Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Infertility and the Bible 8: The Plight of the Childless Widow

Last week we looked at the practice of surrogacy as an option for the childless woman/couple. This week we shift gears to look at the situation of the childless widow.

There is one other situation of childlessness in antiquity which adds another dynamic to the problem. The case of the childless widow raises a number of issues about how such a woman could benefit from her deceased husband when that man did not leave her with any children. Although she may have been the favored wife, without a son she has no rights of succession and thus is classified as a widow. The barren woman’s status was ambiguous.[1] A woman’s status within the household depended upon her reproductive role, and until she fulfilled that role she was basically considered to be an outsider to her husband’s family.[2] Thus a barren woman, although the primary wife, was not always guaranteed social and financial protection if or when she became a widow.

The classification of “widow” was not the same as it today. In modern society “widow” is a label applied to any woman whose husband has died. But in the ancient world the classification was not so simplistic. In Babylonia, for instance, a woman was only designated as a widow if both her husband and father-in-law had died and she had no son to provide for her. Thus the root cause of the definition was not simply that she had been bereft of her husband but included a more nuanced social problem; she was lacking a male who was responsible for caring for her.[3] Mesopotamian texts often portray the widow as poor, vulnerable and in need of protection.[4] Her social position was shaky and she depended upon the kindness of those around her.[5]

The precariousness of the childless widow’s situation is illustrated in 2 Samuel 14:4-7. As part of Joab’s ruse to reinstate Absalom, he sends a woman to King David identified only as the widow of Tekoa. In her plea to David she describes how one of her two sons killed the other with the result that the clan demanded the execution of the surviving son. The woman’s request that her son be spared is based on her socio-economic situation. The surviving son, murderer that he may be, is the only remaining heir to her husband and thus her last means of support.[6] Although the woman’s account is imaginary it does provide a window into the plight of the widow. A woman with grown sons had some protection, thus the prospect of losing them was especially bitter for a widow (c.f 1 Kings 17:17-24).[7]

While some ANE societies allowed for the widow to receive a share of her husband’s property, the biblical codes make no such provisions forcing the childless woman to join the landless members of society who are entitled to humanitarian aid (Deut 14:28-29).[8] Widows were among the recipients who received an allotment from the third year tithe (Deut 26:12). But descriptions of the treatment of widows in Exodus 22:21-24 make no mention of a societal welfare system which may suggest that such care for widows was only gradually institutionalized over the course of time.[9] Thus, the protections and provisions available to the widow were probably infrequent at best.

Next week we will look at the options available to a woman with no children and no husband.

[1] Steinberg, Kinship and Marriage, 16.

[2] Steinberg, Kinship and Marriage, 77.

[3] Paula S. Hiebert, “Whence Shall Help Come to me: The Biblical Widow,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel. Peggy L Day ed (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 128; Van der Toorn, From Her Cradle to Her Grave, 134.

[4] Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel, 293.

[5] Van der Toorn, From Her Cradle to Her Grave, 134. The ancient widow’s need of protection is highlighted when Hammurabi declares in the epilogue of the law code that part of his mandate from the gods is to protect the widow: “The great gods have called me . . . That the strong might not injure the weak, in order to protect the widows and orphans.” In a society where kinship provided identity and protection, the widow had none (Hiebert, “The Biblical Widow,” 130).

[6] A.A. Anderson, 2 Samuel (WBC 11; Dallas: Word, 1989), 188.

[7]hnml),” TDOT, 290.

[8] In some cases the woman may have a dowry or some other means of support, but if these sources were non-existent or exhausted, charity was her only resort (Raymond Westbrook and Bruce Wells, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009], 101).

[9] Van der Toorn, From Her Cradle to Her Grave, 136.


  1. This really clarifies the texts where God calls for the care and protection of the widows and orphans. Thanx!

  2. If a woman's status within the household is dependent upon her reproductive role, then what happens if she gives birth to a son, but the son dies at birth or very young, and she has no more children? Does her status change back to no status within the household or has she fulfilled her role?