The habit of reading the Bible through every year from cover to cover has provided some insights that I may not have picked up without this systematic approach. There are three groups of people that God identifies repeatedly. They are almost always mentioned together. God is intensely concerned about how His followers respond to these subgroups of humanity. I’d like to call them God’s special trio. They are the foreigners, fatherless, and widows. Foreigners, fatherless, and widows appear as a trio in 11 verses in the book of Deuteronomy. It is impossible to miss them when reading through this book. The first verse in which they are mentioned is Deuteronomy 10:18. God’s passion is clearly articulated, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” How does God provide for them? In Deuteronomy 14:29, God calls on His people to supply food for these individuals and emphasises that by doing so, He will bless them in all the work of their hands. Each local town was expected to respond to the needs of the foreigners, fatherless and widows that lived among them. God’s blessing was tied directly to how they responded to the needs of these groups.
God was very specific in His instruction concerning the treatment of His special trio. His people were not to take advantage of them, such as depriving the foreigner and fatherless of justice or taking the cloak of a widow as a pledge (Deuteronomy 24:17). At harvest time, they were not to thoroughly harvest their farms. They were to leave olives, grapes, and wheat available for harvesting by the foreigners, fatherless, and widows (Deuteronomy 24:19, 24:20, 24:21). A tenth of the harvest was to be given to the Levites as a tithe. From this tenth, the foreigners, fatherless and widows were also to be cared for (Deuteronomy 26:12).
What intrigued me was when I came across this trio again in my reading of Psalms, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Malachi. Psalm 146:9 repeats the response of God found in Deuteronomy 10:18, “The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow.”
Many verses referring to God’s special trio come in the form of a warning... do not oppress the foreigner, fatherless and widow. Jeremiah 7:5-7 puts it this way, “ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.”
A brief survey of the Old Testament perspective on foreigners, fatherless and widows indicates that these groups are a special focus of God’s attention. He expects them to be treated well (not oppressed) and to be provided for by His people. God’s blessing of His people is directly connected to how they treat these individuals.
Let’s explore further each of the three groups, beginning with foreigners. The New International Version (NIV translation) selects the word “foreigner” to describe this group. Other translations use the word “stranger,” “immigrant,” or “sojourner.” Leviticus 19:34 (NIV) provides an insight into what God is referring to here, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” The Hebrew word used in this passage is “haggar” which is the same root word (“guwr”) used Deuteronomy 10:18 and is best translated as sojourner. This rarely used English word means to turn aside and tarry for a definite or indefinite time. Biblically, this person was a newcomer who didn’t have rights based on birth1. A Biblical example of a sojourner is the story of Naomi and Ruth. When Naomi moved her family to Moab because of a famine in Israel, she became a sojourner in Moab. When Ruth, a Moabite, moved with Naomi back to Israel, Ruth became a sojourner. In today’s context, refugees or immigrants are familiar words that define groups of people that fit the meaning of the word sojourner (“haggar”).
From the inception of Israel, there was a mandate from God to respond with compassion to the foreigner. God shared His vision for Abraham and his descendants in Genesis 12:3, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The calling of Israel to positively impact the nations surrounding them was a unique one. “Although ancient Near Eastern law codes stressed protection for the widow and orphan, only Israel's contained legislation for the resident alien.”2
In our contemporary context, foreigners, and in particular refugees, are making headlines around the world. Desperate political conditions in Syria and Libya have created a monumental humanitarian crisis. It is estimated that 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since civil war broke out in March of 2011.3 In the first six weeks of 2016, 409 individuals lost their lives at sea in their attempt to escape. European nations face unprecedented challenges as they scramble to respond compassionately to the cry for help. Joe Millman, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) stated, "There are more concurrent crises around than we've ever seen at one time."4 It is not anticipated that this intensity will decrease anytime soon.
Complicating matters further is a legitimate fear that terrorists are infiltrating the refugees as they seek asylum. It is impossible to close a blind eye to the risks while trying to respond compassionately to the millions who desperately need help. It is not the purpose of this article to debate the political landmines related to the current refugee crisis, rather to present a case for a Biblical response to this group that is part of “God’s special trio.”
The second group in God’s special trio is the fatherless. This group is close to God’s heart. As highlighted previously, the group referred to as “fatherless” appear 18 times in the Old Testament as part of the trilogy of foreigners, fatherless, and widows. The “fatherless” are mentioned an additional 23 times in the Old Testament. Perhaps the most well known passage is Psalm 68:5, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling.” Psalm 27:10 sheds further light on God’s passion for the fatherless, “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me.”
In the ancient Near East, the father provided the main economic support for their family. The loss of a father through death in war, accident, or disease placed the children and widow in a desperate financial situation. II Kings 4:1-7 shares the hopeless plight of a widow who had the creditors coming after her following the death of her husband. The ruthless creditor was even threatening to take her two sons as slaves in order to pay the debt. Elisha instructed her to collect vessels and pour the small amount of oil that she had into them. Miraculously the oil multiplied and all the pots were filled. She was able to sell the oil and pay off the creditor. Such highly vulnerable widows were to be cared for by God’s people. In this case, it seems that help had not come and God Himself provided a miracle to care for the widow and her children.
Just as God placed the responsibility of reflecting His passion and coming to the aid of the fatherless in the Old Testament, He clearly indicates the priority for his followers today, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress...” James 1:27.
According to the Christian Alliance for Orphans, 17.8 million children have lost both parents. These children are referred to as “double orphans.” 153 million children have lost one or both parents. These numbers do not include children living in institutions (orphanages) or on the streets. These children are known as “social orphans.”5
how two such amazing boys could be abandoned by their parents? They have such promise for the future, but desperately need a family who will love them and raise them to make a difference in the world. It is exciting to see the transformation in their lives during their short time with us.
Perhaps you have an interest in doing something closer to home. Being a foster parent is another way to make an impact for orphans. If this is not the right step for your family, perhaps you can be a support for someone who is fostering through respite care. Respite means to provide a primary caregiver with a break. By hosting a child in your home for a few hours or over the weekend, you can give the foster parent much needed rest and as a result not only help the child but also help the foster parent do their job better. The same need is also present for single parents and their children.
The final group of God’s special trio we will examine further is referred to as “widows.” In the Old Testament, widows and orphans are typically grouped together. One event precipitated the status of widow and orphan in a moment, the death of the husband/father. At that moment, the future of the wife (now a widow) and children (now orphans) became very uncertain.
Jesus draws our attention to a broader ministry to widows in Luke 4:25-26, “But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the day of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarapheth, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.” Elijah’s interaction with the widow of Zarapheth resulted in God’s miraculous preservation of the widow’s life and that of her son. The provision was for their basic need of food. God miraculously supplied oil and flour until the famine ended. In these verses, Jesus emphasizes that there were many widows in Israel. The story of the widow of Zarapheth additionally points out that God’s care extended beyond the borders of Israel.
The plight of widows does not escape God’s notice, and it should not escape our notice either. Some women become widows while they still have children living at home, others become widows because they outlive their spouse who has died of old age. On average, women out live men by 7 to 10 years. If a man marries a woman that is a few years younger, then the time spent in widowhood can be even longer. The loss of a spouse, having to care for a home alone, and feeling uncertain financially, all can create a very distressing situation. Ideally, children or other family members will rise to the occasion and provide the support needed. However, that should not be assumed. There are many ways that you can respond
with compassion and love. Inviting them to your home for a meal, helping them organise their finances, mowing their yard, doing odd jobs/repairs around their house, preparing food for them, adopting them as a “grandparent” for your children, taking them on family outings with you, etc. There may be physical needs, but we also should be in tune with the emotional needs. Local churches and community groups should provide social and spiritual opportunities for these individuals to interact with others who are facing a similar stage in their life. Beyond our immediate friendship circles, we should be reaching out to widows in the wider community as well.
Our society has impacted another group that has many similarities to widows: single mums. This group is created by two cultural dynamics: divorce and unwed pregnancies both of which result in children being raised without a mother and father in the home. Single mums represent a significant portion of society. In the United States, The Washington Post made this observation, “Single motherhood has grown so common in America that demographers now believe half of all children will live with a single mum at some point before the age of 18.”6
In this article, we have explored God’s special trio: foreigners, fatherless, and widows. What burden has God placed on your heart? What action will you take? What tangible ministry will you engage in? Without question, these groups are ones that Jesus highlights in Matthew 25:40, “Assuredly, I say to you, in as much as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” Our actions of compassion toward foreigners, orphans, and widows will truly make an impact for eternity!
Dr Tom Evans