You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless (Ex.22:22-24).
God here singles out widows and orphans as being central to His plan for welfare and social protection. Why is this? They are the most vulnerable people in the community, not being protected or presently provided for by their husband or father.
North’s comments here are helpful;
Why does God single out the widow, the orphan and the resident alien? They must be representative of a general class of people. If we search for the distinguishing characteristic of all three-their representative feature-we find that there is only one: their lack of covenant representation. It is appropriate that this should be the focus of the law in the Book of Exodus, the premier book in the Bible and in the Pentateuch on hierarchical representation.
To afflict anyone is always wrong and evil, but to do so to a widow or orphan is especially evil, and will bring God’s swift judgment.
The following is an excerpt from my book, “The Significance of the Godly Family,” 2009, chapter VIII, “The Family and Welfare.”
Old Testament Examples of Biblical Welfare:
1: Job: The Book of Job gives us an insight at an early period, into the attitude of a godly man towards the needy in his community. Job 29 shows that Job, a) was respected in the community (v.7-10), b) He delivered the poor and needy (v.12), c) he was blessed in gratitude by the needy, and made the widow’s heart to sing (v.13), d) he was a father to the needy, and also a private investigator (v.16), e) a law enforcer (v.17), and f) he was revered in his local community (v.21-25).
Job 31 tells us that he a) fed the poor, and helped the widow (v.16), b) he shared with the orphan (v.17), c) He was a father to the orphans (v.18), d) he clothed the needy (v.19), and e) provided lodging for the alien and stranger (v.32). Furthermore, his employees never complained that they went without meat (v.31).
In terms of charity, there isn’t much left out, is there? Job was a remarkable man, but his community too, may have been remarkable, in its practical, efficient and decentralised care for its needy people.
2. Mordecai: Mordecai’s adoption of Esther, is an excellent example of a godly Hebrew assuming a welfare responsibility for his extended family, at a time of great social stress. Mordecai was Esther’s cousin, (she was his uncle’s daughter) and when she was orphaned, he “took her as his own daughter” (Esther 2:5-7).
3. Boaz: In Ruth’s day, the elders of Bethlehem also saw themselves as being subject to Biblical law. When Ruth came with Naomi to Bethlehem (both of them widowed and impoverished, and thus in financial crisis), the elders in this godly city determined (after Ruth’s request to Boaz) who would marry Ruth and thus be responsible to raise up an inheritance for Elimelech, her first husband. One could argue that this establishes a scriptural precedent: the church, (under the supervision of the elders) must be available to function as a godly safety net, if Christian families (through sin or incapacity) are unable to cope in their circumstances.
Thus the Old Testament welfare system was a comprehensive and complete way of ministering to the needy in the community. As North writes,
The eldest son is entitled to a double portion of the family’s estate (Deut. 21:17). This means that if a man has four children who are legally responsible for him, then he must divide the estate into five equal shares, with the eldest son receiving two-fifths. Why? Because it is the eldest son who has the primary responsibility for caring for aged parents. The child who is willing to bear this responsibility is treated as the eldest son, such as Isaac’s position of favour before Abraham, not Ishmael, the firstborn, or Jacob’s position before Isaac because of God’s choosing of Jacob over Esau, the elder twin.
There is a mutuality of service and blessings. Costs and benefits are more closely linked. Family disputes among the children are minimized.
4. Elijah & Elisha: These two prophets both raised the sons of widows from the dead. This was not just a case of relieving a bereaved mother; it would prove to be an economic relief measure. These sons could now care for their mothers, in their old age.
The warnings about the need to protect widows in Exodus 22:22-24 are extrapolated in the New Testament, when Paul instructs Timothy in the family and church responsibilities concerning widows (I Tim.5:3-16). The care of widows is firstly a family responsibility.