WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 2

WOA Approach to Ethics: Part 2

Part 2: Defining the Widow, Orphan, and Exile 

 The traditions contained in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures span a period of almost 2000 years.[1] The mega-narrative has stories of creation, the early patriarchs, delivery from slavery in Egypt, settlement in the new land, the monarchy, a divided kingdom, exile and national humiliation, the return to Palestine, the domination of Greece and Rome, the mission of Jesus, and the birth of the early church. Life is contested and fragile at every turn during these two millennia. At one end, Abraham is forced to reside as an alien in Egypt because of a famine (Gen 12.10). Near the other end of the mega-narrative, the apostle Paul organizes a collection of funds from churches in the Roman Empire to alleviate a famine in Palestine (2 Cor. 8-9). He has accepted the ethical standard of remembering the poor (Gal. 2.10).

The widow, the orphan, and the exile are social groups that represent extreme poverty and marginalization. Of course, not every member of these broad categories was destitute. However, in general these three classes of people lived at the edges of social and economic life in their communities. They came to represent the poor that struggled to survive deprived of dignity and security.  Accordingly, the prophetic tradition provided moral instruction that recalled the Torah’s concern for the widow, the orphan, and the alien.

Render true judgement, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor. Zech 7.8


In the following paragraphs we will show how these three groups provide meaningful descriptions of poverty and vulnerability.


The Widow

Malina and Rohrbaugh (1992) describe widows as the stereotype of all oppressed and exploited people.[2] More than half of the references to widows in the Hebrew Scriptures are in connection with orphans or orphans and aliens. Widows were characterized by their marginal social position, vulnerability to exploitation, and poverty.


Our brief presentation will concentrate on widows in Palestine while noting that there was greater freedom for women (including widows) in the cities of the first century Roman Empire. In Palestine, women were raised in the home of their fathers until marriage was arranged. At that point a woman entered into the patriarchal structures of the kinship group of her husband. A woman always lived under the authority of a man. The life of a married woman was often difficult. Child birth was precarious and infant mortality rates were high. It has been estimated that the average life expectancy of a woman during Biblical times was 34 years. Biblical scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier (Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993) observes that a woman’s social position was just above that of a male slave in a household.

Women generally slid down the social ladder upon the death of their husbands. They had a right to stay in the family home, but could not inherit title to the property. In times of scarcity, their presence could be an inconvenience and burden for relatives and children. Widows could not defend their rights in legal tribunals apart from the intervention of a sympathetic male to represent them.

King David’s conquest of Jerusalem and the establishment of “the city of David” (2 Sam. 5.6-12) was an important hinge point in the social and economic history of Israel. The nation rapidly made the transition from a federation of rural communities to an urban monarchy with an established elite class. The egalitarian nature of village life was eroded and replaced by a wealthy minority that increased landholdings, wealth, and power. The eighth century prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem criticized members of the ruling class that used their power to make widows their spoil (Isa. 10.2). The domination of the elite minority in Samaria in the northern kingdom likewise had an adverse impact on the well-being of the orphan and the alien.

The book of Job offers significant portrayals of the treatment of widows, orphans, and aliens.[3] In regard to widows, an unrighteous man hears the entreaties of a widow but sends her away empty handed (Job 22.9). He may even exploit her by taking her productive assets as a loan guarantee (Job 24.3). In contrast, a righteous person brings joy to the life of a widow (Job 29.13). Widows, and other people in need, can count on the generosity and counsel of those who are righteous in their community (Job 31.17, 21).

When we move to the New Testament, we find that Jesus spoke about Torah experts (scribes) that devoured widows’ houses – a probable reference to cheating a widow while pretending to represent her interests. The death of the only son of the widow of Nain was beyond tragic because she had lost her male family representative and protector (Luke 7.11-17). The persistent widow in a parable was forced to humiliate herself in public because no male would take up her cry for justice (Luke 18. 1-5). The early church in Jerusalem distributed food to widows (Acts 6.1) and the book of James urged congregations to care for widows in their distress (James 1.27).


The Orphan

Life was difficult for children in the ancient world. It is estimated that only about 50% of children lived past the age of ten years. The children of slaves were “assets” that worked from an early age. In rural areas, children were needed to assist in farm and domestic labor. Childhood ended with puberty when girls were married and boys were introduced to adult responsibilities. Unprotected children were objects of physical and sexual abuse throughout the Mediterranean world, although the treatment was probably less grievous in Jewish society.

The Hebrew term yathom actually means fatherless. A child without a father shared with the widow a social position of weakness, marginalization, and poverty. The danger for girls was even more acute than for males. They were particularly vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and slavery. Daughters had inheritance rights only if there were no sons (Num. 27.8-11). Orphaned girls would be less desirable as future wives.

The Torah made certain provisions for orphans, along with widows and aliens.

  • The harvest of crops was to be done in such a way that some production was left for orphans, widows, and aliens to glean (Dt. 24.19-22).
  • A tithe of production was to be collected every third year for the benefit of orphans, widows, aliens, and the Levites (who were landless) (Dt. 14.28-29).
  • Provisions were to be made so that orphans, widows, aliens, and Levites were included in the celebration of annual festivals in communities (Dt. 16.11, 14).


The previous observations about the monarchy, the urban elite, and the loss of patterns of rural life apply to the vulnerable position of orphans. The prophet Isaiah publicly criticized powerful men who made legal decrees for preying on orphans (Isa. 10.2) and called on the general populace to defend their cause (Isa. 1.17). The portrayal of righteousness in the book of Job includes feeding orphans and rescuing them from oppression (Job 31.17, 21; 29.12). The book of Sirach, containing traditions from Jerusalem in the second century BCE, encourages adult males to act as fathers to orphans (Sir. 4.10). Sirach’s words mean that males should embrace the duty of providing protection from predatory enemies and assume responsibility for the needs of fatherless children.

It is surprising that the Greek word orphanos is found only twice in the New Testament. In the fourth gospel, Jesus promises not to leave the disciples as orphans, a description that implies that they will lack his protection, guidance, and care (Jn. 14.18). The letter of James encourages the church to seek the welfare of orphans and widows (Jas. 1.27). The compassion of Jesus for children in general is well attested in the synoptic tradition (e.g., Mk. 9.33-37; Mt. 18.1-5; Lk. 9.46-48; Mk. 10-13-16; Mt. 19.13-15; Lk. 18.15-17).

The  Alien

The Hebrew term ger can be translated as alien, sojourner, stranger or even refugee. In rural patriarchal societies, aliens were forced to leave their homelands and kinship groups due to adverse circumstances. The factors included famine, disputes, and violence. The alien is an ethnic outsider, landless, vulnerable, and poor. Das and Hamoud (2017) emphasize that aliens suffer from residing in a social location where they do not belong.  The story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt (Gen. 12.10-20) provides insights into the vulnerability of aliens in places dominated by other ethnic groups. The couple and their band leave the Negeb region because of a famine. Abram realizes that he is vulnerable because Sarai is a desirable woman. He feels compelled to lie by referring to her as his sister rather than his wife. Court officials force her to enter the royal palace as a concubine of Pharaoh and Abram is unable to defend her. God’s intervention is required to save the couple.

While other ancient near eastern cultures showed concern for widows and orphans, the Hebrew Bible is unique in elevating the just treatment of aliens as a sacred duty. The previous section showed how communities were to make provision for widows, orphans, and aliens by leaving some crops in the field, collecting a special tithe every third year, and including these groups in community celebrations. In addition, the Torah accorded aliens the same legal protection and obligations as enjoyed by ethnic Hebrews (Ex. 12.49; Lev. 24.22)). Aliens were to participate in the Sabbath rest along with Hebrew (Ex. 20.10; 23.12) The wages of aliens (along with other poor laborers) were to be paid before sunset and the community bore responsibility to ensure that they were not deprived of justice (Dt 24.14,17). Hebrew community members were to embrace them with love and to recall their ancestors had been aliens in Egypt (Lev. 19.34).

The book of Psalms reveals that aliens, along with widows and orphans, lacked protection from violence (Ps. 94.6). God watches over aliens and brings down those who exploit them (Ps. 146.9). The book of Job is instructive once again about the virtue of righteousness in regard to marginalized people. The righteous champion the cause of aliens ((Job 29.6) and offer hospitality in their homes (Job 31.32). The latter theme reappears in the gospel tradition where Jesus self-identifies with aliens and commends hospitality (Mt 25.35, 38, 44). St. Paul writes about a Christian communities that overcome the boundaries of ethnicity and social class so that no one is marginalized as a stranger (1 Cor. 12.13; Gal. 3.28).

In the final paragraph of this overview, we wish to make a further observation following Donald Gowan (1987). There are certain characteristics to the social vulnerability and isolation of these three groups:

  • Widows are poor and powerless because of an unexpected event (the death of their husbands) and their gender.
  • Orphans are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because of an event (death of their fathers), their age, and gender in the case of girls.
  • Aliens are marginalized because adverse circumstances forced them to relocate outside of their ethnic and kinship groups. Gender may be an additional factor of their vulnerability.

These different factors are suggestive as we seek to apply the WOA principle to ethical issues of our own time.

In Part 3 we will examine how the mission of Jesus moved him constantly to the margins of communities to meet with and care for vulnerable people.

[1] Abraham probably lived in the middle bronze epoch (around 1850 BCE). The last books of the New Testament were written around the end of the first century CE.

[2] 1992, page 368.

[3] The dating of Job is challenging. The traditions seem rooted in the time of the monarchy although the final form may be post-exile.

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