A widow is a woman whose husband has died and orphans are children whose parents, for whatever reason, are not in the child’s life. In biblical times, the main cause of a child being orphaned is that the orphan’s parents had died.
Husbands and fathers play an irreplaceable role in a family. When the man is not there, the wife and child can suffer in many ways. In our world, those who are helpless tend to be taken advantage of by those who think they can get away with it. The Bible tells us that God Himself steps in to fill the role of protecting and caring for orphans and widows. “A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows, is God in his holy habitation.” Psalm 68:5
“Lord, thou hast heard the desire of the humble: thou wilt prepare their heart, thou wilt cause thine ear to hear: To judge the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may no more oppress.” Psalm 10:17-18
Often in Scripture, when widows are referred to, it carries the idea of a woman whose husband has died who also has no one to provide for her. Widows are often grouped with vulnerable members of society such as the fatherless, aliens, and the poor (Deuteronomy 14:29; 16:11; 24:20; 26:12). The Bible says widows are to be treated with honor and compassion and offered protection so that no one takes advantage of them. God commands us to protect and care for orphans and widows (Psalm 82:3).
When God gave the Law to Moses and the Israelites, He gave instructions for how to treat the orphans and widows among them—with harsh consequences promised if they failed in their responsibility.
“Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry; And my wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.” Exodus 22:22–23
Caring for those in distress is not optional for followers of Christ. In ancient times, the primary purpose of women in marriage was to produce children and heirs to carry on the family line. A childless widow endured double adversity, with no husband to provide for and protect her, and no son to carry on the family name and care for her in her old age. She might have been considered a disgrace to her family and left in a precarious position.
At harvest time, widows could glean in the fields of grain and gather leftover grapes and olives: “When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands.” Deuteronomy 24:19
The primary Old Testament law that protected widows from poverty and cruel treatment was that of the levirate marriage. The purpose of the law was to ensure that a man who died before producing a son might still be guaranteed a male heir. The unmarried brother of the widow’s husband would take the widow as his wife and perform “the levirate duty.” The first son born to the widow was regarded as the legal descendant of her deceased husband. The law of levirate marriage is illustrated in the stories of Tamar and Onan and of Ruth and Boaz.
In the New Testament, widows are also given special consideration. Proper religious work, according to God, involves caring for widows and orphans: ““Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” James 1:27.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their ill-treatment of widows (Mark 12:40).
God has deep compassion for those who are left alone, and the church is to demonstrate that same compassion. In 1 Timothy 5, the apostle Paul gives a detailed outline of how the church and individual families are to care for widows.
According to Paul, a widow who received financial and material support from the church had to meet certain qualifications. First and foremost, the widow had to be truly in need and completely alone in the world: “But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.” 1 Timothy 5:4
It is the duty and obligation of families to care for their aging and needy family members. Christian children and grandchildren have a special privilege and opportunity to put their faith in action by giving back love and support to their parents and grandparents, and especially to widows who are alone.
Today’s Western societies, where independence takes precedence over family relationships, have lost sight of the value of God’s purpose for creating extended families. But among God’s people, families ought to be the primary source of support for widows.
Paul goes on to give guidelines for a widow to be eligible to receive the church’s support. Besides having no one to take care of her, she ought to be a woman of prayer, a dedicated servant of the Lord, more than sixty years of age, faithful to her husband when he was alive, and committed to good deeds like caring for children, showing hospitality, and serving God’s people (1 Timothy 5:9–10). In order to receive charity in the early Christian church, eligible widows were enrolled on a list (verse 11). The age designation was because sixty was considered the age of retirement in the first century, and these women were past the age of remarrying. Younger widows were more likely to remarry; in fact, Paul counsels them to do so (verse 14).
“Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” Isaiah 1:17