The Bible has a lot to say about caring for orphans and widows. In ancient Israelite society, orphans and widows were among the most vulnerable groups, as they often lacked the protection and provision of a male head of household. God calls His people to look after the needs of orphans and widows repeatedly throughout Scripture.
Here are some of the key passages in the Bible that address how God’s people should treat and care for orphans and widows:
Old Testament Instructions to Care for Orphans and Widows
“You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” (Exodus 22:22-24)
This verse in Exodus makes it clear that mistreating orphans and widows provokes God’s wrath. He promises to hear their cries and bring justice on their behalf.
“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)
God reminds the Israelites to treat orphans, widows and foreigners justly and kindly, since they know what it’s like to be mistreated as slaves in Egypt before God rescued them.
“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.” (Deuteronomy 24:19-22)
God commands the Israelites to intentionally leave portions of their harvest in the fields for orphans, widows and foreigners to glean and collect. This ensured the vulnerable would be provided for.
“Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.'” (Deuteronomy 27:19)
Withholding justice from orphans and widows brings divine curses upon the perpetrators.
“Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” (Psalm 68:5)
This verse describes God as a father to the fatherless (orphans) and a protector of widows, caring for those without a husband to care for them.
“The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” (Psalm 146:9)
Again, God cares for and protects the vulnerable classes of foreigners, orphans and widows, while bringing justice against those who oppress them.
“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:17)
The prophet Isaiah calls God’s people to actively pursue justice for orphans and widows.
Throughout the Old Testament, God insists His people defend the rights of orphans and widows, provide for their needs, and correct oppression against them. Neglecting or harming them provokes God’s wrath, while assisting them pleases Him.
Jesus’ Care for Widows in the Gospels
Jesus continued this focus on and care for widows when He walked the earth:
“And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.'” (Mark 12:42-44)
Jesus upheld a poor widow who gave all she had to the temple treasury as an example of profound sacrificial giving.
“And he came to the gate of the city and behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the city was with her.” (Luke 7:12)
Jesus had compassion on this widow who had lost her only son and miraculously raised him from the dead.
“And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'” (Luke 18:3-5)
Though she had no husband to defend her rights, Jesus commended the persistence of this widow in seeking legal protection. He said she rightly sought justice against her opponent.
Throughout His ministry, Jesus showed concern for widows in difficult situations. He commended those who gave generously in spite of poverty and demonstrated God’s heart for defending and providing for widows.
Instructions for the New Testament Church
This emphasis carried over to teachings for the early church:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27)
James defines part of true, godly religion as caring for orphans and widows in their distress. This reflects God’s heart for those in vulnerable situations.
“Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God…But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever…Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.” (1 Timothy 5:3-10)
Paul gives criteria for who should be honored and supported as a widow indeed (having no family to provide for her). He says caring for widows, especially those over 60 who have lived godly lives, should be a priority for the church.
The apostles maintained Jesus’ teaching that honoring and providing for widows should be part of living out the Christian faith.
Principles for Applying Bible Teaching on Orphans and Widows
While the cultural context for orphans and widows was specific to ancient societies, these principles remain relevant today:
- God cares deeply about protecting and providing for the vulnerable.
- He calls His people to actively defend, care for, and meet the needs of those who lack other support.
- True religion involves practical love, not empty profession.
- Our generosity should align with Kingdom priorities, not just personal preferences.
- Churches must make caring for marginalized groups a priority.
- Pure religion means keeping oneself from worldliness and caring for those in need.
In today’s context, God may lead His people to care for modern “orphans and widows” – the poor, refugees, victims of injustice, abused women and children, victims of disasters, and others in distress without adequate support. A biblical worldview recognizes the need to defend and provide for those who cannot care for themselves.
The Bible also has application in how the church cares for literal widows and orphans today. This includes:
- Honoring elderly widows who have lived godly, sacrificial lives
- Providing financial and social support for needy widows with no family
- Partnering with and supporting Christian adoption agencies and foster care
- Caring for orphans’ practical needs
- Encouraging adoption among Christian couples
- Visiting and blessing widows and orphans in their distress
- Defending the rights of the fatherless in court
- Training youth aging out of foster care in life skills
The specific applications may vary by time and culture, but God’s heart for the vulnerable remains constant. His people must care for “orphans and widows” however that translates in their communities, defending their rights and providing generously for their needs.
In summary, throughout Scripture God emphasizes caring for the orphans and widows in ancient cultures. Their vulnerable status made them targets for oppression and neglect. God heard their cries and insisted His people defend and provide for them. Jesus continued this focus in His earthly ministry. The New Testament church made meeting needs of widows a priority. Though cultural contexts change, God still calls His people to reflect His heart by caring for the vulnerable.