From Bible Study Tools, we learn, “Words that occur in the general semantic field of the term “widow” in the Bible shed light on both her personal experience and social plight. Weeping ( Job 27:15 ; Psalm 78:64 ), mourning ( 2 Sam 14:2 ), and desolation ( Lam 1:1 ) describe her personal experience after the loss of her spouse. Poverty ( Ruth 1:21 ; 1 Kings 17:7-12 ; Job 22:9 ) and indebtedness ( 2 Kings 4:1 ) were all too often descriptive of her financial situation, when the main source of her economic support, her husband, had perished. Indeed, she was frequently placed alongside the orphan and the landless immigrant ( Exod 22:21-22 ; Deuteronomy 24:17 Deuteronomy 24:19 Deuteronomy 24:20-21 ) as representative of the poorest of the poor ( Job 24:4 ; 29:12 ; 31:16 ; Isa 10:2 ) in the social structure of ancient Israel, as well as in the ancient Near East. With minimal, if any, inheritance rights, she was often in a “no-man’s land.” She had left her family, and with her husband’s death the bond between her and his family was tenuous.
“Nonetheless, the loss of a husband in ancient Israel was normally a social and economic tragedy. In a generally patriarchal culture, the death of a husband usually meant a type of cultural death as well. Although the denotation of widow referred to a woman whose husband had died, because of the social context the word quickly acquired the connotation of a person living a marginal existence in extreme poverty. The widow reacted with grief to her plight, and probably wore a distinct garb as a sign of her status ( Genesis 38:14 Genesis 38:19 ; 2 Sam 14:2 ; cf. Judith 8:5-6; 10:3; 16:8). Disillusionment and bitterness could easily result ( Ruth 1:20-21 ). Her crisis was aggravated if she had no able-bodied children to help her work the land of her dead spouse. To provide for her children, to maintain the estate, and to continue payments on debts accrued by her husband imposed severe burdens. Since she was in an extremely vulnerable economic position, she became the prime target of exploitation. The fact that she was classed with the landless stranger and Levite indicates that she was often unable to keep her husband’s land.“In general, the widow’s inheritance rights were minimal. Some scholars believe that Israelite widows could inherit land as was the case with their Mesopotamian counterparts. But the evidence is sparse. The general rule was that the land was inalienably connected to the family of the male to whom it was apportioned. The fact that an individual desired to marry the widow of a king did not assume that the woman had inherited her husband’s estate; it was simply an attempt to legitimize a claim to royalty (cf. 1 Kings 2:13-18 ). The fact that widows had land within their possession probably indicated that they held it in trust for their children ( 1 Kings 17:7-9 ; 2 Kings 4:1-2 ; cf. Prov 15:25 ). If a widow had male children, the land would pass to her sons when they reached maturity if she was able to maintain the land and the sons survived. If she had only female children, the land would be transferred to them provided they married within the tribe ( Num 27:8-11 ). If she was childless and of marriageable age (i.e., still able to reproduce), it was the duty of the closest male relative on her husband’s side (normally the brother-in-law [Lat. levir]) to marry her and provide an heir for the land of her dead husband, and to continue his name in Israel ( Deut 25:5 ). The story of Judah and Tamar ( Gen 38 ) is an example of this custom of “levirate” marriage. Later, Deuteronomy 25:5-10 codifies legislation for such unions. The Book of Ruth provides a historical example of the application of the law. If no relative would marry a childless widow, it seemed that she could return to her father’s house ( Gen 38:11 ; cf. Lev 22:13 ) and dispose of the land to the husband’s family ( Ruth 4:1-3 ).
“The distribution of the term ‘widow’ is found approximately one-third of the time in legal texts, one-third in prophetic texts, and one-third in wisdom and historical literature. But the vast majority of the contexts are legal in nature, either dealing with justice (the legal protection of the widow) or injustice (the exploitation of her status). In the former case the Old Testament is replete with legislation that attempted to provide a social security net for the widow: she was not to be exploited ( Exod 22:21-22 ; Deut 27:19 ); she was specifically permitted to glean the fields and vineyards during harvest time ( Deut 24:19-21, ; cf. Ruth 2 ); tithes were to be shared with her ( Deut 14:29 ; 26:12-13 ); provision was to be made for her at the main religious feasts ( Deut 16:9-15 ); her garment could not be taken as collateral for a loan ( Deut 24:17 ); and the levirate institution would not only provide an heir for the land for childless widows, it would help them be integrated back into society. Moreover, the supreme measure by which a ruler in Israel was to be judged was whether such powerless ones were cared for ( Psalms 72:4 Psalms 72:12-14 ; Jer 22:16 ).
“At the same time, the legislation acknowledged the fact of the vulnerability of the widow and many Old Testament texts indicate that she was victimized repeatedly ( Exod 22:22-23 ; Isa 1:23 ; 10:2 ; Ezek 22:7 ; Mal 3:5 ). The prophets were the champions of exploited widows. As far as they were concerned, repentance began with redressing wrongs done to such unfortunate women ( Isa 1:17 ; Jer 7:6 ; 22:3 ; Zech 7:10 ). Wisdom texts encouraged a benevolent attitude toward widows. Job’s comforters accused him of heinous crimes, particularly of oppressing the widow ( Job 22:9 ), but he countered with the argument that he never sent away a begging widow without food and he often made her broken heart sing ( 29:13 ; 31:16 ).”
Wikipedia explains that “It [widow inheritance] is common in certain African groups, for example the Luo in Kenya and Uganda around Lake Victoria. Households headed by widows are often one of the poorest groups. Under customary law, it is assumed widows and their children will be taken care of by the deceased’s kin. When there is a will, often all property is left to the children with the stipulation that the wife be taken care of. With no will, widow is allowed 25% of the estate and the children inherit the remaining 75%.
“In 1998, a study by FAO/IFAD in Ghana found that women’s access to land was through their husbands. When a husband dies, and the wife has no children or only daughters, women are likely to loose all rights to the land. Often, the deceased’s family do not take good care of the widow and her children and widow inheritance was identified as a major obstacle to household food security.” [ “Uganda, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire – The situation of widows”. http://www.ifad.org. Retrieved 2015-05-27.]
An excellent source of information is A Report by the Rural Development Institute(RDI) for the World Justice Project entitled Women’s Inheritance Rights to Land and Property In South Asia: A Study of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sir Lanka, December 2009.