George Booker
To Us A Child Is Born

(5) Joseph: “A Righteous Man” (Matthew 1:18-25)

It seems evident that the narrative in Luke 1 and 2 concentrates on Mary’s story in the birth of Christ, while the one in Matthew 1 and 2 tells Joseph’s story. (The most striking illustration of this distinction is in the two genealogies, which will be the subject of a later chapter.) Either Gospel record, therefore, is incomplete without the other. We now turn our attention to Matthew for the next episode.

By the time Mary returned from Judea to Nazareth her pregnancy was at least three months advanced (Luke 1:56). If not already obvious, her condition would be discovered not long thereafter — most likely by her parents. This is implied in Matthew 1:18: “She was found to be with child.” It sounds as though Mary did not reveal the past events to any but Elizabeth and Zechariah until her condition was known. Her silence was the result (we may suppose) of equal parts modesty and faith; modesty in speaking of such an intimate matter, and faith that God would reveal His purpose when He chose, and to whom He chose.

It must be pointed out that the last phrase of verse 18 (“through the Holy Spirit”) does not describe what was known immediately — either by Mary’s parents or by Joseph. This is certain because of what follows in the narrative. The addition of this last phrase is Matthew’s explanation, by which the link is made to the foregoing genealogy (especially with v. 16) and to the succeeding prophecy (v. 23).

The first intimation Joseph received of anything extraordinary in his betrothed wife may have come from his in-laws, or the secondhand gossip of not-so-friendly neighbors. Matthew’s narrative is so brief that the reader is compelled to select from different possibilities. Did Joseph go directly to Mary for confirmation, or did he inquire of others (her parents, perhaps) in order to be sure?

A good guess as to what happened (and it can only be a guess) is this: When Mary’s parents discovered her pregnancy, they naturally questioned her, but she said that she must first speak to Joseph. She may have felt that, since her condition is now in the open, the first explanation is due to her “husband”, not her parents. The next reasonable guess would be that Mary’s father approached Joseph with the unwelcome news, and with an understandable accusation framed. Joseph could do nothing else but assert his innocence, which only made a bad situation worse.

The fear that Mary must have known during this interim period can only be imagined. Would she be spurned by Joseph without even a chance to tell her story? And if it were to be so, who could blame him? In quiet torture she waited for word from Joseph. Who can doubt that she prayed fervently!

What is “righteousness” ?

What should Joseph do now? Joseph is a “righteous man” (v. 19). What does a “righteous” man do when confronted with the “obvious” sin of another? Does he “righteously” rebuke, and punish the sinner? “To the full extent of the law!” How often we hear that cry of righteous zeal, or its equivalent, today! A wise man once remarked: “Every man wants justice for others... and mercy for himself.”

Sometimes God tests our reactions. Are we too quick to pass judgment? Are we eager to stand up for our rights? Are we as eager to cover a sin? We have all known the brother (maybe we see him in the mirror every morning) who is quick to judge, who relishes the role of “the righteous arm of the Lord” in dispensing His judgment, but who is aghast at the suggestion that he can dispense His mercy. “God can forgive, but we do not have that prerogative.” “We must make this sinner a public example, so others will be discouraged from doing likewise.” “God may have mercy on her, but that is for Him to say, not me.”

Joseph was not that sort of man; he was — “righteous”, with all the qualities of strength, decency, and mercy (but none of the harshness and arrogance) that the word implies.

This description seems an intended contrast with two of Joseph’s ancestors who are listed in the preceding genealogy:

Judah was all for putting to death his daughter-in-law Tamar for “playing the harlot”. His “righteous” zeal was interrupted only by her proof that he had been her consort; that he, in fact, was guilty and she was innocent. He was only lying with a harlot, but she was fulfilling the Mosaic law of succession and inheritance as best she could (Gen. 38:24-26).
David, a man after God’s own heart, was anything but “righteous” in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah, compounding adultery with murder. But, when told of the theft of a little ewe lamb in Nathan’s masterful allegory, he burned with zealous fury: “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die!” (2 Sam. 12:5) How flimsy his “righteousness” really was, he soon found out to his surprise.

If the lessons of the genealogy are pursued a bit further, Joseph was in fact much more like two other of his ancestors:

Salmon “covered” the past sins of Rahab the harlot by marrying her.
Boaz married Ruth the Moabitess even though she had been rejected by the nearest kinsman.

Joseph’s dilemma

What options were available to Joseph? The law of Moses outlined three possible courses of action to a wronged husband in Joseph’s position. All three are summarized in Deuteronomy 22:

A betrothed wife found by her husband not to be a virgin (assuming no mitigating factors) was subject to death by stoning (vv. 13-21): “She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father's house” (v. 21). Perhaps this severe punishment was no longer possible in a first-century Israel ruled by Rome. At the very least, however, such a woman would be divorced and ostracized from all proper society.
But perhaps — and it is not difficult to imagine “righteous” Joseph casting about for a better way out — perhaps Mary had been forced against her will (vv. 25-27). Perhaps it had happened during her trip to Judah, and she had been too ashamed to tell anyone until now. In which case, she was not an adulteress after all.
Or, a third possibility: perhaps this had happened before their betrothal (vv. 28, 29). In that case, the matter could be remedied by Joseph releasing Mary so that she might marry the father of her child.

Pursuing the first alternative was clearly out of the question. Joseph “did not want to expose her to public disgrace” (Matt. 1:19). And so he considered, as the best course of action, a private bill of divorce, after the precedent of either Deuteronomy 22:26 or 22:29. Such an action would need only two witnesses, and would bring the least possible reproach upon Mary. This solution would allow her either to bear her illegitimate child in private away from Nazareth, or to marry the father, if possible. Obviously Mary’s future wellbeing was more important to Joseph than his own vindication.

“The first stone”

The parallels between this incident and that of John 8:1-11 are obvious: a woman discovered in adultery — an “open-and-shut” case; hasty condemnation on the part of some, but tender mercy from the only one in a real position to judge. Joseph would not “throw the first stone”, and neither would Jesus.

It is not too far-fetched, indeed, to suppose that the whole matter of the woman taken in adultery may have been contrived by the Lord’s enemies to discredit him. It is almost certain that, as Jesus grew in popularity, his enemies made secret investigations into his early life and heard rumors about the peculiar circumstances of his conception.

Suppose that, when confronted with the question as to the woman’s fate, Jesus had said, “Yes, let her be stoned”. The retort would have immediately come, “Then what should be done with your mother?”, a betrothed virgin at the time of Jesus’s conception.

Other such base insinuations in the chapter may be seen in the same light: “Where is your father?” (John 8:19); and “We are not illegitimate children [as some are]” (v. 41).

There was no bond of fleshly descent between Joseph and Jesus. But the actions of both in similar circumstances surely suggests that Joseph was a wise choice to be the human “father” of Jesus, and that something of his character made an impression upon the little Son of God in his earliest years.

Suffering for doing good

“But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’ ” (Matt. 1:20).

Both Mary and Joseph were asked by God to accept the disgrace and shame of a couple who have “sinned”. Joseph was told to name the child (v. 21), an act which would be interpreted by all as an admission of paternity. (This would also be equivalent to an admission that he had lied in previously asserting his innocence, as has been suggested above.)

In the eyes of the people, then, either Joseph was a weak man who could not control his passions, or, worse yet, a fool duped into raising another man’s son. (Because of Mary’s three-month sojourn in Judah, the tongue-waggers could make a strong argument for the latter view.) Such matters would not be soon forgotten in a close-knit country village.

God could have made it easier. He could have smoothed the way, but He did not. Mary must now gather her belongings and go quietly to the house of Joseph. She would go with relief, certainly, that her beloved no longer doubted her, and that he was one with her in understanding the marvelous revelation of God. But she would go also under the disdainful eyes of her friends and relatives, and perhaps the sorrow of her parents, which she could do nothing to alleviate. For Mary and Joseph there would be no happy wedding, bridesmaids, feasts, laughing children, gifts or good wishes. The cloud of suspicion was made worse because there could be neither repentance nor explanation, only passive endurance:

“But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called” (1 Pet. 2:20,21).

God saw to it that His own Son was provided with sterling examples of such traits in his childhood. Jesus was “called” to follow the pattern of meek suffering in well-doing that Mary and Joseph set for him. The grace under pressure which they showed during an extended trial was the object of his keen discernment. He could not fail, as he grew up, to hear the whispers and the innuendoes; but from his parents, never a complaint. These lessons were taken to heart, and given the perfect reinterpretation in his own life.

The hidden Messiahship

Another far-reaching purpose of God is manifest in Joseph’s acceptance of Mary and naming of the child. Jesus would appear before all men as the son of Joseph. The Messiahship of Jesus was to be hidden from all men, even from the rest of his own family. Even the children of Joseph and Mary, who came after, did not seem to know — at least at the beginning — who their eldest brother really was! The Divine origin of Jesus would be established by his later deeds and words, and finally confirmed by his resurrection. Meanwhile there would be no circumstance in his early life, and no knowledge on the part of his companions, that he was anything but an ordinary child. Nothing would prevent him from fully identifying with his fellowmen in their fallen, weak condition. He was one of them. He was one of us.

“A virgin will be with child”

The first express prophecy in the Old Testament is Genesis 3:15, the seed of the woman (but not the man) who would destroy the power of sin symbolized by the serpent. And the first express fulfillment of prophecy in the New Testament is Matthew 1:23:

“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel — which means, ‘God with us’ ” [quoted from Isa. 7:14].

How was this prophecy of Isaiah to be fulfilled? Over the centuries this has become a Jewish controversy, and even a Christian controversy, as witnessed by some modern versions that translate the Hebrew alma or the Greek parthenos by “young woman” or the like, instead of “virgin”. Of one thing there can be no doubt: no matter what the best translation of the original words, both Matthew and Luke agree that Mary had had no relations with any man when Jesus was conceived. God has clearly shown how Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled despite whatever minor arguments may revolve around the precise words used.

The Hebrew alma and its related words are derived from a root signifying to cover or conceal. One common suggestion is that it refers to the practice of keeping unmarried girls in seclusion in their parents’ homes. This explanation would favor virginity as the meaning of alma, but would not prove it absolutely. However, a more meaningful aspect comes into view when the antonym is considered; it means “to uncover”. “To uncover the nakedness” (so translated, literally, by the KJV) of another is a Hebrew euphemism for having sexual intercourse (Lev. 20:11,17-21). So one who is “covered” — an alma — is then specifically one who has not engaged in sexual intercourse.

“When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son” (Matt. 1:24,25).

This was Joseph’s choice; it was not apparently required by God. Had he chosen to have relations with Mary no one would ever have known. Nor would it have been wrong. It would, of course, have been the expected thing. Such a restraint, which he willingly imposed upon himself, tells us much about the dedication and sensitivity of this man Joseph.

The last part of verse 25 carries us up to and beyond the events described in Luke 2, which must, of course, be another story.

What else do we know of Joseph? Very little, really. He was an “ordinary” man, it seems; he was certainly not wealthy. He was not a Talmudic scholar, proficient in legal technicalities. Men like that did not stay in towns like Nazareth. He made no great impact upon the affairs of mankind. But he was a “righteous” man, and he carried out his assigned tasks faithfully, without complaint.

There is a man like Joseph in every congregation. He is quiet, dependable, helpful, and considerate. He makes no headlines and draws no attention to himself. He has no speaking engagements and he sits on no committees. But he sweeps the floors when the others have gone home; he turns off the lights, and he locks the doors. He does the “little things” which, in God’s sight, may not be so “little” after all. And he is always there. “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt. 19:14).

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