“God, help the widows and orphans.” This petition has become somewhat of an empty phrase in many prayers. The UN observes 23 June as International Widows Day, and it is an opportunity to take a special look at women in biblical times who had to take charge of their lives.
The loss of one’s life partner is devastating. Even today the death of a husband spells social and financial ruin for many women around the world. Without a husband, women in Old Testament times had a lower standard of living and were vulnerable. Widows were socially, economically, and legally disadvantaged.
God hears the widows’ cry for help
The Bible tells us how God took special care of groups who were socially marginalised, including widows, orphans, and foreigners. There were certain rules to help them. From Ruth 2 we know that foreigners, widows, and orphans were allowed to gather any sheaves that the reapers left behind. This was prescribed in Deuteronomy 24: 19. There it says that bundles of grain that might have been overseen by the reapers should be left for the widows, orphans, and foreigners. It also says there that farmers were not to beat their olive trees a second time, but leave what was left to foreigners, widows and orphans. The same was to happen in the vineyards. Farmers were not to go through their vines a second time (Deuteronomy 24: 20–21). What’s more, this group was entitled to a tenth of the harvest in the third year (Deuteronomy 26: 12). They were also to be remembered on special feast days.
Kings in particular were under obligation to help widows, at the risk of being considered weak. Joab took advantage of this because he wanted to help David’s son, Absalom, after he had killed his half-brother Ammon, who had raped his sister. So Joab sent for a wise woman from Tekoa to be brought to the king. He told her that she was to pretend that she was a widow (2 Samuel 14) so that David would have to listen to her and help her. It worked; she was able to make a difference and was able to get David to forgive Absalom.
Normally, widows would try to reintegrate into the patriarchal family. They could go back to their own family, as Orpah did (Ruth 1) or remarry. There were also rules governing levirate marriage, meaning the marriage between a widow and her deceased husband’s brother (e.g. Deuteronomy 25: 5–20 or 29:9–10). In Genesis 38 we read the story of Tamar, who had to fight for her right to be financially secure within a levirate union.
Widows with special tasks
However, we do not only find destitute and socially disadvantaged widows in the Old Testament. Judith, from the book of the same name, was a rich, beautiful, and God-fearing woman. She was able to deliver her Jewish countrymen from oppression by ingratiating herself and gaining the trust of Holofernes, the Assyrian conqueror and pretending to seduce him. Full of anticipation of satisfying his desire for her, Holofernes got drunk and Judith was able to cut off his head and thus end the siege.
A widow who herself acted as a helper in need was the widow of Zarephath, who helped Elijah survive during the drought. Elijah told her that God would bless her if she would first make him something to eat and then for her son and herself. She believed him and prepared something to eat in spite of the desperate situation. What Elijah had promised came to pass, and the flour and oil did not run out.
Jesus and the widows
Also in Jesus’ time, widows were threatened by poverty. Jesus saw these women, He saw their poverty. The narrative of the widow’s mite, found in Mark 12: 41–44 and in Luke 21: 1–4, shows that Jesus was aware just how poor widows were. Although the woman only put two small copper coins into the temple treasury, she gave more than the rich, because she gave everything she had, fully trusting in God’s help (Luke 18: 1–8).
Similarly, the fact that justice was often denied to widows did not leave Jesus cold. He addressed the legal situation of widows in the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18: 1– 8). The parable tells us that a widow kept coming back and pestering a judge to help her until the judge was so annoyed that he ended up helping her.
When the man died, the eldest son would normally take care of the widow and provide for the family. Things were so much worse for widowed women if there were no sons or an only son died, as was the case with the story in Luke 7: 11–17, in which Jesus encountered a widow whose only son had died. This was certainly not an isolated case, but Jesus felt such compassion for her that He went to her, comforted her, and brought her son back to life.
Widows in the early church
Widows in the first Christian churches often received alms and even Deacons were appointed for their formal care (Acts 6: 1–3), but childless widows 60 years and older also had a special status in the church. Not only because they conformed to the abstinent lifestyle promoted by Paul (1 Corinthians 7), but also because they did not have a large household to look after and could therefore support the church and perform various tasks. They performed diaconal and pastoral tasks, did house visits, engaged in teaching, baptised, and heard confessions. They could also take on leadership functions in the congregation and were communicators. Some widows had a place in the chancel with the bishops and were also allowed to be present in the chancel during the celebration of Holy Communion. They were very respected and prayed a lot (1 Timothy 5: 5).
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