In the Bible as well as today, the word “widow” refers to a woman whose husband has died. The term appears in English translations between 80-90 times, with references varying from direct teaching on how the people of God are to care for widows to specific examples of widows within the storyline of redemption.
The Lord’s care and concern for justice for widows is especially prominent in the Old Testament. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses warns the people of God of the importance of treating widows justly and the consequences of perverting justice.
The Church of the New Testament is called to honor God through caring for widows.
The terms ʾalmānāh in Hebrew and chēra in Greek both refer generally to a woman whose husband has died.
In the Old Testament, widows are most often mentioned with regard to teaching about doing justice to those whom society commonly oppresses (Deuteronomy 10:18). At times, “widow” can become a figure or picture of total loss (Lamentations 1:1; 5:3).
In the New Testament, Paul gives Timothy some special instructions concerning widows who are without children:
Paul clearly calls all women whose husbands have died “widows,” but he sees a special responsibility of the church to care for those widows who are older (beyond the ability to bear children) and who may suffer in old age as a result of being without a husband or children.
Although it is important to account for the differences between the first and the 21st centuries, knowing that widows today are more capable of obtaining work or receiving supplemental aid from the government in some countries, it is nonetheless important for the church to meet the needs of widows in ways society more generally cannot: caring not only for material needs but for spiritual, social, and emotional needs as well.
The terms “widow” and “fatherless” appear together some 62 times in the Old Testament. In around 50 of those occurrences, the term “sojourner” is also used. Each of these—the widow, the fatherless, and the sojourner—are considered to suffer injustice at the hands of others.
The Bible is saturated with teaching about caring for those who often suffer injury at the hands of others and condemnation for those who neglect such teaching or deliberately oppress others:
Strikingly, the Lord’s word through the prophet aligns those who oppress widows, the fatherless, and the sojourner with his wrath with people like sorcerers, adulterers, and those who swear falsely. Oppression of widows is akin to undeniable covenant faithlessness, flagrant disobedience to the law, and tangible violence against the very heart of God (Dueteronomy 10:18).
The call of the people of God towards widows and the fatherless in every age is apparent throughout the whole of Scripture.
What Does the Bible Say About Taking Care of Widows?
There is teaching across the entire Bible devoted specifically to caring for widows, including providing food (Deuteronomy 14:27-28; 24:19-21; 26:12), justice (Deuteronomy 27:19), even redemption (Ruth 4:5, 10).
New Testament teaching devotes some special attention to the care of widows who are beyond child-bearing years and have no children or other relatives to care for them in old age. Although all women whose husbands have died are widows, the Bible gives careful consideration for women whose social status makes them easily overlooked, saying it is the church’s responsibility to care for such women.
Paul gives specific instructions for believing women who are related to widows to care for widows who are among the people of God.
One essential way the church can care for widows is by providing a community and sense of belonging, to recognize the gifts widows have to the greater church community and seek to empower widows to use those gifts for the kingdom of God.
The Bible clearly teaches that a woman is no longer biblically and legally bound in marriage once the husband has died. As such, widows are free to remarry.
In 1 Corinthians, however, Paul offers an alternative to marriage for those who are single and desire to remain single:
Although Paul encourages this teaching generally for the sake of engaging wholeheartedly in gospel ministry, he is careful not to apply it as a command (1 Cor. 7:6). Moreover, it can be understood from Paul’s language (“it is good,” not “it is necessary” or even “it is right”) and the overarching argument, that Paul is advocating the goodness, the honorableness, or even legitimacy of singleness for those who have been gifted in such a way (1 Cor. 7:7).
To widows or others who are single desiring to marry, Paul upholds the goodness of marriage or remarriage: “But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:9).
Clearly the Lord cares for all of his covenant people as his beloved, his dearly-loved treasured possession. Yet the Bible is insistent that the Lord shows special care and concern for widows in the family of God by giving direct teaching concerning widows and numerous expressions that reveal God’s merciful and gracious heart for widows.
One of the greatest means of biblical encouragement for widows is the undeniable reality that God cares for them and has clearly mandated the people of God in his Word to care for them as well. Over and again the Bible speaks of the Lord’s concern for women who have lost next to everything, saying, I am watching over you, not bringing you to ruin but to a flourishing (Psalm 147:9).
The biblical book of Ruth is perhaps the greatest story of God’s concern for widows in the entirety of Scripture. The book tells the story of not one but two widows: one who lost both her husband and her sons; the other a complete outsider to the people of God; both social outcasts among the covenant community for living outside of God’s promised land. And yet God’s concern and provision for Naomi and Ruth, to restore to Naomi what was lost and to bring Ruth the Moabite into the family of God and the lineage of the Lord Jesus, is the great treasure of this book given to us in the Bible.
Widows among the family of God can be encouraged by the Lord’s concern for them, as well as the church’s willingness to obey the clear teaching of Scripture by showing widows love, honor, care, help, compassion, and dignity.