In the Bible an orphan was a boy or girl, Israelite or non-Israelite, who was unmarried and had lost one or both parents. The circumstances of such children are best understood when compared to the perceived ideal family living situation in Israel. The ideal was a father, mother, and their sons and daughters who owned farmland inherited from the father’s family. The land allowed them to grow their food and graze their animals with the support of and under the protection of the extended family.
If the father of this family unit died, it not only generated emotional trauma associated with his passing but also diminished the surviving family’s economic and physical security. Older children could become the hear of the family property and so continue to use it for their support and the support of their widowed mother (Num 27:7-11, Deut 21:15-17). A widow with younger children could inherit the property, but the Bible generally paints her circumstances as particularly grim (2 Kings 4:1-2). The situation became more ambiguous and therefore more tenuous when a younger child lost both parents.
When presume the child fell under the care and protection of the extended family, but the orphan’s presence might not always have been welcomed, and the disposition of the parent’s land might have been left in limbo.
Even worse was the case of the non-Israelite, who did not hold property rights at all in the Promised Land; the foreigner’s destiny was truly precarious. While some level of inference is required to draw this diminishing picture of personal security, we can say for sure that the more tenuous their hold on property rights and the more uncharitable the extended family became, the more difficult life was for orphaned children, who were at increased risk of going without the basics of food, clothing, and social protection. END OF PART 1