What’s so special about foreigners, orphans, widows, and the poor? Why are these groups of people mentioned so often in scriptures that deal with justice?
It goes back to the early days of Israel. When it was one nation divided into twelve tribes, God gave every tribe a portion of land to live on…except one.
The Levites had no land of their own. They were to serve as the priests of the whole nation, scatter throughout the country, but never own a piece of it. (Deuteronomy 18:1)
Levites had no land of their own to farm, nothing to feed their families or trade in the market, no place to build a home.
How were they to survive?
In Deuteronomy 18, God instructs the other tribes to share with the Levites. Levites were allowed to live on any land they chose and would be given meat, grain, wine, olive oil, and wool by the other eleven tribes. “This is the PORTION DUE the priests from the people.” (Deuteronomy 18:3-5)
“Portion due” is the Hebrew word “mishpat.” The same word usually translated “justice” in the Hebrew scriptures.
It was JUSTICE to provide for those who could not own land and were unable to provide for themselves.
Who else was not permitted to own land?
Foreigners, orphans, widows, and the poor.
- FOREIGNERS: There was no such thing as a legal or illegal immigrant – don’t look at ancient Israel through modern American politics! A “foreigner” was not a Hebrew – not a descendant of Abraham or married to a descendant of Abraham. They were allowed to live in the land of the Hebrews but could not OWN any portion of it. The land could only be owned by the eleven tribes.
- ORPHANS & WIDOWS: Orphans and widows could not usually own land of their own because they were not men.
- THE POOR: At this time in Israel’s history, “the poor” were those who lacked daily bread for any reason. They lost their family lands through personal foolishness or the injustice of others.
So far in this series on justice, we’ve learned that justice (mishpat) is giving people what God says they’re due (provision, protection, or punishment) without favoritism or discrimination. Every person is due the physical and spiritual provisions needed to survive and flourish.
Levites, foreigners, orphans, widows, and the poor were not allowed to own land. But God, through his people, gave them the portion they were due.
If you were to ask a Jew today what “mishpat” is, they’d likely say it’s charity or generosity and then point you to Deuteronomy 18 where eleven tribes were generous toward the twelfth. But now you know that their generosity was part of God’s plan to provide a life-saving portion for those who had none. This was God’s people ordering Israel God’s good way. This was giving everyone what God said they were due. This was justice.
And this justice gave the Levites, orphans, widows, and the poor in Israel a lot to celebrate!
“Rejoice before the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows living among you.”Deuteronomy 16:11