Bibliotheca Sacra (July 1973) 223-34.
Copyright © 1973
The Widow, Orphan,
and the Poor
in the Old Testament and
the Extra-Biblical Literature
Richard D. Patterson
The time-honored thesis of conservative scholarship, that the
Old Testament gives at each stage of its formation an accurate
reflection of the cultural contexts of the area and the era with which
it deals, has been increasingly demonstrated by the results of present
day research.1 In turn, the study of the histories, literatures, languages,
and religions of the Ancient Near East has brought greater clarity
to the divinely inspired revelation of God.2 The Old Testament can
Richard D. Patterson, Associate Professor of Ancient Histories and Languages,
for example R. K. Harrison, Old Testament Times (
1970). The readers of this journal are, of course, well acquainted with many
contributions along this line, such as the recent series of articles by Gleason
Archer in Bibliotheca Sacra, CXXVII (January-March, 1970), 3-25; (April-
June, 1970), 99-115; (July-September, 1970), 195-211; (October-December,
1970), 291-98; note also the remarks of H. H. Rowley, The Old Testament
and Modern Study (
2 Note among the many contributions that could be cited: R. K. Harrison,
Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, 1969), pp. 82-414; J. Bar-
ton Payne, et al., New Perspectives on the Old Testament (Waco, TX, 1970);
as well, the fine collections of articles in The Biblical Archaeologist Reader
(Garden City, NY), Vols. 1 and 2, should be mentioned. Scores of articles
relative to new light on the Old Testament have appeared, particularly in
scholarly journals, many spawned by the pioneering efforts of W. F. Albright
whose many contributions have forced Old Testament scholars to face the
value of a more conservative approach to the Scriptures. See, for example, his
Archaeology, Historical Analogy and Early
Biblical Tradition (
LA, 1966), New Horizons in Biblical Research (New York, 1966), "The
Impact of Archaeology on Biblical Research, 1966," New Directions in Biblical
Archaeology, ed. by David Noel Freedman and Jonas C. Greenfield- (Garden
City, NY, 1971), etc. In addition a veritable host of books has appeared with
regard to archaeological light on the Scriptures. Many of them are written
with the more general reading audience in mind, but are still of value for
the scholar, for example, the Baker Studies in Biblical Archaeology series. For
further details the reader is referred to the standard biblically oriented
texts, journals, and dictionaries on the Ancient Near East.
224 / Bibliotheca Sacra - July 1973
now be seen as part of a broader and intricately interrelated cultural
milieu whose customs, institutions and linguistic and literary pat-
terns were shared in large measure throughout the Fertile Crescent.3
Nevertheless, it must be quickly added that although the Old Testa-
ment partakes of that international culture and even utilizes it in
the presentation of God's life giving message, its concept of God,
its high ethical standards and its objective verifiability make it dis-
tinctively unique among the writings of the pre-Christian world.4
Despite the veritable mine of information drawn from the
culture of the Ancient Near East that is readily available, all too
little of that wealth of resource has been tapped by present day
students of the Old Testament. Kitchen rightly laments, "... Old
Testament scholarship has made only superficial use of Ancient Near
Eastern data."5 This is particularly true in the realm of linguistic
studies and even more true in the area of literary comparisons.6 All
3 See, for instance, W. L. Moran, "The Hebrew Language in Its Northwest
Semitic Background," The Bible and the Ancient Near East, ed. by G. Ernest
Wright (Garden City, NY, 1965), pp. 59-84; Edward F. Campbell, Jr., and
David Noel Freedman (eds.), The Biblical Archaeologist Reader, No.3
(Garden City, NY, 1970); J. J. Finkelstein and Moshe Greenberg (eds.),
Oriental and Biblical Studies
Old Testament Parallels
W. D. McHardy (eds.), Hebrew
and Semitic Studies (
Diringer and S. P. Brock, "Words and Meanings in Early Hebrew Inscriptions,"
Words and Meanings,
ed. by Peter R. Ackroyd and Barnabas Lindars (
bridge, 1968), pp. 39-45. In addition, many- scholarly journals have supple-
mental volumes that are devoted to biblical studies in relation to the Ancient
helpful; note especially M. Noth and D. Winton Thomas (eds.) , Wisdom in
fact that their basic theme is highly controversial, the many works of Cyrus
Gordon should probably also be mentioned, for example, Before the Bible
(New York, 1962).
4 C. F. Whitley, The Genius of Ancient
the culture of ancient
East concludes, "It is true that from the
age Israelite sapiental thought was subjected to external and environmental
influences, but it still retained its individuality and developed in its own pecu-
liar way…. It is... its moral and spiritual content which, more than any
other feature, distinguishes Hebrew wisdom from that of neighbouring peo-
ples" (pp. 150-151).
5 K. A. Kitchen, Ancient
Orient and Old Testament (
6 Among the better discussions, note E. A. Speiser, "The Wife-Sister Motif
in the Patriarchal Narrative," Studies and Texts, Vol. I: Biblical and Other
ed. by Alexander Altmann (
The Widow, the Orphan, and the Poor / 225
too often these disciplines have been left to liberal scholars, with
disastrous results.7 This is due to the fact that such treatments
usually fail to distinguish literary form or motif from theological
content or perspective. The readers of this journal will no doubt
recall the words of Herbert M. Wolf:
If a culture supplies the form, does it not also dictate the content,
the very words used? Inspiration will be weakened unless a careful
distinction is made between form and content. At this point, the
flexibility of forms eases the dilemma somewhat. It seems logical
to argue, however, that God would speak to His people through
contemporary literary forms familiar to them, just as He used
contemporary vocabulary and grammar. The human authors then
adapted these forms under the inspiration of God.8
A case in point is the well-known literary motif of the widow,
the orphan, and the poor. A decade has already passed since F. C.
Fensham called attention to the ubiquitous nature of this motif in
the Ancient Near East.9 While Fensham's article gave an excellent
review of the available data from the ancient world, it failed to see
the essential content and perspective of that literary form as utilized
by the writers of the Old Testament. Drawing from Fensham's
article and other sources garnered from its employment in royal
contexts, numerous examples of this motif may be cited as back-
ground material for Old Testament study.
7 For example, Alexander Altmann (ed.), Biblical Motifs (
1966); Robert Graves and Raphael Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis
(New York, 1966); Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (New York, 1967);
Mary K. Wakeman, "The Biblical Earth Monster in the Cosmological Combat
Myth,". Journal of Biblical Literature, LXXXVIII (September, 1969), 313-20;
G. R. Driver, "Mythical Monsters in the Old Testament," Studi onore di
Giorgio Levi della Vida (
'Three Days and Three Nights' Motif in Jonah 2: 1," Journal of Biblical Liter-
ature, LXXXVI (December, 1967), 446-50; Isaac M. Kikawada, "Two Notes
on Eve," Journal of Biblical Literature, XCI (March, 1972), 33-37; W. E.
Staples, "Epic Motifs in Amos," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, XXV (April,
8 Herbert M. Wolf, "Implications of Form Criticism for Old Testament
Studies," Bibliotheca Sacra, CXXVII (October-December, 1970), 306-7.
9 F. Charles Fensham, "Widow, Orphan, and the Poor in Ancient Near
Eastern Legal and Wisdom Literature," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, XXI
(April, 1962), 129-39;
ment Prophets," Vetus Testamentum Supplements, VII (1960), 75-101, also
includes in his discussion the relationship of this Old Testament motif to the
Semitic World but erroneously finds "that in the prophets' concern for widows
and the fatherless there are quite obvious traces of a Canaanite origin" (p. 83).
226/ Bibliotheca Sacra - July 1973
the poor is detailed in two well-known law codes, that of Urukagina
the founder of the so-called third dynasty of
The most famous of the law codes of
Hammurapi in the eighteenth century B.C., builds upon the con-
cepts of its Sumerian precursors. In his Prologue, Hammurapi affirms
that the gods had called him,
misaram ina matim To make justice appear
ana supim in the land,
raggam u senam To destroy the evil and wicked
ana gulluqim (and so that)
dannum ensam The strong might not oppress
ana la habalim the weak.11
In the Epilogue he adds that he had enacted these laws,
dannum ensam So that the strong might not oppress
ana la babalim the weak (and so as)
ekutam almattam To give justice to the orphaned
sutesurim (homeless) girl and to the widow.12
Throughout the Babylonian legal stipulations and wisdom litera-
ture the care of the widow, the orphan, and the poor is enjoined,
since the ideal king, as the living representative of the god of justice,
the sun god Samas, is expected to care for the oppressed and needy
elements of society.13
the poor was the continual boast of the beneficent king. Thus, Meri-
kare of the First Intermediate Period is instructed by his father,
Khety III, that the good king does not oppress the widow or confis-
cate the property of the orphan.14 King Amenemhat of the Middle
10 Ibid., p. 130.
11 CH Ia: 32-39; for the original ed. see E. Bergmann, Codex Hammurabi:
Textus Primigenius (
12 CH XXIVb: 59-62; for a valuable discussion of the Mesopotamian legal
tradition, see G. R. Driver and John C. Miles (eds.), The Babylonian Laws
13 Fensham, XXI, 130-32.
14 Ibid., XXI, 132.
The Widow, the Orphan, and the Poor / 227
Kingdom's twelfth dynasty lays emphasis on concern for the poor.15
Ramesses III of the twentieth dynasty boasts that he has given
special attention to justice for the widow and the orphan.16 Fenshaw
well remarks that
The parallel trend between Mesopotamian policy of the protection
the weak and that of
of kings and rulers and as an important part of the duty of the
As at either end of the
is attested. Two cases of royal figures are well known. In the Aqhat
Epic, Dan'el the king is described in the following fashion:
apnk dnil mt rpi Thereupon Dan'el the Raphaman ...
. . . picks himself up
ytsu ytb bap tgr he sits before the gate
. . . . . .
ydn dn almnt he judges the cause of the widow(s)
ytpt tpt ytm he adjudicates the case of the
In another epic story, King Keret, who has fallen seriously ill, is
confronted by his grasping son with these words:
ltdn dn 'almnt You did not judge the cause of the
lttpt tpt qsr nps you did not adjudicate the case of
ltdy tsm 'l dl you did not drive out them that
preyed upon the poor;
lpnk ltslhm ytm you did not feed the orphan before
bd kslk 'almnt or the widow behind you.
15 Ibid., XXI, 132-33. This high ethical idea is further demonstrated in an
inscription of a steward of Amenemhat's successor, Sesostris I. The steward,
one Montuwser, makes his boast:
ink it n n mhw I was a father to the orphans,
sm h'rwt a helper of the widows.
For further details see William C. Hayes, The
Scepter of Egypt (
1960), I, 182, 299-300.
16 Fensham XXI, 133.
17 Ibid., XXI, 133-34.
18 2 Aqht V:4-8; for the text, see Cyrus H. Gordon, Ugaritic Tetxbook
228/ Bibliotheca Sacra - July 1973
km 'agt rs mdw Since you've become a brother of
'anst rs zbln a companion of the bed of
rd lmlk 'amlk come down from the kingship
I will be king
ldrktk 'atb I will sit in your authority!19
While further parallels as to the care of the oppressed of society
from other places and cultures of the
forward, enough has been cited to demonstrate that a concern for
the widow, the orphan, and the poor was the constant claim of the
THE OLD TESTAMENT
In turning to the Old Testament, one finds that the same motif
is utilized and indeed is so often mentioned that the conduct, deemed
meritorious because it was the particular prerogative of the ideal,
good shepherd type of king, became the prescribed way of life in
the Israelite social structure.
It is interesting to note that a concern for the widow, the
orphan, and the poor is permanently woven into the fabric of those
crucial sections dealing with the covenant made between God, the
sovereign, and His people,
and its renewal before entering the
Exodus 22:21-24; 23:6, the widow, the orphan, and the poor fall
under the protection of God Himself. This is reiterated in Deuter-
onomy, where God is represented as the supreme judge who has
the interest of these elements of society at heart ( ff.). This
is true not only with regard to the set feasts of
but in the special regulations of
life, as well (Deut. -29; 24:17-22). In the key section of
19 Gordon, Ibid., p. 194, 127:45-63.
20 Thus mention could be made of the practice of levirate marriage for
widows, well attested from many places in the Ancient Near East, not only
among the Babylonians and Assyrians but also with the Hurrians and even
Nuzu Tablets," The Biblical Archaeologist, III (February, 1940), 7-9 (re-
printed in The Biblical Archaeologist Reader, Vol. II, ed. by Edward F.
Campbell, Jr. and David Noel Freedman [Garden City, NY, 1964] pp. 129-30;
and O. R. Gurney, The Hittites (2nd ed.;
21 For an interesting defense of the historic trustworthiness of Deuteronomy,
see Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King, (Grand Rapids, 1963).
The Widow, the Orphan, and the Poor / 229
Deuteronomy in which the climax of the oath of ratification occurs
(26:8-19), the God of redemption invokes the law of charity
upon His people so that they might continuously remember the
magnitude of His redemptive grace toward them. In Deuteronomy
27:19 this provision is reinforced with a curse:
Cursed be he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger,
fatherless, and widow. And all the people shall say, Amen.
THE POETICAL BOOKS
In the book of Job, the evil man is described as one who op-
presses the widow, the orphan, and the poor (14: 1-4, 14, 21). In
the third round of discourses between Job and his "comforters,"
Eliphaz sin language (quite reminiscent of the young prince in the
Keret Epic)22 accuses Job as follows: "Thou hast sent Widows away
empty, and the arms of the fatherless have been broken."23 In his
defense, Job vows that such has not been the case. Indeed, in his
final summation and protestation of his innocence at the end of the
three rounds of discourses, Job again pleads and swears under oath
that he is free of any such evil practices (29:7-7; 31:16-17, 21-23).
The Psalmist likewise extols the God of triumph because of His
righteous character with this same motif (Ps. 68:1-5). Thus he says
A father of the fatherless,
and a judge of the widows,
is God in his holy habitation.24
In the eighty-second Psalm, God is declared to be the righteous judge
who prescribes justice for all the downtrodden:
Defend the poor and fatherless:
do justice to the afflicted and needy.
Deliver the poor and needy:
rid them out of the hand of the wicked.25
22 This does not necessarily demand the acceptance of the view of Tur-
Sinai and Pope on the reading of Job 36: 17; see Marvin H. Pope, Job in
The Anchor Bible (Garden City, 1965), p. 234. Thus, Pope (p. 231) translates
translates the verse in question,
But the case of the wicked you did not judge,
The orphan's justice you belied.
23 Job 22:9.
24 Psalms 68:5.
25 Ps. 82:3-4; Mitchell Dahood, Psalms 11, in The Anchor Bible (Garden
City, 1968), p. 269, properly vindicates the reading of the Masoretic Text
230 / Bibliotheca Sacra - July 1973
In the book of Proverbs, the care of the downtrodden of society
is often mentioned. Thus, Solomon affirms that to oppress the needy
is to bring reproach upon God Himself:
He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker:
but he that honoureth him hath mercy on the poor.26
On the other hand, he who alleviates the needs of the poor shall be
blessed of God.27 Again, he asserts that the Lord watches over the
land of the widow who might otherwise be helpless before proud,
grasping men (). In the First Sayings of the Wise (-
24:22),28 God is depicted as the champion of (1) the poor and
(2) the orphan:
(I) Rob not the poor, because he is poor:
neither oppress the afflicted in the gate:
For the Lord will plead their cause,
and spoil the soul of those that spoiled them.29
(2) Remove not the old landmark;
and enter not into the fields of the fatherless:
For their redeemer is mighty;
he shall plead their cause with thee.30
In the further words of Solomon as recorded by the committee of
Hezekiah, the relation of the ideal king to the needs of the oppressed
of society is clearly indicated:
The king that faithfully judgeth the poor,
his throne shall be established for ever.31
The cause of the widow, the orphan, and the poor is not
neglected by the prophets of
betrayed their wickedness and lack of God-oriented perspective in
their treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor (Isa. ;
10:1-2; Jer. 7:4-16). Typical of this use of the motif are the
words of Ezekiel:
26 Prov. 14:31.
27 Prov. 22:9.
28 For this term, see Gleason Archer, Jr., A Survey of Old Testament In-
see the discussion of William McKane, Proverbs
1970), pp. 371-74.
29 Prov. 22:22-23.
30 Prov. 23:10-11.
31 Prov. 29:14.
The Widow, the Orphan, and the Poor / 231
Behold, the princes of
to shed blood. In thee have they set light by father and mother: in
the midst of thee have they dealt by oppression with the stranger: in
thee have they vexed the fatherless and the widow.32
Feinberg appropriately remarks:
Detail by detail the said and sordid tale unfolds. Parents were
lightly esteemed and robbed of the honor due them, even though
honor to father and mother was one of the most frequently stated
commands of the law (cf. Exodus ; Lev. 20:9; Deut. 27:16).
This relationship ultimately underlies the proper submission of
citizens to their rulers. If parents were slighted, the sojourner could
not hope for consideration. Him they oppressed, forgetting that they
formerly sojourners in
without human protectors, the fatherless and the widow, were
wronged, the wicked forgetting that God had made Himself their
special and sufficient Defender.33
True righteousness, a living relationship with the Lord, would
be evidenced in a type of conduct that reflected His high ethical
Thus saith the Lord; Execute ye judgment and righteousness, and
deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor: and do no
wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow,
neither shed innocent blood in this place.34
of her sins
outstretched hand (Isa. -17) and was herself to become
widowed (Zech. 7:8-14 ). Jeremiah lamented:
How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she
become as a widow!
Our inheritance is turned to stangers, our houses to aliens, we
are orphans and fatherless, our mothers are as widows.35
But thanks be to God! The Just One would remember her cause.
Once He had pled:
Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from
before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment,
relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your
sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be
red like crimson, they shall be as wool.36
32 Ezek. 22:6-7; cf. 25, 29.
33 Charles L. Feinberg, The Prophecy of Ezekiel (
34 Jer. 22:3; cf. 7:4-7.
35 Lam. 1:1; 5:2-3.
232 / Bibliotheca Sacra - July 1973
he would promise that in a future day a redeemed
be restored from her spiritual widowhood:
Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou con-
founded; for thou shalt not be put to shame: for thou shalt forget
the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of
thy widowhood any more. For thy Maker is thine husband; the
Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel;
the God of the whole earth shall he be called.37
Throughout the Old Testament, then, the cause of the widow,
the orphan, and the poor is particularly enjoined
befitting a redeemed people who are entrusted with the character
and standards of their Redeemer. Even in the last book the theme
is utilized in pointing to the coming ministry of the forerunner of
Messiah and of Messiah Himself and of the righteousness that would
then be inaugurated (Mal. 3:1-6).
It is not surprising, therefore, that in the New Testament (though
this is beyond the scope of this article) not only is the cause of the
poor frequently championed, but also the widow is singled out for
special comment: for giving all that she had, right up to the last
mite (Lk. 21: 1-4; Mk. -44), and as a special class of women
in the early church who were to be cared for and honored as models
of great piety and godliness (Acts 6:1; -41; 1 Tim. 5:3-16). As
in the Old Testament, genuine godliness was to be seen in demon-
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To
visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep him-
self unspotted from the world.38
But, one asks, what is the reason for the prominence of this
motif? Why the widow, the orphan, and the poor? In purely human
terms, it is perhaps understandable that the weak and the helpless
of society who were so easily victimized would be the special objects
of concern by an ideally righteous king.39 Yet, this writer suggests
that the raison d' etre of this motif rests much deeper than on a
purely naturalistic basis.
37 Isa. 54:4-5; see also Hos. 14:1-4 for the prophecy of God's future bless-
38 James 1:27.
39 Note Jesus' warning in the Gospels: Matt. 23:14; Mark 12:40; Luke
20:47; one may also recall Andromache's mournful lament with regard to
her widowhood and to her now fatherless son in Homer's Iliad xxii. 586-617.
The Widow, the Orphan, and the Poor / 233
It has been noted that the motif is a common one throughout
the Ancient Near East, and a very early one at that. Without resorting
to allegorization or to over-spiritualization, one wonders if it is too
much to suggest that its early predominance in the
not have been a primeval reflection of God's own self-disclosure
as being the Redeemer of the helpless. Its very antiquity may be
accounted for because it speaks of man's helpless position before
God right from the beginning. Its localization in the
be occasioned by direct contact within the area of God's revelation.
In that light, it is significant that the theme of the widow, the
orphan, and the poor is an integral part of the covenant stipulations
of the Old Testament wherein
resented as the vassal to her sovereign God. It is still more significant
that within that treaty structure the motif is wedded to the redemptive
work of God; it is He who has come to the aid of those who have
no strength. As such, it forms the basis for a similar conduct on the
part of His redeemed people.40
A helpless mankind has existed since the fall; it is still the
same today. Like the widow, a lost world lies prey to the enemy's
evil influence. Except aided by divine redemptive intervention, it
is powerless to help itself despite all of its advanced technology
and knowledge (Rom. 3:23ff.; 5:6-8).
Spiritually speaking, the Christian need never fear widowhood.
The church is ever Christ's bride (Eph. -32) who is even now
being readied for that great marriage feast before her millennial co-
reigning with Him (Rev. 19:7-9). The honored position of the
bride here below is but a foretaste of her eternal felicitude. The
poetess puts it most beautifully:
The Bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear Bridegroom's face;
I will not gaze at glory,
But on my King of grace.
Not at the crown He giveth,
But on His pierced hand,
The lamb is all the glory
Of Immanuel's land.41
As with the orphan, mankind outside of Jesus Christ has
no surety of inheritance, no living relationship with the heavenly
41 Anne Ross Cousin, "The Sands of Time."
234 / Bibliotheca Sacra - July 1973
Father, at all. But Christ, God's unique Son,42 by His redemptive
God's sovereign will, in accordance with His holy nature, had
ordained before the foundation of the world (Rom. -30).
Experientially, Christians are not cut off from their source of
strength and succor. Jesus Himself has said, "I will not leave you as
orphans."43 Truly, that other Comforter, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit
of Truth, the enabler of genuine Christian living, has been given and
has taken up His abode in the Christian that he might be an effective
ambassador of Him who "hath given to us the ministry of recon-
As with the poor, the stranger, the outcast of society, the un-
believer has no wealth, no true enjoyment of life, for in the ultimate
sense there can be no real life apart from the source of life, Jesus
Christ, the life giver (John 10: 9-1 0).
In his Christian experience, the believer is to live a life that is
reflective of that one who "though he was rich, yet for your sakes
he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich."45 His
is to be an abundant life (John ; Phil. ), for He has
brought him into a wealthy place (Ps. 66:12b) in which all the
riches of His grace and power are available to him (John -24).
However, the Christian is to remember that there is still a
lost mankind which stands, spiritually speaking, widowed, orphaned
and destitute of the family of God. He who is the God of the widow,
the orphan, and the poor, who redeemed a helpless
Christian is His ambassador (Gal. ; John 20:21; 2 Cor. 5:18-
21). Moses' solemn challenge is still ours today:
Cursed be he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, father-
less, and widow. And all the people shall say, Amen.46
42 Note the marginal rendering of the Greek monogennes in the New Ameri-
can Standard Bible at John 3: 16.
43 Greek orphanous, John 14: 18.
44 2 Cor.5:18.
45 2 Cor. 8:9.
46 Deut. 27: 19.
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