Person who has been deprived of parents. The meaning is clearly demonstrated in Lamentations 5:3: "We have become orphans and fatherless, our mothers like widows." Since the father was the main means of economic support for the family unit in the ancient Near East, his absence left his wife and children in a particularly vulnerable condition (2 Kings 4:1-7). Consequently in the Bible, and in the ancient Near East, orphans and widows are usually mentioned together as the epitome of the poor and deprived of society, the personae miserabiles.
The Old Testament. The first reference to orphans in the Bible is found in the earliest law code of ancient Israel, the Covenant Code (Exod 21-24). In this text, given to a group of recently liberated slaves, the Lord passionately desired the protection of the orphan: "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" (22:22). To have compassion on the powerless, represented by the orphan, is to have the same zeal as God, who is known especially as "the helper of the fatherless" (Psalm 10:14), the helper of the helpless (Job 29:12). Consequently the yardstick by which Israelite society is measured in the prophetic critique is its concern to protect and provide for the totally dependent, a prime example of which was the orphan (Isa 1:23; 10:2; Jer 5:28; Ezek 22:7; Mal 3:5). True repentance meant justice for the orphan (Isa 1:17; Jer 7:6; 22:3; Zech 7:10).
Israel used the metaphor of an orphan to describe its own origins. A fatherless Israel was adopted by Yahweh and became his firstborn son (Exod 4:22). Ezekiel described Israel as an infant abandoned to die by its parents; Yahweh, however, had mercy and adopted her into his family (chap. 16). If Yahweh judged the people, it was as if they had become orphans without a father (Lam 5:3). But they could at the same time hope for salvation, for in Yahweh "the fatherless find compassion" (Hosea 14:4).
The New Testament. There are only two certain references to orphans. jas 1:27 emphasizes the Old Testament teaching. The essence of true religion is "to look after orphans and widows in their distress." Helping the helpless is at the core of what it means to be religious, as it was in the Old Testament.
A metaphorical usage also occurs. Christ stated at the last supper that he would not leave his disciples as orphans but come to them in the presence of his Spirit (John 14:18). It is this Spirit that allows Christians to call out, "Abba, Father" (Rom 8:15). They are no longer spiritual orphans but can begin to pray, "Our Father" (Matt 6:9).
Stephen G. Dempster
Bibliography. F. C. Fensham, JNES 21 (1962): 129-39; D. E. Gowan, Int 41 (1987): 341-53; R. Patterson, BSac 130 (1973): 223-34; H. Ringgren, TDOT, 6:477-81; H. E. von Waldow, CBQ 32 (1970): 182-204.