The bible says very little about Joseph, the surrogate father of the Messiah. Yet, the narrative is very deliberate in its language to help the reader understand that Joseph was a righteous man. But what made Joseph righteous? Two-thousand years of retelling the tale has turned Joseph into a heartbroken lover who just wanted his beloved Mary to avoid a stoning. But the facts of Joseph’s decision prove him to be a fit father, and a selfless model for the boy who would one day bear the guilt of sin for all humanity!
Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law (a righteous man), and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:19)
Joseph only appears in two narratives in the entire Bible. He is present in the story of the incarnation. He is also present in the story of Jesus in the temple when He was twelve years old. After that, Joseph is not mentioned again. He is eerily absent from the crucifixion leading to much speculation as to his fate.
So what do we know about Joseph:
- He was born in Bethlehem (Beit Lehem, Heb. “House of Bread”), a small town about 4 miles south of Jerusalem, and on the northern edge of the tribe of Judah.
- He was from the tribe of Judah.
- He was a carpenter.
- He lived a four-day journey away from his tribe within the land of the tribe of Zebulon.
- He was a righteous man.
- We wanted to divorce Mary privately.
An American Tale
We have all heard that Mary was probably twelve, and pregnant, and if Joseph wanted to make an issue, she would have been stoned for prostitution or at least adultery, right? This is a nice telling, but not really tied to Jewish Law.
The idea that Mary and Joseph are two star-crossed lovers, whose unbridled love for one another ends in heartbreak when Joseph realizes she has been unfaithful is simply not in keeping with Jewish tradition or Law. The fact is, Mary and Joseph were most likely the result of a prearranged marriage and, like most teens before and since, were working through the details of their conjugation. They both lived in the very small village of Nazareth. Whether they lived together or apart, we do not know. We know that they were “betrothed.” This “betrothal,” called a keddushin in Hebrew is indeed a formal contract that is enacted and includes a wedding band. It is considerably more than just “engaged”. In fact, the contract of the keddushin can only be broken by another contract called a ‘get’, or divorce.
Joseph discovers that his betrothed is pregnant and he KNOWS it is not his! She may have tried to reason with him about the truth of the baby, or maybe not. But he did decide that he would divorce her privately—not because he did not want her to die, but because he did not want to disgrace her. According to the Taslmud, in order for Mary to be put to death, Joseph would have warned Mary about her predicament with a specific suspect, or there would need to be witnesses to the sin. Seeing there were none, then stoning of Mary was highly unlikely.
The Righteousness of Joseph
All business transactions in the Jewish community were conducted at the gates of the city. Business was conducted in the presence of witnesses and often documented contractually. It was a VERY public forum. Joseph decided to seek a way to do this away from the city gates. He did not want to bring shame on Mary.
Interestingly, a Jewish man does not need cause to divorce his wife. If he dislikes her new hairdo, he can divorce her. If he dislikes tonight’s dinner, he can divorce her. Really, it is not a huge fanfare. So what’s the big deal? He goes down to the city gate, pulls one of the elders aside, signs a few papers, and *badda-boom* a half-hour later, he is cleared!
So what would happen to Mary? She might be stoned. To stone her, proof would have to be presented that she has either performed prostitution, or committed adultery. The fact that she is pregnant and Joseph says it is not his unfortunately proves nothing. In fact, let’s be realistic. Joseph and Mary are engaged. Now Mary is pregnant. What does the ENTIRE community suspect? EXACTLY! It’s Joseph’s! The reality of this relationship is thus: Joseph and Mary had relations, things weren’t what Joseph thought, now he wants out, and, unfortunately, Mary got pregnant through it all. OOPS!
The ONLY way that Joseph can clear HIS name is to make this a public issue. But because he was a righteous man, he would rather that the entire village of Nazareth disregard him as a dead-beat dad than to disgrace Mary. Let me restate it: Joseph is willing to bear the guilt of Mary’s sin for his entire life than to expose her and defend his own integrity. He is willing to let the world believe that the child was his, rather than to defend his own personal honor. And NOT because he was stupid in love! But rather because he was a righteous man. It had NOTHING to do with Joseph, but had EVERYTHING to do with honoring GOD!
What an incredible model Joseph’s act would become for his young, adopted son. Not only would Yeshuah ultimately wrongfully bear the guilt of sin of an entire world, He, like his earthly father, would remain silent to the very end, finding no need to defend who He was in the Kingdom of Heaven.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
May we find within us the sheer determination to live a deliberate life doing ONLY those things that bring honor to God. May we lay down the vain arrogance that feels we must defend our own integrity to those around us, regardless of the accusation. And may this Christmas season bring us to a place of humility before God that allows us to be transformed into the image of His Son, who followed in the footsteps of His earthly father, Righteous Joseph.