Widow (in the Bible)

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This article will discuss the widow in the Old Testament, her status, legal protection, admonitions against mistreatment of her, God's compassion for her, and the symbolic use of the term. Then the article will treat of the widow in the New Testament, warnings against circumvention of her, and her place in the early Church.

In the Old Testament. Although some widows were comparatively wealthy by inheritance (Jdt 8.7), the lot of the majority, as reflected in the Old Testament, was one of penury (1 Kgs 17.815; 2 Kgs 4.17). Israelite belief that death before old age was a punishment for sin probably accounts for the reproach attached to the state of widowhood (Is 54.4; Ru 1.13). Priests were also forbidden to marry widows (Lv 21.14).

levirate marriage gave the widow a measure of security. If she remained childless after it she could remain a part of her husband's family or return to her parents (Gn 38.11; Lv 22.13; Ru 1.8). She could also look forward to another marriage outside her dead husband's family (Ru 1.9, 13; I Sm 25.42).

Old Testament warnings against mistreatment of widows are numerous [Ex 22.2123; Is 1.17, 23; Jb 22.9;31.16; Ps 93 (94).6; Zec 7.10]. That the injustices visited upon them were common is attested by the repeated threat of prompt action against oppressors on the Day of the Lord (Mal 3.5).

God commanded that the widow be considered part of the covenantal community. The people of God must extend to her the same merciful protection that they bestow on orphans and defenseless aliens (Dt 14.29; 16.11, 14). They are not to exact her clothing or other property in payment of a debt (Dt 24.17); at the harvest a portion of grain, some fruit of the olive tree, and grapes in the vineyard are to be left for her sustenance (Dt 24.1921; Ru 2.212); she must also be made the beneficiary of additional gifts (Dt 26.12; 2 Mc 3.10; 8.28, 30).

God pledged Himself to sustain the widow who hopes in Him (Jer 49.11). He will preserve her inheritance (Prv 15.25) and be Himself her protector [Ps 67 (68).5; 145 (146) 9].

Deutero-Isaia symbolically compares Babylon to a widow left solitary in her desolation (Is 47.9). Israel is encouraged to forget the disgrace of her widowhood (Is 54.46) because Yahweh has taken her back as His spouse to enter into a holier and more fruitful alliance with her. The author of Lamentations makes a similar reference to Jerusalem. After the destruction of the city and the burning of the temple by the Babylonians, Jerusalem, "the widow," in poignant distress, will call on God and men for pity (Lam 1.1; 5.34).

In the New Testament. Biblical emphasis on the lot of the widow continues into the New Testament, with frequent reference to her indigence. In the apostolic era this led to the appointment of the first seven deacons whose duty required them to care for the widows whom Hellenistic Jewish converts in Jerusalem accused the Hebrew-speaking Christians of neglecting in the distribution of alms (Acts 6.1). At Jaffa (Joppe), widows grieved so deeply over the death of Tabitha, who had supplied their needs by her industry, that Peter raised her to life that she might continue her works of charity to them (Acts9.3641).

Under pretense of offering long prayers for widows, the Scribes and Pharisees, whose avarice Jesus condemned (Mt 23.14), enriched themselves by "devouring the substance" of these defenseless women (Mk 12.40; Lk 20.47).

St. Paul's advice that widows should remain unmarried was not binding (1 Cor 7.89, 3940); later he preferred that they should remarry if their loneliness tended to lead them to conduct that disedified the Church and non-Christians. But he approved of an official body of widows that was highly honored in the early Church. To belong to this group widows had to meet the following requirements: be at least 60 years old, give themselves to prayer day and night, have no intention of remarrying, serve "the saints," show hospitality, and help the indigent (1 Tm 5.316).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 145660, 257778. r. devaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 3940.

[m. l. held]