James 1:26-27, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Aristotle the philosopher; Cyrus the Great; President Andrew Jackson; Nelson Mandela activist and former president of South Africa; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; Malcolm X; John Keats the poet; writers Edgar Allen Poe, Leo Tolstoy and JRR Tolkien; musicians Louis Armstrong, Johann Sebastian Bach, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Faith Hill, John Lennon and Tina Turner, Mark Schultz; entertainers Ingrid Bergman and Carol Burnett; Samuel Goldwyn the movie mogul; Lee Majors, Marilyn Monroe and Orson Welles; Babe Ruth the baseball player; Bertrand Russell the philosopher; Johannes Kepler the scientist; Apple founder Steve Jobs and Vidal Sasson the beauty products magnate; fictional characters Frodo Baggins, Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Huckleberry Finn, Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables. Luke Skywalker of Star Wars, Mowgli of Jungle Book, Snow White, Superman, Tarzan and Wolverine…and my mother!
What do all these characters have in common? They were all orphans.
The Hebrew word for orphan is ‘yatom’, and it means “fatherless.” During Biblical times if a child had a mother but no father, the child was considered to be an orphan because during that time period, single-parent families were predominantly impoverished because the men were the breadwinners and not many women worked. Without the breadwinner, single mothers and their children were at the mercy of other people’s generosity. So those who were ‘fatherless’ were considered orphans.
Today, especially in our western nations, there are greater provisions for single parent families, and children with only one parent are not considered orphans at all, despite the fact that ‘fatherless’ children are becoming incredibly common…unfortunately.
How does God regard orphans?
All through the Old Covenant Scriptures God warned His people not to oppress or afflict orphans and widows; these most vulnerable members of society were supposed to be defended and protected against corruption and malice and were to be protected against those who would target them to rip them off and manipulate them.
Exodus 22:22, ‘You shall not afflict any widow or orphan.’
Deuteronomy 10:18, ‘He (God) executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.’
Deuteronomy 24:20-21, ‘When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan and for the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan and for the widow.’
Deuteronomy 27:19, ‘Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan and widow. And all the people shall say, “Amen”.’
The Hebrew view of the orphan then was one of care, compassion and protection. There was no ‘social security’ during the Biblical era in any nation or region of the world but in Israel, under God’s instruction, widows, orphans and foreigners (aliens) were to be treated with respect, their rights and physical wellbeing was to be protected, defended and championed and anyone taking advantage of them would in fact be ‘cursed’ as Deut 27:19 states.
Not only that, but when harvest time came, God instructed His people to only make their way through their crops once…anything else that was left behind had to be made available for widows, orphans and foreigners to access so they would have food and provisions enough to survive. No other society that I know of has ever had such a system or law in place to protect the weak, poor and vulnerable of their societies. Only Ancient Israel, or those who implemented their ways.
If you read the book of Ruth, you see this law of provision, known as the ‘law of gleaning’ come to in to play when Ruth went into the fields of Boaz to glean after the harvest had taken place. (Ruth 2)
Psalm 68:5, God is…’A Father to the fatherless and a Judge for the widows, is God in His holy habitation.’
Psalm 146:9, ‘The Lord protects the strangers; He supports the fatherless and the widow, but He thwarts the way of the wicked.’
When Adam and Eve sinned, we know that the relationship, the fellowship between them and God was broken. No longer could they be in God’s presence the way they originally did, only through sacrifice and death could they hear from Him and always at a distance. As the centuries progressed, God revealed more and more detail about the processes of sacrifice and ritual that were required for man to gain right standing before Him and always, those processes and rituals were only temporary fixes. They were constant and ongoing, and innocent animal was always offered up as the sacrifice to bring about cleansing.
The arrival of sin brought with it the fatherlessness of the human race. God was now distant and unapproachable without a priestly mediator and the shedding of innocent blood. Not because He wanted distance and separation, rather it was our sin that brought the separation.
Then came Jesus.
Jesus became our prophet declaring truth and the coming of the Kingdom of God. (Deut 18:14-22)
Jesus became our King, the Son of David, the promised Mashiach/Messiah who would set all things right and rule over us and eventually, one day the entire world. (Psalm 2)
Jesus became our Great High Priest, who would not only become our Mediator bridging the gap between us and God which was a result of our sin, but offering Himself as the sacrifice that would once and for all, permanently cleanse us of our sin and wash it away forever. (Psalm 110)
In the next program we’ll look some more at the issue of adoption in a New Covenant context within the Roman Empire.
1 ‘Marks of a Child Adopted by God’, Dr John Macarthur, Oct 26, 1997 (Romans 8:14-16)