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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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