In biblical Israel, as in the ancient Near East in general, the socioeconomic well‐being of a community depended primarily on the ability of adult males to provide financially for those around them, to protect them from physical harm, and, in general, to uphold their honor (“name”). Persons without a specific male to fulfill these obligations were at greatest risk in the community; therefore, there are many calls for the protection and proper treatment of the husbandless (“widows”) and the fatherless (“orphans”), as well as others at risk in an Israelite community. In the Hebrew Bible, “widows” are mentioned alongside “orphans” in thirty‐four of the forty‐two occurrences of the latter. This pairing continues into the Apocrypha (e.g., 2 Macc. 3.10), the New Testament (James 1.27), and early church writings (e.g., 1 Clem. 8.4). Other individuals at risk mentioned less frequently with “orphans” are aliens (Deut. 24.17, 20, 21), the weak, the needy, the poor, the destitute (Ps. 82.3–4; Isa. 10.1–2; Zech. 7.9–10), and Levites (Deut. 14.29; 16.11, 14). The greatest concerns of these individuals are that they will be unable to protect the property they have (Job 24.3; Prov. 23.10), unable to support themselves financially (2 Kings 4.1), and unable to maintain the “name” of their deceased husband or father (Deut. 25.5–7; 2 Sam. 14.7). They are not, however, necessarily propertyless (see Prov. 23.10; 2 Macc. 3.10).
To provide care for these individuals is to “do justice” to them (Deut. 10.18; 24.17; 27.19; Ps. 10.18). Tragically, the males in a community often shirk this responsibility (Deut. 25.5–10; Ruth 4.6) or even exploit their neighbors and relatives who are at risk (2 Sam. 14.4–11; cf. Judg. 11.1–3). Those who perpetrate such injustices are called “fools” (Prov. 23.10) and “wicked” (Pss. 82.3; 146.9). The failure or inability of “orphans” and others at risk to gain support forces them to turn to royal administrators for help (2 Kings 4.13; 8.5; Jer 22.1–3). So, a primary responsibility of Israel's kings is to care for needy persons, like orphans (Ps. 72.1–4, 12–14). Unfortunately, this responsibility is mentioned most often in prophetic condemnations of the royal bureaucracy for failing to fulfill it (Isa. 1.23; 10.2; Jer. 5.28; Ezek. 22.7). The theological foundation for these condemnations is important to recognize. God is the ultimate example of one who is concerned for the welfare of individuals like orphans (Deut. 10.18; Pss. 10.14, 18; 94.6; 146.9); he is the ultimate “redeemer” for the orphan (Prov. 23.10–11; cf. Ps. 68.6). The king and his officials are watched and criticized more than others because they have been designated as God's overseers of the people, including orphans. The failure of the king and his officials to “do justice” to orphans not only reflects badly on them but also on the God who established them.
In the New Testament, besides the exhortation to “care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1.27), the only reference to “orphans” appears in John 14.18 (“I will not leave you orphaned”). The imagery suggests that Jesus' followers, by themselves, would not be able to maintain their “inheritance” from God; but Jesus is saying that he will act as their protector and provider.
Timothy M. Willis