Father of orphans and protector of widows (Psalm 68; Easter 7A)

The psalm that is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, the Seventh Sunday in Easter, is a song in which the psalmist prays for the enemies of Israel to be scattered (v.1) and the wicked to perish (v.2), celebrating that God has restored the languishing heritage of the people (v.9) and praying for God to give “power and strength to his people” (v.35).

It is a psalm most clearly marked by celebration and praise, with exhortations to “be joyful … exult before God … be jubilant with joy … sing praises to God’s name, and lift up a song to the Lord (verses 3–4, 32). It would seem that it comes from a time and a place of stability and prosperity for Israel.

Of particular importance are two verses which set out some central tenets of Israelite faith for the society of the day. Just as God takes care of orphans and protects widows (v.5), so are people of faith to do likewise. Just as God gives the desolate a home to live in (v.6a), so in Israelite society those on the edge are to be cared for. And just as God releases prisoners into prosperity (v.6b), so the Jubilee release was meant to be practised in society, as a time every fifty years during which debts are to be remitted (Lev 25:8–17; see esp. v.13).

The practice of the Jubilee is, however, dubious. The levitical prescriptions appear to be the ideal that the priests hoped for; actual evidence that this was ever implemented in Israelite society is lacking. Indeed, it is suggested that while the people were in Exile, the land of Israel would “lie desolate”, and “enjoy its sabbath years” (Lev 26:34), providing recompense for all those years when “it did not have on your sabbaths when you were living in it” (Lev 26:35).

A similar claim concludes the work of the Chronicler; the land was to keep sabbath, to “make up for its sabbaths”, in order “to fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah“ (2 Chron 36:20–21). After the return to the land, under Nehemiah, the law of sabbath rest was to be followed, it was decreed (Neh 10:31); whether this was the case is not clear from this or any other biblical text.

Likewise, the only evidence before the Exile for the release of slaves, as the levitical text prescribed, comes in the time of Zedekiah, spurred on by a prophetic word from Jeremiah (Jer 34:8–9). After initial compliance, the officials reneged and “took back the make and female slaves they had set free, and brought them again into subjection as slaves” (Jer 34:10–11).

Jeremiah accordingly predicts, in very graphic terms, the disaster that will ensure. “I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth”, he declares; the bodies of those handed over to the enemy “shall become food for the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth” and the Babylonian forces will capture and burn Jerusalem and make the towns of Judah “a desolation without inhabitant” (Jer 34:12–22).

On the other hand, the statement regarding widows and orphans does reflect an ethos which was both advocated and implemented in society. The evidence for this claim is prolific.

Widows in ancient Hebrew society were in a perilous position. In a strongly patriarchal society, the patronage of a man was vital: a man as husband and provider, a man as father and protector, a man as the household head. Children without fathers—orphans—as well as women without husbands—widows—were in equally perilous situations. They were vulnerable people, often at risk of being mistreated and exploited, of being pushed to the edge of society and being forgotten. They could well be the desolate who needed housing (Ps 68:6).

In our time, we require those in leadership in the church to have obtained a Working With Vulnerable People card, to signal that they are aware of the power imbalances present in situations where they minister. In the ancient world, no such system existed; but we do find in the Hebrew Scriptures that there are regular exhortations and instructions to the people to take care of widows and orphans, the key classes of vulnerable people in that society.

In the Torah, we find the command, “you shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child” (Exod 22:22) and the instruction to gather a tithe of produce and invite “the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow to come and eat and be filled” (Deut 14:28–29). Even in ancient society, vulnerable people needed protection.

More that this, the Torah provides that the widow and the fatherless child were to included along with the sojourner in celebratory moments in Israel, at the Feast of Weeks (Deut 16:9–12) and the Feast of Booths (Deut 16:13–15). This was also to be the practice when the men were in the field harvesting; they were to leave some for gleaning by ”the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Deut 24:19–22); and similar prescriptions govern the time when tithing (Deut 26:12–13; also 14:28–29).

A widower’s brother was expected to marry a widow (Deut 25:5–10), for it was the duty of a widower’s kin to provide a widow with children if she didn’t have any. If it was not possible for a widow to remarry, it was the duty of the community to care for her (Exod 22:22–23; Deut 10:18; 24:17; Isa 1:17). Beyond the biblical period, in the Diaspora, a portion of the offering collected in the synagogues was be given to the widows and poor, on the analogy of the gleaning provision whilst living in the land.

Not everyone adhered to these prescriptions. Among the prophets, Isaiah proclaims God’s judgement on those who “turn aside the needy from justice … and rob the poor of my people”, including the way that they exploit the fatherless and widows (Isa 10:1–2). Likewise, Ezekiel includes those who “have made many widows” in Israel amongst those who will experience the full force of God’s vengeance (Ezek 22, see verse 25). He observes that “the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you” (Ezek 22:7).

Jeremiah assures the people of Edom, to the south of Israel, of God’s care for them: “leave your fatherless children; I will keep them alive; and let your widows trust in me” (Jer 49:11). He encourages the people of Jerusalem with a promise that God will allow them to continue to dwell in their land if they “do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place … or go after other gods” (Jer 7:5–7).

In a later chapter, Jeremiah is instructed to tell the King of Judah, “do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer 22:1–3). The prophet Zechariah speaks similarly: “do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech 7:10).

Accordingly, the people of Israel would regularly have sung, in the words of the psalmist, “the Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:9). Care for widows was central to the life of holiness required amongst the covenant people. This psalm reminds them of that claim on their lives.

This reflected the standard set by God; “Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Ps 68:5); this God is the one who “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow” (Deut 10:18). At the very heart of the holiness of God, the holy people are to exhibit this just and compassionate care for the vulnerable.

So the curses of Deuteronomy 27 include the declaration, “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut 27:19). The book of Psalms includes a prayer for God to rise up against the wicked, who “kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless” (Ps 94:6). That psalm ends with an assurance that “the Lord … wipe them out for their wickedness; the Lord our God will wipe them out” (Ps 94:23).

The prophet Malachi includes this in his vision of the coming day of the Lord: “I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness … against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me” (Mal 3:4).

What is wished for the wicked who persecute the faithful is expressed with vitriol in Psalm 109: “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow” (Ps 109:9). Another psalm expresses similar hopes, but in a less aggressive manner: “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:9). Who would be so foolish as to act differently? Yet people did; and prophets called, again and again, for justice.

And so we read that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). This is what the brother of Jesus, James, affirms in the letter attributed to him, summing up a strong thread running through Israelite religion and on into Second Temple Judaism.

It is no wonder that Jesus himself had positive words to say about widows (Mark 12:41–44; Luke 18:1–8) and children (Mark 10:13–16), and that the early church cared for widows (Acts 6:1–6) and honoured those who were of this status (1 Tim 5:3–16). This is, after all, the way of God, “father of orphans and protector of widows”, who houses the desolate and releases the prisoners (Ps 68:5–6).

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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