The Poor and Unfortunate – Exodus 22:21
I am continuing this week on the topic of how the Mosaic Law required Israel to treat the poor (see my previous post here). Today I am going to post on the mitzvot (command) given in Exodus 22:21. This verse, and the surrounding verses, commanded the citizens of Israel not mistreat widows and orphans.
The commentaries (for lack of a better word) below illustrate why I like showing both the Jewish and Christian interpretations of the passages dealing with the poor and unfortunate. They all seem correct and I wouldn’t disagree with anything that is written in any of them. However there is quite a difference in emphasis. Notice how the Jewish interpretation emphasizes that this command applies to any widow or orphan even if they are wealthy. I do believe that the vast majority of widows and orphans in ancient Israel were dirt poor and were in a very precarious position but this command doesn’t appear to be based on poverty alone. Widows and orphans are vulnerable to mistreatment even if they have money. The family unit being broken by the death of the husband (for the widow) or parent (for the orphan) makes those left behind vulnerable and needing protection. Could it be that an intact family is as important as money?
However, the Jewish interpretation of the penalty seems to assume that God will automatically move against those who mistreat the widow and orphan but the passage doesn’t appear to say that (maybe there are other passages that do?). In Exodus 23:22 it says that “if they call out to me I will hear.” I think that “if” is an important word in this context. It would appear that God does not move against those who prey upon the widow and orphan until He is asked to. I wonder how many of the oppressed (to use a modern word) could get relief, and see justice done, if they would only ask God? I think that is food for thought.
Mitzvot 41 (CCN51)
51. It is a negative commandment not to inflict suffering on any widow or orphan
as Scripture says, You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child (sh’moth [Exodus] 22:21). Even if they are wealthy, even the widow of a king, or his orphan children, it is necessary to treat them with respect. One is not to cause them distress or anguish to their hearts with harsh words. He is to be more protective of their property than his own. If anyone brings them to rage or brings anguish to their hearts, and all the more certainly if he strikes them or curses them, he violates this prohibition; and his punishment is given explicitly in the Torah: then my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless (ibid 23).
Whether a child is without a father or without a mother, he is called an orphan, until he grows up and attends to all his needs alone, like other adults. It is permissible to chasten them in the learning of Torah or a craft, so as to guide them in a straight and decent path. Nevertheless one should be solicitous with them, to rear them slowly [patiently] with kindness and compassion.
This applies everywhere, in every tine, for both man and woman.
From Gary Kukis in his commentary on Exodus chapter 22 (link here)
Behavior Toward the Weak
“You will not wrong or oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. [Ex. 22:21 (20)]
The Jews just came out of a land where they were oppressed, they were taken into slavery and treated cruelly. Even though God has give approval to the institution of slavery, he has not given tacit approval to cruelty and vicious treatment of those who ae not in Israel. This same word describes the treatment by Egypt of the Jews (Ex. 3:9—the verb and the noun cognate are both found in this verse).
“You will not afflict any widow or orphan. [Ex. 22:22 (21)]
The 2nd person, masculine plural, Piel imperfect of ‛ânâh (ה ָנ ָע) [pronounced aw-NAWH] means to debase, afflict, browbeat, humble, mishandle; I tend to like the rendering mishandle here (and elsewhere where we have the Piel of ‛ânâh) because it is applicable here. These are the helpless people; the ones without a voice, without someone to fight for them, the weak and the poor. They do not have to be directly abused by the Jews; they need only be neglected or uncared for; left to go hungry or left to go homeless. This is not as much an active afflicting but more of a passive one in this case. This is one of the rare times when we have the 2nd person plural and not the 2nd person singular. The reason for this is God is directing the nation Israel as to how to treat the helpless as opposed to explaining to individuals what is right and what is wrong.
“If you do mishandle [or, mistreat] them, and they call out to me, I will definitely hear [lit., in hearing, I will hear] their voice. [Ex. 22:23 (22)]
Call out and voice are cognates of one another. The KJV usually translates them both cry; which is a very good one-word, consistent translation, albeit unfortunately dated. We are back to the 2nd person singular; God will hear the helpless who call out to Him when they are afflicted by those who are stronger. There are men who actively prey upon older people. Some mug them because they are not strong enough to fight back; some steal away their lifetime savings through various schemes and cons. God hears them when they call to Him. Although this is a part of the Law, it is also a promise to any helpless person who calls upon Him.
“And my wrath will burn and I will kill you with the sword and your wives will become widows and your children fatherless. [Ex. 22:24 (23)]
This is a promise made directly to Israel; if they chose to mistreat the helpless, then God would kill their strong. This is a promise made directly to Israel, but the principle is the same for all time—if the helpless are maltreated, they are to call on God and He will avenge them. However, when you take a matter to the supreme court, you must leave it there in God’s hands.
From Matthew Henry in his commentary on Exodus 22 (link here):
V. A caution against oppression. Because those who were empowered to punish other crimes were themselves most in danger of this, God takes the punishing of it into his own hands.
1. Strangers must not be abused (Exodus 22:21), not wronged in judgment by the magistrates, not imposed upon in contracts, nor must any advantage be taken of their ignorance or necessity; no, nor must they be taunted, trampled upon, treated with contempt, or upbraided with being strangers; for all these were vexations, and would discourage strangers from coming to live among them, or would strengthen their prejudices against their religion, to which, by all kind and gentle methods, they should endeavour to proselyte them. The reason given why they should be kind to strangers is, “You were strangers in Egypt, and knew what it was to be vexed and oppressed there,” Note, (1.) Humanity is one of the laws of religion, and obliges us particularly to be tender of those that lie most under disadvantages and discouragements, and to extend our compassionate concern to strangers, and those to whom we are not under the obligations of alliance or acquaintance. Those that are strangers to us are known to God, and he preserves them, Psalms 146:9. (2.) Those that profess religion should study to oblige strangers, that they may thereby recommend religion to their good opinion, and take heed of doing any thing that may tempt them to think ill of it or its professors, 1 Peter 2:12. (3.) Those that have themselves been in poverty and distress, if Providence enrich and enlarge them, ought to show a particular tenderness towards those that are now in such circumstances as they were in formerly, doing now by them as they then wished to be done by.
2. Widows and fatherless must not be abused (Exodus 22:22): You shall not afflict them, that is, “You shall comfort and assist them, and be ready upon all occasions to show them kindness.” In making just demands from them, their condition must be considered, who have lost those that should deal for them, and protect them; they are supposed to be unversed in business, destitute of advice, timorous, and of a tender spirit, and therefore must be treated with kindness and compassion; no advantage must be taken against them, nor any hardship put upon them, from which a husband or a father would have sheltered them. For, (1.) God takes particular cognizance of their case, Exodus 22:23. Having no one else to complain and appeal to, they will cry unto God, and he will be sure to hear them; for his law and his providence are guardians to the widows and fatherless, and if men do not pity them, and will not hear them, he will. Note, It is a great comfort to those who are injured and oppressed by men that they have a God to go to who will do more than give them the hearing; and it ought to be a terror to those who are oppressive that they have the cry of the poor against them, which God will hear. Nay, (2.) He will severely reckon with those that do oppress them. Though they escape punishments from men, God’s righteous judgments will pursue and overtake them, Exodus 22:24. Men that have a sense of justice and honour will espouse the injured cause of the weak and helpless; and shall not the righteous God do it? Observe the equity of the sentence here passed upon those that oppress the widows and fatherless: their wives shall become widows, and their children fatherless; and the Lord is known by these judgments, which he sometimes executes still.