Orphans, those without a parent to protect them, and widows, women whose husbands have died, are persons among a group of people who are vulnerable to exploitation. In the Bible, they are often listed together with sojourners (noncitizens) or the poor and needy. The Bible is clear that God values every person and cares deeply for orphans and widows specifically. He also calls His people to share in that care.
Deuteronomy 10:18 declares that God "executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing." The psalmist in Psalm 10:14 said to God, "You have been the helper of the fatherless." Psalm 68:5 says, "Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation." Thus, God sees the unique needs and vulnerability of orphans and widows and acts as their defender and protector.
God calls not only for trusting Him to provide for and protect orphans and widows, but for His people to join Him in this endeavor of loving and caring for these vulnerable people groups. When God gave His people instructions about celebrating yearly feasts and holidays, He commanded that orphans and widows be included in the festivities. Deuteronomy 16:14 says, "You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns."
It was not just on holidays that God's people were to concern themselves with orphans and widows. When they brought ten percent of the land's produce, their tithe, they were to be "giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled" (Deuteronomy 26:12). Another way to ensure that the orphan and widow had access to food was that God's people were not to reap the harvest at the edges of their fields, nor strip the vineyard bare, nor pick up the fruits of their labor that fell to the ground during harvesting. Instead, God commanded "You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner" (Leviticus 19:9–10, see also Deuteronomy 24:19–22 for specific reference to the orphan and widow). We see this being lived out in the book of Ruth.
With this focus on including orphans and widows in religious festivities and ensuring their physical needs were met, it should be obvious that mistreating or oppressing orphans and widows would be a serious contradiction to God's will. However, God did not leave this prohibition unsaid, but rather repeated it myriad times throughout Scripture. God commanded simply in Exodus 22:22, "You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child." God stated through the prophet Jeremiah, "Do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place" (Jeremiah 22:3). God commanded again, through the prophet Zechariah, "Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart" (Zechariah 7:10).
When a widow or an orphan had been wronged, God's people were commanded to seek justice on their behalf. God said, "Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause" (Isaiah 1:17). He declared, "Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow" (Deuteronomy 27:19). God even warned, "Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness… against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts" (Malachi 3:5). God made laws for the provision for and protection of orphans and widows and expected justice to be done any time they were mistreated or oppressed.
In the New Testament, the value of widows and orphans is confirmed along with the call for people to show care to these vulnerable groups. Jesus honored widows by pointing to them as role models from whom to learn. He drew attention to a generous and faith-filled widow as an example to teach His disciples how to trust God with all they had (Mark 12:41–44) and He told a parable about a persistent widow to teach His disciples how to pray (Luke 18:1–8). He said that feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, tending the sick, and visiting the prisoner were ways to love Jesus Himself (Matthew 25:31–40). "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). Similarly, Jesus' brother, James, taught, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27).
In Acts 6, the apostles appointed deacons to ensure the needs of the local widows were being met (Acts 6:1–7). The apostle Paul taught churches to "Honor widows who are truly widows" (1 Timothy 5:3). He said that "If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows" (1 Timothy 5:16). In this way, Paul tried to assure that each widow in need was looked after.
Thus, the call for God's people to care for orphans and widows did not end at the close of the Old Testament, but continues through the New Testament and on to today. This continued call for provision and protection for orphans and widows makes sense because God's character never changes and He has always concerned Himself with their well-being (Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8). "The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless" (Psalm 146:9). May we join God in His work of caring for orphans and widows while recognizing our own need for God's provision and protection in our own lives (Revelation 3:17; Psalm 40:17).
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