannot be used as collateral. Taking the cloak of a widow was forbidden by law because it deprived her of an item that would affect her comfort and protection at night. By singling out the widow, the Deuteronomic reformer was emphasizing that the widow must be treated with justice and respect.

What the law of pledges in Deuteronomy is emphasizing is that the poor and the destitute have rights that a society cannot violate. In a culture where people with wealth and property can use and abuse others, a woman who has no husband and no property still has rights and dignity as an individual and as a woman.

Posts on the Social Concern in Deuteronomy:

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: The Deuteronomic Reform

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: The Law of the Sabbath

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: The Forgiveness of Debts

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: Lending Money to the Poor

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: Widows and the Law of Pledges

The Deuteronomic Concern for Women

The Social Concern of Deuteronomy: The Law of the Hebrew Slave

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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[1] Paula S. Hiebert, “‘Whence Shall Help Come to Me?’: The Biblical Widow,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, ed. Peggy L. Day (Minneapolis: Augusburg Fortress, 1989), 130.

[2] O. J. Baab, “Widow,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 4:842-43.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 238.

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