PART ONE: God’s Perspective on the Fatherless
Have you given much thought to the plight of the orphan? If not, you need to know it’s a theme that gets a lot of attention in the Scriptures. The subject comes up no fewer than thirty-six times in the books of the Old Testament; and while the New Testament uses the word orphanos in only two or three places, this infrequency of occurrence is counterbalanced by the fact that one of the passages in question – James 1:27 – can be understood as summing up the entirety of the Bible’s teaching on the topic.
What exactly do these scriptural references tell us about orphans? How do they instruct us, as believers in Christ, to view them? It can all be boiled down to seven essential points. Here are the first four (we’ll look at the last three in our next installment):
1. Disenfranchised. A thorough review of the biblical evidence brings one key idea to the forefront: orphans – along with widows, aliens, strangers, and the poor– are part of a larger group that can be best described as the marginalized of society. The Hebrew word for orphan, yatom, translates literally as “fatherless.” Since fathers were the providers and defenders of families in ancient Near Eastern culture, the implication is that orphans were among the most conspicuous of the “have-nots” in that day and age. Orphans are the defenseless, the friendless, the bereft, the destitute. As human beings made in the Image of God, they have the same rights as everybody else, but they lack the power to appropriate them. That’s why it was considered a curse and the worst of misfortunes to be without a father in biblical times (Psalm 109:9, 12; Isaiah 9:17; Lamentations 5:3). That’s why Jesus, on the eve of His crucifixion, makes such a huge point of assuring His disciples that He will not “leave them as orphans” (John 14:18).
2. Exploited. Because they are weak, defenseless, and ill-prepared to stand up for themselves, orphans and other disenfranchised people are easily taken advantage of. This is not just a potential On the contrary, it happens every day. Again and again the Bible accuses the “haves” of society – the wealthy, the powerful, the prestigious, the well-heeled – of oppressing the fatherless (Jeremiah 7:6), withholding justice (Deuteronomy 27:19), depriving them of their rights (Job 22:9), driving them out of their inheritance (Ezekiel 22:7), even robbing (Isaiah 10:2) and killing them (Psalm 94:6). It’s in this way, says Jeremiah, that the wicked solidify their position in the hierarchy of power and assure themselves of worldly success (Jeremiah 5:28).
3. Dependent on God. This is one of the most important things the Scriptures have to say about orphans. Precisely because they lack human friends and defenders and have no real resources of their own, they have no choice except to turn to God for support and sustenance (Hosea 14:3). In this respect, they are comparable not only to widows and strangers, but also to the Levites, who, unlike the other eleven tribes of Israel, had no inheritance in terms of land or real estate (Deuteronomy 14:29), and who, as a result, were privileged to say that the Lord alone was their portion (Deuteronomy 10:9). As a result, in God’s eyes, the fatherless possess a very real spiritual advantage over the rest of us (James 2:5). This is why the psalmist does not regard it as unreasonable to speak of them in the same breath with “the righteous” (Psalm 146:8, 9).
4. Defended by God. The good news here is that God responds to the orphan’s appeal for His patronage. He responds as only He can: with abundant power and might as well as with profound compassion and mercy. Accordingly, He is called the Father of the fatherless and the Defender of widows (Psalm 68:5). He upholds the cause of the marginalized and takes steps to ensure that they are treated fairly and justly (Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalm 10:18). As part of His plan to accomplish this goal, He built into the Torah provisions for the collection of tithes on behalf of orphans (Deuteronomy 14:29; 26:12, 13); measures insuring their inclusion in national feasts and festivals (Deuteronomy 16:11, 14); and gleaning laws designed to guarantee them access to a ready food supply. It’s not without cause that He is able to say, “Leave your fatherless children, I will preserve them alive; and let your widows trust in Me” (Jeremiah 49:11).