ORPHAN (Heb. יָתוֹם, H3846, literally “fatherless,” used expressly for boys; rarely if ever for girls). The word does not strictly mean “orphan,” but rather “fatherless,” “bereft,” and has in view the OT concept that a person was without legal standing if not incorporated into the covenant by circumcision or represented by the kinsman-redeemer. Fatherless children of both sexes were to be provided with special three-year tithes. A further provision was the special plots of “gleanings” left in fields for such individuals (Deut 14:29; et al.). The OT repeatedly pleads the case of the two non-covenantal states, the widow and the fatherless (Exod 22:22). Since inheritance was through the male heir, the plight of a widow without sons as in the case of Naomi (Ruth) was esp. tragic. Daughters only inherited in the extreme case of no male heirs surviving (Num 27:7-11).
In the NT the term Gr. ὀρφανός, G4003, “orphaned,” appears frequently and is based upon the OT usage. It represents the highest degree of the ministry of mercy (James 1:27).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
or’-fan: This word occurs once only in the Old Testament (La 5:3, where it stands for yathom, elsewhere rendered "fatherless," and in the Septuagint always orphanos); in the Apocrypha it occurs 3 times (2 Esdras 2:20; Tobit 1:8; 2 Macc 8:28). There is no clear case where it means the loss of both parents. The Scriptures devote considerable attention to the widow and orphan, and the idea is that the child is fatherless. It is not found in the King James Version of the New Testament; but the Greek word orphanos occurs twice, Joh 14:18 (the King James Version "comfortless," the Revised Version (British and American) "desolate," margin "orphans") and Jas 1:27 ("fatherless").
D. Miall Edwards