7. Jewish Roots and Compassionate Community: Orphans in Biblical Society

Marvin Wilson



From Bible times, the Jewish people have espoused concepts of justice and community life which are quite different from the individualism often characteristic of modern Western Christianity. The biblical emphasis of the Hebrews upon corporate life and mutual accountability allowed them to reach out with compassion to the powerless and poor of society. Orphans or the fatherless were a group targeted for special concern in ancient Israel. Because the roots of the early Church ran deep into the soil of Judaism, the primitive Christian community brought a continued focus on the importance of caring for the fatherless. Today, with the large number of fatherless in Christian homes due to either bereavement or the general breakdown of the family, the Church must take a new look at its Jewish roots and seek to re-establish a more biblical concept of community and compassionate outreach to those in need.

Today’s Church can never escape the fact that the biblical view of reality is profoundly Semitic. Indeed, the roots of Christianity run deep into the soil of Judaism. The very foundational structure of Christian ethics and social justice rests upon the bedrock of the Hebrew Scriptures. From Bible times, the Jewish people have espoused concepts of justice and community life which are quite different from the individualism often characteristic of modern Western Christianity. In the ancient world, the ruling classes and people of wealth usually sought to further their own interests with little concern shown for the helpless or downtrodden in society. Powerful individuals often exercised personal privilege over group concerns. God’s call to the Hebrew nation through Moses, however, was: “Follow justice and justice alone” (Deuteronomv 16:20). Thus, in ancient Israel, those most subject to disenfranchisement, exploitation or abuse – the poor, the aliens, the widows and the orphans -were objects of God’s special concern.

I have divided this article into four main sections. The first focuses on the structure of Hebrew thought with particular reference to community and mutual accountability. The biblical emphasis of the Hebrews upon corporate life must be made to challenge the current display of rugged individualism and private Christianity seen within much of today’s Church. Second, as an example of compassionate community in Hebrew thought, the main body of this paper will concern itself with those texts dealing with the treatment of orphans in Jewish society of Bible times. The third section will point out how early Christianity built upon this Hebraic foundation concerning the fatherless. In the final section, I will draw out some of the implications of this teaching for today’s body of Messiah.

Community Concern in Hebrew Thought

The community-centred focus of the Jewish people,1 as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, remains one of the hallmarks of Jewish existence. God Chose a people (Deuteronomy 7:7), and, accordingly, Jewish religious life is characterised by peoplehood. Whereas Christians often define their faith primarily as a system of beliefs, Jews see doctrine or belief as only one – and not the most important – of several elements constituting the essence of Judaism. In the words of British Jewish scholar Nicholas De Lange:-

“To be a Jew means first and foremost to belong to a group, the Jewish people, and the religious beliefs are secondary, in a sense, to this corporate allegiance” (De Lange, 1986).

This deeply rooted biblical emphasis upon folk – that is, the group – is understood by the fact that most Jewish prayer employs the plural ‘we’, not the singular ‘I’. Prayer expresses the “cry of the whole community” (De Sola Pool, 1957). One of the best-known biblical prayers illustrates this communal factor in its opening words: “Our Father in Heaven” (Matthew 6:9). In modern Judaism, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the liturgy of the synagogue emphasizes the collective words of penitence, “We have sinned”. In sum, in the words of an old Hasidic saying: “A prayer which is not spoken in the name of all Israel, is no prayer at all” (Buber, 1947).

Central to the Hebraic concept of community is the idea of corporate personality (see Wheeler Robinson, 1980). This concept means that the individual was always thought of in the collective (family, tribe, nation) and the collective in the individual. This corporate solidarity meant that all Hebrews were represented in one; and one was represented in all. Thus, God’s covenant was made not only with those physically present in the wilderness, but also with future generations: “those who are not here today” (Deuteronomy 29:15).

That the Hebrew language contains numerous examples of what we refer to in English as ‘collectives’, gives additional undergirding to this concept or organic solidarity (see Boman, 1970). For instance, in the Hebrew Bible the word adam may refer to man as an individual or to mankind in the collective sense. All Israelites participate mutually in the life of one another. Hence, against this Old Testament background, Paul the apostle writes: “Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men” (Romans 5:18). In a similar vein that emphasises solidarity and interrelatedness, the New Testament states: “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16). Thus, biblical community had a profound appreciation of the teaching, “One for all” and “all for one”.

Since Bible times, each Jew at Passover is obligated to regard himself as if he personally – not simply his ancestors -had come out of Egypt (Mishnah, Pesahim 10:5). In addition, each Jew is taught to think of himself as personally standing at Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah. Thus the Law is given to every Jew, not simply to one Jew, Moses (Umen, 1962). In a similar way, the concept of sacredness of human life is basic to the idea of corporate personality. The Mishnah states:-

“He who destroys a single life is considered as if he had destroyed the whole world, and he who saves a single life is considered as having saved the whole world” (Sanhedrin 4:5).

World Jewry has long been a model of community. Particularly in times of community crisis, the Jewish people have usually been able to cast aside their labels – even major differences – in order to rally together in family support. We may note two current examples. One is the support from around the world for the survival of the State of Israel. A second is the absorption of newly arrived Ethiopian and Russian refugees and immigrants in that land. In this regard, it is important to stress that the meaning of the Hebrew word mishpahah refers not only to parents and children; it is a whole social that includes uncles, aunts, and even remote cousins. Furthermore, each mishpahah sees itself as part of a single worldwide Jewish family. Thus, it is clear why the concept of family solidarity has been one of the chief reasons behind the stability and survival of the Jewish community over the centuries. From time immemorial Jews have taken seriously the biblical teaching that everyone is his brother’s keeper (cf Genesis 4:9). Thus, each senses a responsibility for attending to his neighbour’s struggles and needs. Indeed, no one lives in total isolation from his neighbour. Here is a major reason why Hebrews developed such a fine-tuned social consciousness that embraced the disadvantaged members of society, including the poor, the widows and the orphans. The Hebrew Bible further reminds us of Israel’s call to togetherness and mutual accountability by frequently referring to Israel by such terms as am (‘a people’), havurah (‘community’) and qehillah (‘congregation, assembly’). Only by first grasping this fact of the community-centredness of the Jewish people, is the biblical teaching about caring for orphans discussed in the second section of this article understandable.

Like Israel of old, today’s Church must see itself as a community that cares. Rugged individualism and private Christianity must give way to a greater emphasis on the corporate life of the community of faith. The Church must be more than an ad hoc scramble of independent individualists each going his own way. The individual can never survive apart from the group. Human beings were created to be social and God has constituted His people to function within a body. To be sure, the New Testament teaches that when one comes to saving faith, one is incorporated into Christ so as to eat His flesh (John 6:35,54), to be baptised into Him (Romans 6:3) and to exist in Him as a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:7) (Ellis, 1978). “There is no mere individualistic experience for Christians, but a corporate one” (Fitzmyer, 1967). In Paul’s words: “We were all baptised by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Thus, the Pauline idea of the Church as a body is firmly rooted in the Old Testament concept of corporate personality.

Too often, contemporary Christians have misunderstood the New Testament Greek term ekklesia, ‘church’, to have reference to an edifice, building or structure. Rather, this term primarily is used in Greek literature, including the New Testament, of people, corporately brought together as an assembly, gathering or congregation. The earliest Church developed out of the synagogue. The term ‘synagogue’ derives from the Greek language and means a ‘bringing or gathering together’. The expression ‘Church’, therefore, is a living, dynamic organism; it is a fellowship whose members exist as a corporate personality. When one member suffers, the whole body shares the grief. When one rejoices, all share in the joy (cf 1 Corinthians 12:26). A body of Christian believers is only as strong as the sum of its individual members. In the Bible, piety is always oriented toward community. Like Israel of old, the Church is called “the people of God” (1 Peter 2:10) and is expected to function with communal self-awareness. Whenever the Church has forsaken this aspect of its Jewish roots – what the Jewish community has referred to as the democracy of the synagogue – and become authoritarian or hierachy centred, rather than lay- or people-centred, its social consciousness has been greatly blunted (Davies, 1974). Our treatment below, therefore, of orphans in biblical society, must be read against the above background of the community-centredness of Israel and the early Church.

Orphans in Jewish Society

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew term yatom ‘one who has become fatherless’, ‘orphan’, occurs more than forty times. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, consistently renders yatom by orphanos. The English translation, ‘orphan’, however, does not necessarily imply that both parents are deceased (cf Job 24:9), although such is the situation of Esther (Esther 2:7). The crucial point is that the bereft individual is ‘fatherless’. In ancient society this often meant deprivation of support, loss of legal standing and becoming vulnerable to those who would oppress or exploit the weak. In the Old Testament, the terms ‘orphan and widow’ are often linked as a pair, suggesting that when a family is bereft of its male leader, all family members are in need of compassion and justice. In ancient society, war was one of the leading causes of orphanhood (Lamentations 5:3). Furthermore, a certain number of orphans were apparently the offspring of various cult prostitutes, a group referred to in Deuteronomy 23:17.

The law of Moses presents God as the one who defends the cause of the fatherless (Deuteronomy 10:18). Powerless and unprotected, the orphan is the object of God’s special care. As God is compassionate, so must those of his covenant community comport themselves (Exodus 22:27). If anyone takes advantage of the orphan, God’s anger will be aroused at the orphan’s cry, and God will kill the oppressor by the sword and make his children fatherless (Exodus 22:22-24). lsrael was warned not to deprive the fatherless of justice, for God had redeemed Israel from enslavement in Egypt (Deuteronomy 24:17,18). Whoever withholds justice from the fatherless is object of one of the twelve curses pronounced by the tribes gathered on Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 27:19). To neglect orphans, therefore, was to subject oneself to the judgement of God.

The Mosaic Code specially instructed the fatherless and the widows to be joyful at harvest time (Deuteronomy 16:11-14). The Code provided the fatherless with certain rights pertaining to the harvest. It stipulated that the fatherless receive part of the tithe of produce gathered and stored in towns every third year (Deuteronomy 14:18, 29; 26:12). Furthermore, if a harvester overlooked a sheaf in the field, he was not to go back, but leave it for the fatherless (Deuteronomy 24:19). In addition, olive trees must be beaten only once and grapevines picked over only once so as to provide fruit for the fatherless to pick (w 20; 21).

The Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament also emphasises concern for the orphan. Israelites were warned not to “encroach on the fields of the fatherless” (Proverbs 23:10). Job affirms his personal commitment to social justice by stating he shared bread with the fatherless (Job 31:17) and rescued them when there was no one to help them (Job 29:12). Job also attests his integrity by denying that he ever raised his hand against the fatherless in court (Job 31:21). This may mean that Job did not make a gesture intended to indict an orphan; or it may mean he did not signal his attendant – one brought to court to assist him – to stir up the crowd in shouting down the orphan as he presented his case (see Hartley, 1988).

To Job, injustice to the needy expressed itself in such actions as driving away the orphan’s donkey (Job 24:3), unsympathetically casting lots for the orphan (Job 6:27) and taking away an orphan from the breast of its mother (Job 24:9).

The Psalms particularly emphasize that God is the helper and defender of the orphan (Psalm 10:14, 17, 18; 146:9). He is “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:5). Kings and judges were expected to “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless” (Psalm 82:3), but they often failed in this regard (Psalm 82:5). Also in Ugaritic literature, the protection of orphans was a royal function (d 2 Aqht 4-8). The Psalmist, however, appeals to the Lord to act immediately because the wicked in power murder the fatherless and boast that the Lord is blind to this (Psalm 94:6, 7). “May his children be fatherless” (Psalm 109:9; cf 109:12) is an ancient curse formula sometimes used against an enemy.

The prophets command God’s people not to oppress the fatherless but to defend their cause (Isaiah 1:17; Zechariah 7:10). Isaiah rebukes rulers for loving bribes rather than justice done to the fatherless (Isaiah 1:23). Those whose wicked deeds have made them rich and powerful have neglected the cause of the fatherless (Jeremiah 5:2~28). God’s woe and judgement are upon unjust rulers who rob the fatherless (Isaiah 10:2). However, when the Lord brings judgement on the people of Israel for their wickedness, not even the fatherless will be spared; for they too are ungodly (Isaiah 9:17).

Just treatment of the fatherless was one of the conditions which the people of Judah were obliged to fulfil if they were to remain in the land and not face exile (Jeremiah 7:6). The city of Jerusalem, however, had already become infamous for its mistreatment of the fatherless (Ezekiel 22:5, 7). Jeremiah warns the people of Judah that if the fatherless are wrongly treated, the king’s palace in Jerusalem will be destroyed (Jeremiah 22:3-5). Malachi emphasises that God’s judgement will fall not only upon sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, but also on those who oppress the fatherless (Malachi 3:5).

Intertestamental literature reflects a similar concern for the orphan. The Lord is a “God of justice” (Ecclesiasticus 35:17) who “does not reject the cry of the orphan” (Ecclesiasticus 35:14). God’s people are exhorted to “secure justice for the fatherless” (2 Esdras 2:20) and to “be as a father” to them (Ecclesiasticus 4:10). In some of the initial military successes of Judah the Maccabee he shares the spoil of war with orphans and widows (2 Maccabees 8:28, 30). Tobit says of himself: “I was left an orphan by my father” (Tobit 1:8). One of the Thanksgiving Psalms from Qumran blesses the Lord who “has never abandoned the orphan” (1QH 5:20).

Later Judaism also provided for the support and rights of orphans. The act of taking in an orphan was considered praiseworthy: “Whoever brings up an orphan in his home, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had begotten him” (TB Sanhedrin 19b). “Righteous and just is the man who raises an orphan and enables that one to marry” (TB Kethuboth 50a).

Orphans were exempt from taxation for charitable causes; they must, however, contribute to the repair of the town walls (TB Baba Bathra 8a). Special consideration was given to an orphan when his animal caused damages requiring compensation (TB Baba Kamma 39a). Until marriage, an orphan was maintained by charity funds. If funds were low, a female orphan was given priority over a male orphan (TB Kethuboth, 67a). When a female orphan is given in marriage, she must be provided with a dowry of at least fifty zuzim (M Kethuboth 6:5, 6).

When a male orphan wishes to marry with support from the community, a house is rented for him and supplied with necessary items; then he is given a wife (TB Kethuboth 67b).

Early Christian Teaching on Orphans

Early Christian teaching concerning orphans reflects the Church’s Jewish origin and its direct linkage to Hebrew ethical values. The New Testament employs the term orphanos two times. In John 14:18, it is used figuratively in a context where Jesus assures His disciples that His impending death will not leave them as orphans (i.e. abandoned, in a helpless, pitiable position). In James 1:27, “pure and faultless” religion is characterised by those who “look after orphans and widows”. In this highly Jewish epistle, addressed “to the twelve tribes” (1:1), James expresses concern for the destitute of society, an emphasis, I have pointed out above, which was central to Old Testament ethics.

Aristides, a 2nd century Christian philosopher and apologist, presents a defense of his fellow Christians to the Emperor Hadrian (76-138), in which he points out: “They love one another: and from the widows they do not turn away their countenance: and they rescue the orphan from him who does him violence” (The Apology of Aristides, XV 13-16). This mark of compassion for orphans in early Christanity is similarly reflected in the documents of the Apostolic Fathers. The Letter of Barnabas states that those who walk in the Way of Darkness “pay no attention to the cause of the widow and orphan” (20:2). On the other hand, “good actions”, according to The Shepherd of Hermes, include “visiting orphans and the poor “ (Mandates 8:10). Hermes urges that orphans be cared for and not despised (Parables 1:8). Also he cautions that there are deacons who rob widows and orphans of livelihood, thus administering their office amiss (Parables 9, 26, 2). Furthermore, Hermes instructs his Christian readers to add up the expense for food they would have eaten on the day they planned to fast and give it to a widow or an orphan or to someone destitute (Parables 5, 3, 7).

Implications for Today

Fatherlessness plagues today’s community of faith probably more than at any time in history. Wars, famines, earthquakes, automobile accidents, heart attacks and other sudden tragedies have often brought in their wake the loss of a male parent and breadwinner. Furthermore, the last half of the twentieth century has realised a dramatic increase in children who are fatherless not for the reason of bereavement. Rather, this has come from the unravelling of the traditional nuclear family. Whether victims of divorce, desertion or unwed motherhood, children living in single parent families pose a special opportunity for the Church to reach out and minister. The need for compassion, care and understanding is especially crucial when children lack an adult male for a role model in the home.

It is almost axiomatic that whenever the fathers eat sour grapes, the children’s teeth are set on edge (cf Jeremiah 31:29; Ezekiel 18:2). To be sure, much of the fatherlessness of modern society is rooted in the fact that children often noticeably suffer the negative consequences of parental sins and indiscretions. Indeed, orphans and other disadvantaged of society have often fallen prey to oppression and exploitation because of this fact.

In conclusion, whether orphaned by bereavement or left fatherless by other reasons, today’s Church must never obscure the fact that God’s love for the fatherless remains. He, the compassionate Lord, is their special Advocate and Defender (Psalm 68:5). And He, as heavenly Father, desires that others within the body of our Lord seek to show these needy ones the genuine love and compassion of an earthly father.


1 The first section of this essay is a further development and expansion of the concept of community found in my work Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. (Wilson, 1989)


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(First published in Tishrei Vol 1 No 1, Ways of Thinking, Autumn 1992. The Journal Tishrei was launched in 1992 to highlight the need for the Church to return to its Jewish roots)



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