I am a widower of more than six years now. I know well the pain of saying goodbye to my sweet heart of nearly fifty years of marriage. I was at her side as she battled with cancer for over eight long years. By far the most painful experience of my life, as her main care-giver, was watching her waste away to that dread disease. Then, I am no stranger to what it is like to make the adjustments in the days, weeks, months, and years after a companion’s death. While being a widower is by no means the same as that of being a widow, the two have much in common.
Reading a number of books where widows share their experiences has consumed many hours of my life the last several months. These articles contain some of the counsel they offer to those who come behind them on the road they have traveled. They also include insights from psychologists and sociologists who have devoted years of their lives to a study of the subject. However, the greatest source for guidance for one who is once again a single person due to the death of a spouse is God’s Word. Its teaching provides the foundation and framework for what these articles contain.
On the surface one might think that everyone knows who a widow is. Still, Thurston offers a studied definition. She writes, “In common English usage, a ‘widow’ is a woman who has lost her husband by death, has not remarried, and has thereby acquired certain legal rights of inheritance (from her husband’s estate, for example)” (Bonnie Bowman Thurston, The Widows: A Women’s Ministry in the Early Church [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989], p. 9). She explains further, “The Hebrew word for ‘widow’—almanah—has as its root the word alem, ‘unable to speak.’ (It is related to an Aramaic word meaning to be in pain).” She declares finally, “The Greek word for widow (chera) comes from the Indo-European root ghe, which means ‘forsaken’ or ‘left empty’” (p. 9).
By no means do all widows fit the stereotype of an aging one. Many are younger women who have lost their husbands and may have been left with the added burden of raising small children who have been orphaned by the death. Teterud writes, “. . . widowhood is not a geriatric problem. One out of four widows in the United States is under the age of forty-five. This translates into three million widows” (Wesley M. Teterud, Caring for Widows: You and Your Church Can Make a Difference [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994], p. 20).
The apostle Paul speaks of four kinds of widows in a passage concerning their care in 1 Timothy 5:3-16. He refers to those who are “widows indeed” and describes them as those who are left totally destitute with no one of close kin to assist them financially. Then he writes of widows who have relatives, such as adult children or grandchildren, who can and should take care of them. After this the apostle expresses concern for widows whose main concern is to find pleasure in life. The apostle describes them as living for pleasure and yet they are dead (spiritually) while they live (1 Tim. 5:6). Teterud writes of them as widows who like to party (p. 19). These fit Paul’s category of “younger” widows. Yet by no means are all young widows of that disposition. Perhaps, then, his “younger” widows belong in a separate category. All of this sounds a little like Peterson and Briley who describe their categories of widows under the headings of “The Devastated Person, The Merry and the Not So Merry Widow, and The Insolent Widow” (James A Peterson and Michael L. Briley, Widows and Widowhood: A Creative Approach to Being Alone [New York: Abingdon Press, 1977], pp. 11-27). They offer case studies with which to explain their classification system.
Among scholars statistics concerning widows appear with a focus in various directions. For example, Peterson and Briley report that the average age of widowhood in the United States is fifty-six (p. 133). They explain, “A special U.S. Bureau of the Census report states that in this country, as of March 1971, there were almost ten million widows over the age of 55. Had the census Bureau included those below that age the total would certainly have exceeded ten million” (p. ix). Teterud says 500,000 American wives experience widowhood annually, that eight of ten wives are widowed during their lifetime, and that a wife who loses her mate on the average spends eighteen years as a widow (p. xiii)
Peterson and Briley include widowers as they write, “There are some 12 million widows and widowers in the United States today—10 million widows and 2 million widowers” (7). They go on to explain that some 75,000 men become widowers by age 34 while 135,000 women lose companions by that age. They declare, “It has been found that after age 55, there are some 1.7 million widowers compared to 8 million widows” (p. 7). According to them the ratio of widowers to widows fifty years ago was 1 to 2 but by now it is 1 to 4. One reason is that women now outlive women by about 71/2 years. The authors further report a study which discovered about two-thirds of the women involved “. . . never considered the possibility of widowhood. In light of the greater longevity of women and their high probability of widowhood, this is astonishing” (p. 38).
Scripture devotes a considerable amount of space to show God’s love for the multiplied thousands of widowed women in the world. Nothing is clearer in the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, than God’s concern for the widow. In the early pages of the Bible and throughout its first major division, the Old Testament, Jehovah makes clear His love and concern for the widow. He declares Himself to be her Defender, Provider, Advocate, and the One concerned about her future relationships. This beginning article in a series looks at what the Old Testament says concerning God’s love for widows.
Jehovah is a Defender of the Widow
In the ancient world especially, the widow was vulnerable to those who would take advantage of her. It seems that there have always been vultures in the form of men who are all too ready to pounce on the helpless. Of course, widows and orphans are among the most defenseless in any culture. Acknowledging the existence of such wicked men, the Lord said, “They slay the widow and the alien; they murder the fatherless” (Ps. 94:6). He was much aware of their attitude. He declared, “They say, ‘The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed.’”(Ps. 94:7). It is encouraging, then, to note that from the beginning of history the Lord proclaimed to such greedy bullies, “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless” (Exod. 22:22-24). Jehovah gave assurances to widows even through the psalmist announcing, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling” (Ps. 68:5). Then through the prophet Jeremiah He promised, “Leave your orphans; I will protect their lives. Your widows too can trust in me” (Jer. 49:11).
Jehovah Is a Provider for the Widow
Jehovah took care to reveal Himself in the Old Testament also as a Provider for the widow. He does this by direct intervention, through the laws He wrote, and through the personal, voluntary generosity of His servants.
By Direct Intervention
Jehovah positions Himself with an eye to watching over widows and orphans. He sustains them with the basic necessities of life. The psalmist declared, “The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow” (Ps. 146:9). Vulnerable aliens are also among those who are the objects of God’s all-seeing eyes. He is both their Protector and Provider. The first leader of the people of Israel wrote, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18).
During a period of drought in the land of Israel, at the direction of the Lord, Elijah asked a widow for something to eat from her table. However, at the moment she was almost as destitute as the prophet. Her pathetic response was to inform the man of God that she was just getting ready to cook the last bit of food she had in the house. Her cupboard contained only a handful of flour and a small jar of cooking oil. Once she prepared that and she along with her son had eaten, she supposed they would gradually starve to death. With a prophetic word from the Lord, Elijah promised that if she would serve him a small plate of her food first, the Lord would then provide enough for her family to eat throughout the entire period of the famine. He declared, “For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land’” (1 Kings 17:14).
Through the Laws He Wrote
Beside these things, Jehovah built into His rules concerning the eating of the sacred food at the Tabernacle special provisions for a daughter of a priest who had lost her husband. If she had no children to take the primary responsibility of caring for their mother and she returned to live with her father, she may eat from his table food that was otherwise reserved only for the consecrated of the Lord and his immediate family. The Lord’s instructions were, “But if a priest’s daughter becomes a widow or is divorced, yet has no children, and she returns to live in her father’s house as in her youth, she may eat of her father’s food. No unauthorized person, however, may eat any of it” (Lev. 22:13).
Further, the Lord decreed that farmers contribute to the support of widows and orphans in a unique way. To them He said:
When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. (Deut. 24:19-21).
Jehovah’s provision for the widow even included her sharing in the sacred tithes. He instructed:
At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deut. 14:28, 29).
Directions for celebrating the Feast of Pentecost which came at the end of the grain harvest in Israel annually contained guidance for sharing a portion of the fruit of the fields with widows. Jehovah declared:
Count off seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain. Then celebrate the Feast of Weeks to the LORD your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the LORD your God has given you. And rejoice before the LORD your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name—you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, the Levites in your towns, and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows living among you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and follow carefully these decrees (Deut. 16:9-12).
Obedience to God in sharing one’s goods with others in these ways was to be viewed as an act of sincere worship. As one contributed in such offerings the Law of Moses required, “Then say to the LORD your God: ‘I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them’” (Deut. 26:13).
Through the Personal, Voluntary Generosity of His Servants
Jehovah also provided for widows through the voluntary generosity of His servants. A good example of such was Job. His “friends” accused him of being a selfish, greedy, covetous man. In their minds, that was one of the reasons he suffered as he did. However, in eloquent defense he declared:
If I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless—but from my youth I reared him as would a father, and from my birth I guided the widow—if I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing, or a needy man without a garment, and his heart did not bless me for warming him with the fleece from my sheep, if I have raised my hand against the fatherless, knowing that I had influence in court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint. For I dreaded destruction from God, and for fear of his splendor I could not do such things (Job 31:17-23).
Then, few equaled Job as a model for servants of the Lord who give generously of their own free will to help support widows, orphans, and other needy people.
Jehovah is an Advocate for the Widow against Injustice
When Israel first entered the Promised Land Jehovah instructed the pronouncement of conditional blessing and curses on His people. Following His instructions, among the curses the Levites solemnly announced was, “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow” (Deut. 27:19). To prevent mistreatment of widows, the Lord also demanded specifically that the widow’s land boundaries not be tampered with (Prov. 15:25). Teterud says, “Land to a widow in those days was tantamount to a life insurance policy left to a widow today” (p. 3).
The last two prophets of the Old Testament also voiced condemnation on those who deprived widows, orphans and other helpless people of their rights. Zechariah declared, “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other’” (Zech. 7:9.10). In his denunciation of them Malachi classified those who prevented widows from getting the justice due them as among the most abominable of sinners. As the voice of God he said, “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me, says the LORD Almighty” (Mal. 3:5).
The Lord also shouted against the leaders in the nation of Israel for their part in depriving widows of justice. Through Ezekiel He said, “See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the alien and mistreated the fatherless and the widow” (Ezek. 22:6, 7). As a spokesman for Jehovah Isaiah pronounced a woe on those who misuse their political office in that way. He declared, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless” (Isa. 10:1, 2). Such unjust laws allowed a lender to require the deposit of the widow’s cloak as security for a loan. That action was contrary to the law of God which says, “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge” (Deut. 24:17). Teterud explains, “The garment spoken of in the text was a blanket like piece of clothing used as a cloak during the day and as a bed covering at night” (p. 3).
On the other hand, Jehovah offered special blessings to His people if they attended to the needs of widows and orphans. Through the prophet Isaiah He said, “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isa. 1:17). For their obedience He promised, “If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land” (19). Jeremiah offered similar blessings. He declared, “If you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever” (Jer. 7:6, 7).
Jehovah Has a Concern about the Widow’s Future Relationships
The existence of extensive genealogical records in the Bible provides evidence of Jehovah’s concern for the continuation of the progeny of individuals. He sought to preserve the family line of each person in Israel. To accomplish that He decreed the Levirate Law. The title “Levirate” should not be confused with the word Levite. Its meaning is literally “husband’s brother.” The decree reads:
If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled (Deut. 25:5-10).
However, in addition to continuing the line of a male citizen in Israel, the law also served to provide a husband for a widow and thus to give her a means of livelihood. Its adaptation in the Book of Ruth strongly suggests that. When Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, initiated the chain of events that led to her widowed daughter-in-law’s marriage according to the Levirate Law, she said, “My daughter, should I not try to find a home for you, where you will be well provided for?” (Ruth 3:1). In this case the culture of the nation extended the provisions of the decree to apply to the duty of males other than the brother of a deceased man. The account makes no mention of a brother of Ruth’s deceased husband. Still, the law applied to a relative. Indeed, when the nearest relative refused to take Ruth as his wife, the next nearest of kin to her departed husband, Boaz, accepted the responsibility. To the elders who officially witnessed the event he proclaimed, “I have also acquired Ruth the Moabitess, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from the town records. Today you are witnesses!” (Ruth 4:10).
Further, Naomi obviously took provisions of the Levirate Law as intended to include her widowed daughter-in-law as well as herself. Apparently concluding that she was too old to provide the heir to her dead son if she married again, she directed Ruth to stand in her stead. The result of it all was that Ruth found love in re-marriage as well as security and gave birth to children who carried on the name of her deceased husband. In the process Jehovah providentially arranged that her name appear in the genealogy of Jesus as His ancestress (Matt. 1:5). She was the mother of Obed, and, “He was the father of Jesse, the father of David,” an ancestor of the Messiah. Such was her reward for believing in the God of David. Obviously, she had no idea that the honor would be hers when she announced to Naomi her conversion from serving pagans gods to the worship of the One True God, Jehovah. She declared, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
By common sense definition, the widow is a lady who has lost her husband by death and who has not re-married. Statistics indicate that more than ten million in the population of the United States fit into that category. It is little wonder, then, that the Bible devotes a considerable amount of space to show God’s love for that many women in a nation. As the article above has indicated, nothing is clearer in the Bible, beginning with the Old Testament, than God’s concern for the widow. In the early pages of the Bible and throughout its first major division, the Old Testament, Jehovah makes clear His love and concern for the widow. He declares Himself to be her Defender, Provider, Advocate, and the One concerned about her future relationships.
Peterson, James A. and Michael L. Briley. Widows and Widowhood: A Creative Approach to Being Alone. New York: Abingdon Press, 1977.
Teterud, Wesley M. Caring for Widows: You and Your Church Can Make a Difference. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994.
Thurston, Bonnie Bowman. The Widows: A Women’s Ministry in the Early Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.