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Categories
Theology Thursday

Yātôm Week 4: The promise that makes all the difference

I hate letting people down. I hate that feeling of realizing that you promised to do something but failed to follow through, especially when it comes to my kids. The other day I told my 4-year-old daughter that I would take her to the park after I got home from work. She was really looking forward to it and brought it up several times throughout the day. However, I was unable to get home in enough time to take her. She was crushed. Many tears, a tantrum, and 30 minutes later I was finally able to calm her down and get her to bed. Let’s just say it was not my best moment as a dad. 

Letting people down is hard, especially little children. There is something about the joy, anticipation and excitement children express that makes it particularly crushing to disappoint them. That is why I find so much comfort in the third most common theme found in the Bible about yātôm [YA-tome] (the Hebrew word for “the fatherless”). 

Let’s play a game. I will quote a few passages about yātôm from the Bible and you try to guess what today’s theme is. Ready? Okay, here they are:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.  – Deuteronomy 10:17-18

 

But you [the Lord] do see, for you note mischief and vexation, that you may take it into your hands; to you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless. – Psalm 10:14

 

Sing to God, sing in praise of his name… A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing – Psalm 68:4-6

 

The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow – Psalm 146:9

Were you able to identify the theme running through all four of these passages? All four of these texts – and many others like them – strongly communicate that God himself provides for and defends yātôm. As one article puts it, “the Bible presents God as the special representative of [yātôm], both attending to their cries for help (Exod 22:23) and performing justice on their behalf (Psa 68:6).” (1) God himself is the one who “executes justice for,” helps, sustains and fathers the fatherless. He is the one watching over them, fighting for their well-being and guarding their every step as they walk through life. 

I find profound significance in how this third theme connects with the previous two (if you haven’t already read the previous three blog posts, I recommend you do so). The first theme is a warning from God, “If you mess with my kids, I will mess with you.” The second theme is an invitation from God, “If you bless my kids, I will bless you.” But the third theme is a promise from God, “No matter if people oppress or bless, I will protect and defend the fatherless.” It is a beautiful promise that reveals the deep nature of God’s compassionate heart. God hates watching yātôm suffer, and in time he will bring them justice and provide what they need. 

As a foster dad who also works in child welfare, I find incredible confidence in the doctrine of God’s love for yātôm. It fortifies my work. It gives me strength to keep going. There is so much brokenness in our child welfare system. Children and youth in foster care have seen the worst humanity has to offer, and if their restoration solely rested on my shoulders, I would crumble. That is a weight I simply cannot carry. But if God is at work among the lives of yātôm, if He is the one ultimately providing for and defending these amazing children, then I have the greatest ally anyone could ever hope for. If the ruling, reigning Christ is on the side of children and youth in foster care, that is a team worth joining. That is a task worthy of my labor. 

The doctrine of God’s love for yātôm is far from being an excuse to disengage – instead, it is an invitation to partner with God. The one who says, “well, if God loves yātôm, then I don’t need to,” misunderstands the means by which God cares for the fatherless. Yes, God can and does directly provide for and defend yātôm himself. But even more often He works on the hearts and souls of men and women of faith, calling them to be His hands and feet. God primarily cares for and defends yātôm by animating the church to act on his behalf. We are God’s holy ambassadors, sent out by the father to care for those he loves and protects. God’s people are called to move towards yātôm in the name of Jesus, for the sake of God’s glory (Matt 5:16).

This is certainly the case in my story. Growing up I had no context or understanding of foster care. There is nothing in my nature that desires to care for kids in the foster care system. But as I began to read the Bible, the Holy Spirit filled me with a conviction that God was calling me to be a father to the fatherless. The only reason I said “yes” to being a foster parent is that I had directly encountered the unconditional and sacrificial love of God through Christ. It is because God has placed his love deep inside my heart that I have love to give to the children who enter my home. 

My prayer for all those involved in caring for yātôm is that they would love and lead from a place of confidence knowing that God himself cares for and defends the fatherless. We can rest assured knowing that God himself is the one who sets the lonely in families. Our confidence doesn’t lie in our own ability to save and to heal. It lies with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. It lies with the Great Physician, the ultimate father to the fatherless and defender of the vulnerable. God’s people are free to serve and love and care and give knowing that at the end of the day, it is God who brings the increase (1 Cor 3:7) and it will be God who gets the glory. 

Theme #1: God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm
Theme #2: God will bring blessing on those who protect and care for yātôm
Theme #3: God himself provides for and defends yātôm 

Ryan MacDonald

1 – Blois, I. (2014). Protected Classes. In D. Mangum, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, & R. Hurst (Eds.), Lexham Theological Wordbook. Lexham Press.

 

 

Categories
Theology Thursday

Yātôm Week 3: You are being lied to (the truth about who is truly blessed)

What does it mean to be blessed? According to Bruno Mars in his hit song 24 Karat Magic, its “Cuban links,” “designer minks,” and “Inglewood’s finest shoes.” It’s having “money in my pocket” and “so many pretty girls around me.” Endless parties, bottomless drinks, beautiful bodies and all the money you could ever want, that’s the blessed life. 

Bruno Mars is not alone in his thinking. If you search #blessed on Instagram, you will find over 141 million posts. And you don’t have to scroll very far to realize that Bruno’s ideology has permeated the thinking of (literally) millions. The top photos are all of sculpted bodies, elaborate vacations and expensive vehicles. The testimony of millions across the world affirms that if you can achieve success on this level, you too can be blessed. 

But how does this ideology line up with what the Bible has to say about who is blessed? And wait a minute! Isn’t this a blog series about the fatherless (in Hebrew, yātôm)? What do Bruno Mars and yātôm have in common? I suggest more than you think. 

In the last blog post, we discovered that the number one use of the word yātôm in the Hebrew Scriptures is that God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm – the basic idea being that God loves yātôm enough to protect them. In light of this, what do you think is the second most common use of the word yātôm? I will give you a hint: it has to do with Bruno Mars. 

Contrary to the ideology of millions, the blessed life is NOT found in wealth and sexual experience. It is found – at least in part – by caring for yātôm. Listen to the promise of Deuteronomy 14:28-29:

At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.”

Israel was instructed to bring a yearly tithe to the central sanctuary. This money was used to support the ongoing work of the Levites. However, “every third year, the tithe was to be stored in the Israelite’s own town or village to provide a charitable fund for the needy, the Levites, the resident aliens, the widows, the orphans.” (1) How beautiful is this?! Every three years God called each local community to replenish a food bank to provide relief and support for the most vulnerable. The heart behind the project being that the poor “shall come and eat and be filled.” I love this simple yet profound threefold vision of caring for the vulnerable: come, eat, be filled. ‘Come’ speaks of invitation, intimacy and relationship. ‘Eat’ speaks of sacrifice, love, attention and care. ‘Be filled’ speaks of connection, joy, support and hope. 

These three words somehow get to the heart of every foster and adoptive parent. Each one who sought out and welcomed children into their home – ‘come.’ Then sacrificed, loved and nourished that child from the inside out – ‘eat.’ All for the sake of seeing them connected, whole, known and hopeful – ‘be filled.’ 

And what is God’s incentive for such work? Why should people disadvantage themselves for the disadvantaged? “That the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.” As it turns out, the blessed life is not found in money, fame or exotic experiences. The blessed life is found in obeying the Lord and caring for the marginalized. And the people who do so – as Deuteronomy 26:12-15 teaches –  can pray with full confidence “look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel.

God’s blessing is NOTHING like the world’s. The shallow and empty promise of finding happiness in success only leaves you wanting more. God’s blessing is something other-wordly. It is the deep, soul-satisfying joy of being with God in the work He is doing. It is the permanent joy of God’s presence. It is the abiding knowledge that we are loved by God. 

In my own experience as a foster dad, caring for yātôm has been one of the greatest joys of my life. Even this morning, as I opened the door to our nursery, my one year old foster daughter greeted me with a massive smile as she jumped for joy while exuberantly waving her arms in the air. That’s the blessed life. It’s also watching my four year old adopted daughter – by God’s grace! – surpass all expectations for how she would be able to learn, regulate her emotions and connect socially. There is nothing like getting a front row seat to God’s redemptive work in the life of yātôm

I also experience God’s blessing in dark moments. In times of trouble, sorrow and difficulty, God has been my refuge and an ever present help. I am convinced that the blessing of God is felt with particular warmth by those who care for yātôm in the midst of their darkness. God is with yātôm, and his presence is felt by all who obey his command to care for the fatherless.  

Bruno Mars may be a lot of fun to dance to (as I have done many times before!), but he is a terrible guide to a blessed life. Let us reject his lies – and the ideology he stands for – and return to the sacred and honest pursuit of finding our blessings in obedience to God’s commands to care for yātôm. Support friends, Advocates and Foster Families alike will be the first to testify that God indeed will bless those who care for the fatherless. 

Theme #1: God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm
Theme #2: God will bring blessing on those who protect and care for yātôm 

Ryan MacDonald

1 – Thompson, J. A. (1974). Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 5, pp. 199–200). InterVarsity Press.

 

Categories
Theology Thursday

Yātôm Week 2: I couldn’t believe what I found

When most Bible teachers talk about God’s heart for the fatherless, they all seem to draw from the same few verses (ie. Ps. 68:5-6; James 1:27). But the Bible – especially the Old Testament – is full of passages that disclose God’s heart for the fatherless. This is a problem. It’s like we have been trying to put together a picture of God’s heart for children who need a family but we are only using a few pieces of the puzzle! It’s time we stopped being content with an incomplete puzzle and go looking for the remaining pieces. 

I’m not going to lie, before I started my study on God’s heart for the fatherless (the Hebrew word translated ‘fatherless’ or ‘orphan’ is yātôm [ya-TOME]) I had several assumptions about what I would find. One of those assumptions was that when God talks about the fatherless in Scripture, he does so primarily with soft, warm, empathic language. The picture I had in my mind was flannel-graph Jesus (sorry Gen Z, google ‘flannel-graph Jesus’ if you don’t know what I am referencing) welcoming sweet little children to gather around while he told happy and engaging stories for his time in eternity with the father. Yet when I actually started looking at the 42 passages that talk about yātôm, I couldn’t believe what I found. 

Instead of warm, welcoming language towards children, I found harsh, wrathful language towards those who oppress the fatherless. In fact, the first mention of yātôm in the Old Testament is a strong warning that anyone who mistreats the widow or orphan will experience the curse and wrath of God. 

You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” (Ex 22:22-24) 

Yikes… Try sewing that on a pillow and selling it at your local Christian book store! Let’s be honest, this seems like a difficult passage to square with the loving and gracious character of God. In Exodus 22 God is threatening to kill those who oppress yātôm. And in a tragic – and somewhat ironic – reversal of judgment, oppression of the widow and orphan results in a widowed spouse and fatherless children. Now that doesn’t seem very loving, does it? What about grace and forgiveness? Surely this verse is a one-of-a-kind outlier! Right? 

The reality is that Exodus 22:22-24 is not some fringe verse that is unsupported by the rest of Scripture. It actually represents the most prominent theme about yātôm in the entire Bible. The most common idea about yātôm in the Bible is that those who oppress the vulnerable will be judged and cursed by God

‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ (Deut 27:19)

Woe to those who… to turn aside the needy from justice… that they may make the fatherless their prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the ruin that will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth?” (Is 10:1-3)

They have become great and rich; they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the Lord, and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?” (Jer 5:28-29)

These are a few of the many passages in the Bible where God promises to bring judgment and curses on those who oppress yātôm. (1) When it comes to children in need of protection, God is not fooling around

At this point, some of us might be wanting to run back to the warm and soft verses about God setting the lonely in families (which He does!), but I would humbly suggest that if we disregard God’s warning to the oppressor, not only will we have an incomplete picture of God’s heart for yātôm, but oppression against vulnerable children will increase. Maybe, just maybe, if the full picture of God’s wrath against the oppressor was still taught today, fewer children would be abused and neglected by those God tasked to protect them. 

I think there are several things we need to take away from the Bible’s teaching that God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm. Let me briefly give you four. 

  1. God takes mistreatment of yātôm seriously.

For those of us who have been called to teach the Bible or speak on behalf of yātôm, we need to re-examine the tone in which we communicate God’s heart for the fatherless. If we only ever use soft, flowery language, we are misrepresenting God. The primary voice God uses in speaking on behalf of yātôm is not gentle language towards children, but aggressive warnings for those who oppress. 

  1. God will make right injustice towards yātôm.

Those involved in child welfare have seen terrible evils done to children and youth in foster care. Like the prophet Habakkuk, sometimes our hearts cry out to God “Why do the wicked prosper!?” and “why do you allow abusers to harm children?” Though we will never have a fully satisfying answer until we meet God face to face, we can and should take comfort in knowing that God is a righteous judge and he does not let evil go unpunished. All sin done towards children is either dealt with at the cross or paid in full through the judgment of God. 

  1. It is ok to be angry at oppression.

In some circles of Chrsitianity, anger is explicitly (or implicitly) seen as sin. But the Bible teaches that there is a way to be angry without sinning (Eph 4:26). Knowing that God regularly expresses anger towards the oppressor gives us freedom to express our own anger towards the pain foster and adoptive kids have endured. As followers of Jesus, injustice should make us angry! And like Jesus we should do whatever we can to stop oppression against the poor (Matt 21:12-14). Expressing anger – especially through the discipline of lament – can be a powerful tool in processing the suffering that comes with caring for children and youth in foster care. 

  1. We can love (even the oppressor) because God will avenge. 

Romans 12:19 says “beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God”, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Jesus’ radical call for disciples to practice loving their enemies only makes sense because “vengeance is mine… says the Lord.” There is a great temptation to hate or wish evil on those who oppress children (I have certainly felt this before!). But God, the righteous judge, judges with total perfection. This frees us from the need to practice our own imperfect judgment towards the wicked, and instead seek the Spirit’s help to love our enemies. We can rest assured that we serve a God “who will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex 34:7).

So, there you have it. The number one theme in the Bible regarding yātôm is an assurance that God loves vulnerable children enough to bring judgement on those who oppress them. But we still have a long way to go. There are many other pieces of the puzzle we need to collect in order to have a full understanding of God’s heart for yātôm

Theme #1: God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm.

Ryan MacDonald

1 – See Ex 22:24; Deut 27:19; Is 10:1-3; Jer 5:27-29; 22:1-5; Zach 7:4-14; Mal 3:1-5

 

Categories
Blog Theology Thursday

Yātôm Week 1: What the Bible Really Says About the Orphan

I grew up with a deep love for the outdoors. From a young age, my dad would take my brother and me camping and backpacking. One year we were gearing up for a 50-mile backpacking trip with several of my friends and their parents in Lassen National forest through the beautiful Cascade Mountains of California. In preparation for the trip, everyone had to read about how and what to pack. Preparation was very important because primitive trails like these have no running water, bathrooms, or trash cans. You had to pack in and pack out everything you needed for the 4-day journey. Mount Lassen was a particularly difficult hike because the trails were covered in sand which made walking even more tiring. Carefully reading about how and what to pack was essential for completing the journey alive and healthy.

For the most part we had all prepared well and were equipped for the hike. That is, all of us except my friend Jason. Because Jason had lots of experience camping, he only skimmed the material that told him what to pack – but packing for camping and packing for a hike are completely different. Only a half-day into our wilderness journey, we noticed that Jason kept falling behind, so we stopped to see how he was doing. Jason told us that he felt exhausted and that his back was really hurting. We were all surprised by this, because Jason was in great shape! We decided to divide some of the items in his pack to help lighten his load, but when we opened his backpack, we couldn’t believe what we found. Jason had packed multiple non-essential items that were making his pack exceedingly heavy, including several cans of food, a large bottle of hair spray and – wait for it – a blow dryer! After we recovered from the shock of how poorly Jason had packed, we ate all the canned food, distributed some of Jason’s items among the other hikers and went on our way.  

I believe there are many ‘Jason’s’ among those seeking to advocate for children in foster care. There are many people who set out on the journey of foster care having read only part of the manual. Like Jason, they have made assumptions about what the Bible says about the fatherless and these assumptions have left well-intentioned travelers exhausted or unable to complete the journey. Advocating for children in foster care – like hiking the Cascade Mountains – is a beautiful yet changeling journey, and one that we must be diligent to prepare for. 

Pastor Rick Warren helps us unpack why seeing the Bible as a manual for life is so important. He says, 

life can be dangerous, so it’s essential that you use the right equipment. One of those pieces of equipment is the Bible. It’s like God’s owner’s manual for your life. Like any good owner’s manual, the Bible gives you instructions and you can consult it when you need help. (1)

The path of life can be dangerous and the Bible helps us find our way. It is a life manual, full of wisdom. It contains the teachings necessary to prepare us for the journey of foster care.  

The problem is that when people refer to the ‘manual’ about God’s heart for the fatherless, they often only point to one or two verses in the Bible. Be honest – how many times have you heard or read content about foster care or adoption that references either James’ call for “true religion” or the Psalmist reminder that “God sets the lonely in families?” Both passages are certainly important for helping us know how and what to pack for the journey of foster care, but is that really all the Bible has to say about the fatherless? Are these two passages really enough to understand God’s heart for vulnerable children? And most importantly, are they adequately preparing us for what’s ahead? Because unless we truly understand what to pack, we will not have the necessary supplies to finish the journey – let alone finish in a place of health. 

Part of the problem is that most people have neglected the Old Testament – the place where the vast majority of references to the fatherless are found. In fact, James 1:27 is the only place in the New Testament that orphans are explicitly mentioned. When we compare this one reference to the 42 mentions of the orphan in the Old Testament it becomes clear that the vast majority of the Bible’s teaching comes from the Hebrew Scriptures. 42 times in the Old Testament God reveals his heart towards children who do not have a home. 42 times God provides the insight and perspective we need to care for these amazing children. If we have any hope of truly understanding God’s heart for vulnerable children we can no longer neglect the truth these passages have to offer. 

I mean, can you imagine trying to do a 42 piece puzzle with only one or two pieces!? How frustrating!? How incomplete!? Yet I am proposing this is exactly what we do when we neglect the majority of God’s thoughts about vulnerable children. It’s time we stopped being content with one or two pieces of the puzzle. It’s time we go looking for the rest of the pieces so we can see the beautiful picture of God’s heart for the fatherless. 

So for the next few weeks we will open the manual and start gathering the missing pieces of the puzzle in hopes that we better prepare ourselves for the journey. But before we start, it would be helpful to understand a bit about the trail ahead. 

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. Anytime you study the Old Testament, you should do a bit of research to discover what key Hebrew words are used and what insight those words offer regarding your topic. Most English translations use the words ‘fatherless’ and ‘orphan’ to describe children who need a home. But when we look at the Hebrew we learn that both English words are translated from the single Hebrew word yātôm [ya-TOME]. As I have mentioned already, yātôm is a common word occurring 42 times in the Old Testament. What is interesting – and very insightful – about the word yātôm is that it is constructed around the Hebrew verb meaning ‘to be lonely.’ One would expect the word to mean something like ‘to be without parents.’ Yet in the Hebrew mind, to be an orphan, is to be lonely

I believe this small insight offers profound wisdom to help us navigate the needs of adoptive children and kids in foster care. There is a cold isolation and loneliness that many children in foster care experience. Even once children find an adoptive home the experience and trauma of being removed from your birth family never completely goes away.

I was talking with a mom just the other day who was sharing how her teenage adopted daughter told her how isolating it was to be the only adoptee among her peers. This experience left her feeling like she was the only one who didn’t belong in the group.  Another adoptive mom shared how after her 4 year old daughter’s birth mom’s parental rights were terminated she sat in her lap crying out “mommy, mommy!” Even though this precious little girl was actively being held by her forever mom, somewhere deep down inside, she felt alone. 

I don’t cite such examples to be fatilist or hopeless. As one of the most quoted passages about yātôm says, we serve a God who is “a father to the fatherless.” A “God [who] sets the lonely in families.” (2) I mentioned these stories to highlight the brilliance of Hebrew wisdom. The very word yātôm gives us deep insight and direction on how we can best love children without a family – to be present with them in their loneliness. Once we correctly understand the word, yātôm becomes a safeguard against thinking there is an easy answer to meeting the needs of adoptive children and kids in foster care. It teaches us that yātôm’s very experience has been marked by loneliness and what they need most is for us to be with them. God calls his people to be the embodied presence of Christ – a presence that stands with yātôm through their best and worst days. 

Over the next few weeks we will be diving into the Old Testament scriptures to learn what the Bible actually says about yātôm. Each Thursday we will post a new blog that unpacks a new aspect of God’s heart for the fatherless. My hope and prayer is that by the end of our time together we will all be a little more equipped for the journey. And by God’s grace, more of us will not only make it to the end of the trail, but when we arrive at our destination, we will be healthy.  

Ryan MacDonald

1 – https://pastorrick.com/the-bible-gods-owners-manual-for-life/
2 –  Psalm 68:5-6