Thursday, January 24, 2008

Part 3: Ex 22- God as the Defender of the orphan and widow

Imagine if one of the first things you were taught after professing faith in Jesus was that God wants you to care for orphans and widows. Imagine that you came across James 1:27 while reading the Bible or you heard it preached in church. You might wonder what was so special about orphans and widows that God would call caring for them “true religion.” Perhaps a mature Christian would point out that the command flows out of the Fatherhood of God Himself to us as those who were spiritually fatherless, but have now been adopted into the family of God (Gal. 4:4-7). You would learn very quickly to take seriously the call to live out the faith by caring for the fatherless and widows in your midst. In ancient Israel God wanted to make it clear to His people right at the beginning of their relationship with Him that they had a responsibility to care for orphans and widows in their midst as an outflow of the Person of God Himself as the defender of the orphan and widow.
God’s command to Israel in Exodus 22:22 takes place in the context of His entering into covenant1 with His people, so before we can look at the command itself, we must first understand the context of that command. When God took Israel to be “a people for Himself” in fulfillment of His promise to Abraham, the Scriptures say that He brought them out of Egypt “with a mighty hand” by the Passover and then through the Red Sea to the foot of Mt. Sinai. It is here on Mt. Sinai that Moses then went up to meet with God, and it is here that God affirmed the covenant that He was making with his people saying: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:5-6a).” In Exodus 19 God laid out the fact that he was entering into a covenant relationship with Israel that had expectations and stipulations. They were to be a kingdom of priests (representing the nations to God and teaching them about God), a holy nation (representing God’s holiness to the nations), and they were to obey and keep the covenant (which by faith upheld the other two).
The covenant was confirmed in chapter 24 after the reading of the Book of the Covenant to the people (24:7). When they heard the stipulations of the covenant, the people declared: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” This proclamation was then followed by sacrifice and the shedding of blood.2 God then said to Israel through Moses, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words (24:8b).” “All these words” were the words of the Book of the Covenant that was read a few verses earlier in the hearing of the people. So what was this “Book of the Covenant” and what does it have to do with orphans?
Up to this point, the Book of the Covenant consisted of those laws that were given in chapters 20-23 after God called Israel into covenant (Ex. 19) and before he ratified the covenant (Ex. 24). It functioned as the initial stipulations of the covenant- what the people were to obey, beginning with the Ten Commandments and then other laws that unfolded the various forms that this obedience would constitute. These laws included various topics ranging from laws about alters, slaves and restitution, to laws about social justice, Sabbath and festivals. At this point in the giving of the Law there was no mention of sacrifices or instructions for the tabernacle (this came shortly after and would continue to unfold throughout the Pentateuch with the Law). Yet these laws were specifically chosen to make up the initial “Book of the Covenant” for a purpose- they revealed God Himself (the Lawgiver) as well as His expectations for His people to reflect His nature through obedience.3
This is the context of our passage at hand. Right at the beginning of His relationship with Israel, within the initial “Book of the Covenant,” God said to His people: “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless (Ex. 22:22-23).”
I can remember the first time I read this passage; I gasped! Did God really say THAT! That if orphans and widows were mistreated and cried out to God, then He Himself would kill them, leaving their wives to be widows and their children fatherless! That is what the command says. The question must be asked then: Why such severity? The answer to this question lies within the heart of the Lawgiver, but becomes clearer when seen in the light of the nations around Israel in the Ancient Near East. The protection of the widow and the orphan was the constant claim of the “ideal king” of the Ancient Near East. In their boasting, the ancient kings were portraying themselves as “ideal” in their rule and just in all their ways.4 In a very real sense, without meaning to, these kings were at least pretending to reflect the nature of the one true ideal King.
In Israel (and the world) Yahweh is the ideal King who truly cares for the plight of the widow and the orphan as their true defender and protector. Yet this King has chosen to care for the widow and the orphan through his people- those in relationship with Him, those who will reflect His own character and holiness. If the people fail to care for the orphan and widow, the character of Yahweh’s own nature as the defender and protector of the fatherless would be compromised, as God had called Israel to reflect His own nature in the keeping of the Covenant. Therefore, failure to accurately reflect the nature of God in properly caring for orphans and widows would bring severe punishment!
God made it clear to Israel right at the beginning of His relationship with them that He takes seriously the care for the fatherless and widow! He bound the care of the fatherless and widow right into the fabric of the covenant itself within his covenant expectations of His people. When they cried out with one voice in Exodus 24, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!”, they understood the magnitude of what they were saying, and the depths of God’s heart toward the fatherless and widows in their midst.
This passage holds three main truths for Christians today, each with very specific application and all three pointing to and unfolding the beauty of the Gospel itself.
1. God Himself is the defender of the Fatherless and Widow. There is something about this group of people that evokes God’s heart above the general category of “poor and needy.” The Book of the Covenant speaks in many places about the poor and needy, but it is here that God’s own character is seen to be linked to the fatherless and widow, where He shows that He Himself will move on their behalf. It will be unveiled later by David in Ps. 68:5 that God is the “Father to the fatherless” and the “defender of the widow” and this passage is the first to point us there.
The Gospel reveals that each of us is born spiritually “fatherless”, dead in sin (Eph. 2:2), and in desperate need of One who will move on our behalf. It is God who has taken the initiative in our salvation and drawn us to Jesus (Jn. 6:37, 44). This is the very heart of the Gospel itself- that God is not watching our pain and suffering, our struggles against sin and injustice on this groaning planet from far away. God is not ill-concerned and removed from our pain. Instead, He is near to us, concerned, and filled with compassion and mercy for those who are in need, especially the fatherless and widow.
2. God’s heart is toward those who recognize their need for Him. This is found in the statement, “If…they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.” If the fatherless and widow are mistreated or taken advantage of but do not cry out to Yahweh then they suffer in vain and without hope. The promise is to those who “cry out” to Yahweh who then Himself will move on their behalf. This is the heart of the Gospel as shown in the Beatitudes. When Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are the poor” he is not pointing to blessing for the sake of poverty in itself (whether physical or spiritual), but blessing unto those who know they need God! “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” It’s the same for the fatherless (physical or spiritual). One could say, “Blessed are the fatherless and blessed are the fatherless in spirit, for they shall find their Father.” The blessing is not to the fatherless for the sake of the fatherless, but to the fatherless that recognize their need of God! The same could be said about the widow. The Gospel is not for the righteous, but for those who know they need God (see Luke 18:9-14)!
3. God expects His people to bring His care (His Fatherhood) to the fatherless and widow. God still brings His Fatherhood to the fatherless through those of us who bring His compassion and care to these needy ones. This is the heart of James 1:27 and the heart of the Gospel itself- the very outflow of the person and nature of God being made manifest in us (see II Cor. 3:18). God made it clear to Israel right at the beginning of His relationship with them that they were to care for the fatherless and widow as a reflection of His character, and He makes it clear to us that we are to care for the fatherless in our midst.
The care of the fatherless is more than just a “good thing,” but is grounded in the Gospel itself, the good news that sin, death and Satan have been defeated on the cross and that God adopts us as His very own sons and daughters. This is a greater adoption than any of us could picture even if we adopt a child into our own families (which is great!). May our Father use us to bring His Fatherhood to the many physical and spiritual orphans in our midst, even as we bask in our own adoption as God’s sons and daughters!

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