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WIDOW (אַלְמָנָה, H530, widow, silent one; χήρα, G5939, widow, one bereaved).

The widow was classified with the “fatherless” and the “sojourner” from the earliest of Bible times as one to be sincerely pitied (Deut 14:29; 16:11; 24:19; 26:12; Ps 94:6).

The widow’s future.

The ideal future for a widow was remarriage. Until that opportunity arose she might stay at her father’s home (Gen 38:11) or even at her mother-in-law’s house (Ruth 1:16). If the daughter of a priest became a childless widow, she could return to her home where she could still eat of her father’s food (Lev 22:13). Under a provision known as the “Levirate marriage,” a brother or the next of kin of a deceased man should under certain circumstances marry the widow (Deut 25:5-10; Gen 38:11). A son born to this marriage would be considered to be the deceased man’s son. Concern for the widow’s future seems to be mixed. At times the inheritance stands out as fundamental in the provisions set forth, and at other times the concern is for the preservation of a closely knit family.

The law considered a widow’s oath as binding (Num 30:9). In contrast a husband could cancel out his wife’s vow. The widow was treated in this instance as a special legal person equal to a man. At the same time the high priest was forbidden to marry a widow (Lev 21:14). This prohibition was enlarged so as to apply to all priests (Ezek 44:22).

The laws of mercy relative to the widow.

In actual practice the lot of the widow seems to have been a very hard one in Biblical times. She was made a special ward of the court based upon the theme that God Himself is the special protector of widows (Ps 68:5). God executes justice for the widow seeing that she is supplied with food and clothing (Deut 10:18). On the other side, God cursed any one who perverted the justice due a widow (27:19). Grapes, grain, and olives must be made available to the widow to glean (24:19-21). She also participated in the third year tithe along with the fatherless and the sojourner (14:29).

The flouting of these laws.

The fact that laws were made to protect widows from cruel treatment stands as a demonstration that such acts were all too common. The wicked are described in Job 24:21 as those who “do no good to the widow.” Job himself, however, “caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy” (29:13). One of the strongest indictments of the wicked is in terms of those who “slay the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless” (Ps 94:6). When the prophets indict their people for injustice a part of the evidence of the correctness of the charge is the mistreatment of widows (Isa 1:23). In the “day of the Lord” those who oppress hired laborers, the widow, and the orphan will be the objects of swift judgment (Mal 3:5).

The widow seems to have been easily identified as she wore special garments (Gen 38:14). The wicked tried to use these as a security for a loan, so the law had to step in and make such a practice illegal (Deut 24:17).

Widows in the Christian community.

From the earliest stage, the Christian community made the care of widows their responsibility (Acts 6:1; 9:39ff.). Systematic charity was to be given the widows when they were aged or had no relatives to support them. This may have been an obligation deduced from the fifth commandment. The widows themselves were grouped together as a body concerned with deeds of kindness to the poor. Jesus praised the widow who gave her whole income to the Temple (Luke 21:2-4).

By the time the pastoral epistles were written, the Christian community had not changed its basic attitude toward widows but experience was forcing some reconsideration (1 Tim 5:3-16). There was a need to distinguish between those who really needed help and those who could be left to the care of relatives. The limited resources of the church forced such a restriction. “If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn of their religious duty to their own family” (1 Tim 5:4).

Some segments of the Early Church apparently developed an officially recognized order of widows (1 Tim 5:9-15). This reference is the first clear description in Christian lit. of such an order. Ignatius, Polycarp and Tertullian deal with the development of the order in their time. The discussion in 1 Timothy suggests considerable dissatisfaction with the way the order was operating. Several qualifications are given. The widow was to be over sixty years of age to be enrolled. She was to be the wife of only one husband. A reputation for good works should have been acquired. This practical charity involved looking after children, being hospitable, washing the feet of Christians and relieving people in distress. There was concern that the order of widows not have in its group those who were gossips busybodies and gadabouts. This special class of widows seems to have continued into the 2nd cent. a.d.

Figurative use of the term.

There are a few striking fig. uses of the word “widow” in both the OT and the NT. For example, the “virgin daughter of Babylon” who said “I shall be mistress for ever” shall become a widow in a day (Isa 47:1, 7). The term is also applied by the prophet to Israel in her desolation as she is urged to “forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood” (Isa 54:4). It is difficult for Jerusalem to ignore its desolation so the writer cries out concerning the city, “How like a widow has she become” (Lam 1:1). The Christian seer in the Book of Revelation hears the angelic messenger speak of a fallen Babylon which was so proud that she boasted that “A queen I sit, I am no widow, mourning I shall never see” (Rev 18:7). See Marriage; Family.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

In the Old Testament widows are considered to be under the special care of Yahweh (Ps 68:5; 146:9; Pr 15:25). Sympathetic regard for them comes to be viewed as a mark of true religion (Job 31:16; Jas 1:27). Deuteronomy is rich in counsel in their behalf (24:17, etc.).

The word is first mentioned in the New Testament in Ac 6:1: "There arose a murmuring of the Grecian Jews against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration." Paul charges that they be particularly cared for, especially those that are "widows indeed," i.e. poor, without support and old (1Ti 5:2-16). Some try to find proof in this passage of that ecclesiastical order of widows mentioned in post-apostolic writings.

See Sub-apostolic Literature; WOMAN, IV, 5.

George B. Eager