A widow is a woman whose husband has died. Often in Scripture, when widows are referred to, it appears to carry the idea of a woman whose husband has died who also has no one to provide for her. Thus, widows are often grouped with vulnerable members of society such as the fatherless, aliens, and the poor (Deuteronomy 14:29; 16:11; 24:20; 26:12). The Bible says widows are to be treated with honor and compassion and offered protection so that no one takes advantage of them.
In ancient times, the primary purpose of women in marriage was to produce children and heirs to carry on the family line. A childless widow endured double adversity, with no husband to provide for and protect her, and no son to carry on the family name and care for her in her old age. She might have been considered a disgrace to her family and left in a precarious position.
God recognized the widow’s plight and rose to her defense: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling” (Psalm 68:5). A person who denied justice to a widow was cursed by God: “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow” (Deuteronomy 27:19). Laws and special provisions were put in place to safeguard widows against neglect and abuse.
At harvest time, widows could glean in the fields of grain and gather leftover grapes and olives: “When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands” (Deuteronomy 24:19).
The primary Old Testament law that protected widows from poverty and cruel treatment was that of the levirate marriage. The purpose of the law was to ensure that a man who died before producing a son might still be guaranteed a male heir. The unmarried brother of the widow’s husband would take the widow as his wife and perform “the levirate duty.” The first son born to the widow was regarded as the legal descendant of her deceased husband. The law of levirate marriage is illustrated in the stories of Tamar and Onan and of Ruth and Boaz.
In the New Testament, widows are also given special consideration. Proper religious work, according to God, involves caring for widows and orphans: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their ill-treatment of widows (Mark 12:40).
God has deep compassion for those who are left alone, and the church is to demonstrate that same compassion. In 1 Timothy 5, the apostle Paul gives a detailed outline of how the church and individual families are to care for widows.
According to Paul, a widow who received financial and material support from the church had to meet certain qualifications. First and foremost, the widow had to be truly in need and completely alone in the world: “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God” (1 Timothy 5:4).
It is the duty and obligation of families to care for their aging and needy family members. Christian children and grandchildren have a special privilege and opportunity to put their faith in action by giving back love and support to their parents and grandparents, and especially to widows who are alone.
Today’s Western societies, where independence takes precedence over family relationships, have lost sight of the value of God’s purpose for creating extended families. But among God’s people, families ought to be the primary source of support for widows.
Paul goes on to give guidelines for a widow to be eligible to receive the church’s support. Besides having no one to take care of her, she ought to be a woman of prayer, a dedicated servant of the Lord, more than sixty years of age, faithful to her husband when he was alive, and committed to good deeds like caring for children, showing hospitality, and serving God’s people (1 Timothy 5:9–10). Apparently, in order to receive charity in the early Christian church, eligible widows were enrolled on a list (verse 11). The age designation was likely because sixty was considered the age of retirement in the first century, and these women were probably past the age of remarrying. Younger widows were more likely to remarry; in fact, Paul counsels them to do so (verse 14).
Since God honors widows and treats them with compassion, believers should do the same: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).