Married woman whose husband has died and who remains unmarried. The Hebrew word translated "widow" is almana [h"n'm.l; ], and it occurs fifty-six times in the Old Testament. Two of these cases are probably textual corruptions for the word "palace, " which is similar in spelling and sound in the Hebrew ( Isa 13:22 ; Ezek 19:7 ; cf. LXX ). The Septaugint virtually always translates almana [h"n'm.l; ] with the Greek term for widow, chera [chvra] (cf. Job 24:21 ). The same Greek word occurs twenty-six times in the New Testament.
Words that occur in the general semantic field of the term "widow" in the Bible shed light on both her personal experience and social plight. Weeping ( Job 27:15 ; Psalm 78:64 ), mourning ( 2 Sam 14:2 ), and desolation ( Lam 1:1 ) describe her personal experience after the loss of her spouse. Poverty ( Ruth 1:21 ; 1 Kings 17:7-12 ; Job 22:9 ) and indebtedness ( 2 Kings 4:1 ) were all too often descriptive of her financial situation, when the main source of her economic support, her husband, had perished. Indeed, she was frequently placed alongside the orphan and the landless immigrant ( Exod 22:21-22 ; Deuteronomy 24:17 Deuteronomy 24:19 Deuteronomy 24:20-21 ) as representative of the poorest of the poor ( Job 24:4 ; 29:12 ; 31:16 ; Isa 10:2 ) in the social structure of ancient Israel, as well as in the ancient Near East. With minimal, if any, inheritance rights, she was often in a "no-man's land." She had left her family, and with her husband's death the bond between her and his family was tenuous.
The Old Testament. A recent body of influential research has argued that the Hebrew almana [h"n'm.l] must be distinguished from the English term "widow." It is claimed on the basis of Mesopotamian parallels that the former term referred to a woman whose husband had died and who was left without any economic and social support. Although this is true for the Akkadian almattu (Middle Assyrian Laws #33, #45), there is little basis for this meaning in the Bible. Often Hebrew widows would experience such a plight, but the term almana [h"n'm.l; ] itself simply referred to a woman whose mate had died and who had remained single (see 2 Samuel 14:2 2 Samuel 14:5 , where the death of the husband is simply in view, and Lev 21:14 , which classes an almana [h"n'm.l ] with a divorcé in opposition to a virgin ). Moreover, in biblical literature there is evidence that some widows managed to support themselves economically ( 2 Sam 14 ; Job 24:3 ; Prov 15:25 ) and in later extrabiblical literature, it can be assumed that the term was used even of the wealthy Judith (Judith 9:4, 10).
Nonetheless, the loss of a husband in ancient Israel was normally a social and economic tragedy. In a generally patriarchal culture, the death of a husband usually meant a type of cultural death as well. Although the denotation of widow referred to a woman whose husband had died, because of the social context the word quickly acquired the connotation of a person living a marginal existence in extreme poverty. The widow reacted with grief to her plight, and probably wore a distinct garb as a sign of her status ( Genesis 38:14 Genesis 38:19 ; 2 Sam 14:2 ; cf. Judith 8:5-6; 10:3; 16:8). Disillusionment and bitterness could easily result ( Ruth 1:20-21 ). Her crisis was aggravated if she had no able-bodied children to help her work the land of her dead spouse. To provide for her children, to maintain the estate, and to continue payments on debts accrued by her husband imposed severe burdens. Since she was in an extremely vulnerable economic position, she became the prime target of exploitation. The fact that she was classed with the landless stranger and Levite indicates that she was often unable to keep her husband's land.
In general, the widow's inheritance rights were minimal. Some scholars believe that Israelite widows could inherit land as was the case with their Mesopotamian counterparts. But the evidence is sparse. The general rule was that the land was inalienably connected to the family of the male to whom it was apportioned. The fact that an individual desired to marry the widow of a king did not assume that the woman had inherited her husband's estate; it was simply an attempt to legitimize a claim to royalty (cf. 1 Kings 2:13-18 ). The fact that widows had land within their possession probably indicated that they held it in trust for their children ( 1 Kings 17:7-9 ; 2 Kings 4:1-2 ; cf. Prov 15:25 ). If a widow had male children, the land would pass to her sons when they reached maturity if she was able to maintain the land and the sons survived. If she had only female children, the land would be transferred to them provided they married within the tribe ( Num 27:8-11 ). If she was childless and of marriageable age (i.e., still able to reproduce), it was the duty of the closest male relative on her husband's side (normally the brother-in-law [Lat. levir]) to marry her and provide an heir for the land of her dead husband, and to continue his name in Israel ( Deut 25:5 ). The story of Judah and Tamar ( Gen 38 ) is an example of this custom of "levirate" marriage. Later, Deuteronomy 25:5-10 codifies legislation for such unions. The Book of Ruth provides a historical example of the application of the law. If no relative would marry a childless widow, it seemed that she could return to her father's house ( Gen 38:11 ; cf. Lev 22:13 ) and dispose of the land to the husband's family ( Ruth 4:1-3 ).
The distribution of the term "widow" is found approximately one-third of the time in legal texts, one-third in prophetic texts, and one-third in wisdom and historical literature. But the vast majority of the contexts are legal in nature, either dealing with justice (the legal protection of the widow) or injustice (the exploitation of her status). In the former case the Old Testament is replete with legislation that attempted to provide a social security net for the widow: she was not to be exploited ( Exod 22:21-22 ; Deut 27:19 ); she was specifically permitted to glean the fields and vineyards during harvest time ( Deut 24:19-21, ; cf. Ruth 2 ); tithes were to be shared with her ( Deut 14:29 ; 26:12-13 ); provision was to be made for her at the main religious feasts ( Deut 16:9-15 ); her garment could not be taken as collateral for a loan ( Deut 24:17 ); and the levirate institution would not only provide an heir for the land for childless widows, it would help them be integrated back into society. Moreover, the supreme measure by which a ruler in Israel was to be judged was whether such powerless ones were cared for ( Psalms 72:4 Psalms 72:12-14 ; Jer 22:16 ).
At the same time, the legislation acknowledged the fact of the vulnerability of the widow and many Old Testament texts indicate that she was victimized repeatedly ( Exod 22:22-23 ; Isa 1:23 ; 10:2 ; Ezek 22:7 ; Mal 3:5 ). The prophets were the champions of exploited widows. As far as they were concerned, repentance began with redressing wrongs done to such unfortunate women ( Isa 1:17 ; Jer 7:6 ; 22:3 ; Zech 7:10 ). Wisdom texts encouraged a benevolent attitude toward widows. Job's comforters accused him of heinous crimes, particularly of oppressing the widow ( Job 22:9 ), but he countered with the argument that he never sent away a begging widow without food and he often made her broken heart sing ( 29:13 ; 31:16 ).
Although there are similar concerns for the widow in ancient Near Eastern texts, there does not seem to be the same pervasive and comprehensive attitude toward the powerless. This difference is rooted in theological reasons. When Israel was once in a powerless condition, God had mercy on her and delivered her from the harsh oppression of Egypt. She was thus called to remember her liberation and to imitate her God who was not only the father of the orphan, but the legal defender of the widow ( Psalm 68:6 ) and the guardian of her property ( Prov 15:25 ). The transcendent "high and holy One, " the Lord of Lords, sees the last first in the human social order and describes himself as the judge of the widow ( Deut 10:18 ; Psalm 146:9 ; cf. Psalm 113 ; Isa 57:15 ). Yahweh instituted the death penalty for those who committed capital crimes in the earliest legal code (Exod. 21-23); but when people oppressed the widow, he himself directly intervened to execute the exploiters ( Exod 22:24 ). His prophets were sent as messengers with the directive to his people: "Don't hurt my little ones." Even non-Hebrew widows could trust in Him ( Jer 49:11 ).
The widowwho was absolutely dependent, whose value was found in "being" and not "doing" and "achieving, " who had known both the joy of love and the anguish of lossperhaps reflected more than others the image of God. After all, proud Babylon symbolized the satanic image in her quest for power. She incarnated pure autonomy with her statement: "I am, and there is none besides me. I will never be a widow or suffer the loss of children" ( Isa 47:8 ).
The concept of widowhood was also used as a metaphor to describe God's relationship to Israel. When the nation was judged in 586 b.c., a devastated Jerusalem could be described as a widow; her husband, the Lord, having departed, was as good as dead to her ( Lam 1:1 ; cf. Ezek 11:22-23 ). Yet Jeremiah stated that this perspective was distorted: Israel was not a widow, nor Judah deprived of her God, even though the land was contaminated with sin ( Jer 51:5 ). Isaiah accepted the description of Israel's widowhood, but promised future salvation: "You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your Maker is your husbandthe Lord Almighty is his name" ( 54:4-5 ).
The New Testament. Widows were prominent in the New Testament. It was no accident that one of the poorest of the poor, Anna, was privileged to greet the infant Messiah ( Luke 2:36-38 ). The adult Jesus followed in the footsteps of his prophetic predecessors with his concern for the plight of the widow. He healed a widow's son because of compassion for his mother ( Luke 7:11-17 ); he protested the exploitation of widows ( Mark 12:40 ). He reversed the standards by which people were judged with the parable of the widow's tithe: the widow gave from her poverty while the wealthy merely offered from their abundance ( Mark 12:41-42 ). In another parable, the church was compared with an importunate widow who kept demanding that her case be heard. Similarly, the church must persistently pray for eschatological justice, the redressing of all wrongs against her ( Luke 18:1-8 ).
The early church, the messianic community, defined the essence of true religion as demonstrating compassion to the poor and needy, in particular the widow and the orphan ( James 1:27 ). A special fund was instituted for widows ( Acts 6:1-6 ) and as the church matured, younger widows were urged to remarry while a special class of widows was maintained economically ( 1 Tim 5:3-16 ). By the end of the first century a.d., as Christians were being persecuted by Rome, John wrote to a church whose husband seemed dead and impotent to her grief and need. The church was a widow, while proud Rome boasted: "I sit as a queen; I am not a widow, and I will never mourn" ( Rev 18:7 ). At the end of history the roles will be reversed, as Rome will become destitute and the church will be united to her resurrected and reigning husband who will wipe every tear from her eyes ( Rev 21:4 ). In that great day the reproach of the new Israel's widowhood will no longer be remembered, for her husband will appear, whose name is the Lord God of hosts ( Isa 54:5 ).
Stephen G. Dempster
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