Joseph, the husband of Mary, is an exemplary model for us in handling crisis situations. When he found that his betrothed wife was pregnant, and her justification did not convince him, he took a non-judgmental approach to Mary. As a righteous person, he did not want to expose Mary for capital punishment or leave her in shame. While Joseph was considering divorcing Mary in private, God interfered him through a dream. It is like God’s intervention in the life of Abraham when he was close to sacrifice his son Isaac. The patience of Joseph favored him to experience the timely intervention of God to resolve the issue. So, he took up the noble and difficult responsibility as head of the Holy Family. Joseph was a quiet and active servant of God. His service to Jesus and Mary, based on his trust in the Lord, is a model for our Christian life.
(Matthew 1:18) This is how Jesus Christ was born. Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph; but before they came together as husband and wife, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. (19) Then Joseph, her husband, made plans to divorce her in all secrecy. For he was an upright man and did not want to disgrace her. (20) While he was pondering over this, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, descendant of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She has conceived by the Holy Spirit, (21) and will bear a son, whom you shall call ‘Jesus’ for he will save his people from their sins.” (22) All this happened in order to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: (23) The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and he will be called Emmanuel which means: God-with-us. (24) When Joseph woke up, he did what the Angel of the Lord had told him to do and he took Mary as his wife.
(18) This is how Jesus Christ was born. Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph; but before they came together as husband and wife, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.
Infidelity after betrothal
According to the Jewish custom, betrothal was the first part of marriage when the bridegroom and bride make a binding agreement. Then the society considered both as husband and wife. However, they could not live together like married couples until their official wedding within a year. People considered any infidelity in between the betrothal and the wedding as adultery that deserved severe punishment.
(19) Then Joseph, her husband, made plans to divorce her in all secrecy. For he was an upright man and did not want to disgrace her.
Why divorce after betrothal?
The Bible presents Joseph as a righteous man because he was a devout observer of the Mosaic law. He had to do justice to himself and to Mary. His dilemma was that he was uncertain of the truth. Joseph suspected Mary’s credibility and believed that she had violated the Law and got pregnant from somebody after her betrothal with him. Since betrothal had legal validity, he had to divorce her to free himself from his legal bond with her.
The dilemma of Joseph
Joseph had no evidence to prove Mary’s innocence or guilt. The law stated thus: “If a young woman has been promised in marriage to a man, and another man meets her in the city and lies with her, they shall bring the two to the city gate and stone them to death: the young woman because she did not cry for help when she was in the city, and the man because he violated the wife of his neighbor. So shall you purge the evil from your midst.” (Deut. 22:23-24). In Mary’s case, this was not the situation. There was no firsthand evidence to prove Mary’s guilt because no one could find a man who abused her. Joseph found it hard to believe Mary’s justification because a pregnancy cannot happen without the sexual union of two people. Joseph knew the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore, the LORD himself shall give you a sign: The virgin is with child and will bear a son and will name him Emmanuel.” But Joseph could not believe that it would happen to his wife.
If Joseph had accused Mary of committing adultery, the Jews would have stoned her to death. It would cause great grief for her family and friends. If the Jews set Mary free for lack of evidence, it would still cause shame on her. In case Mary was telling the truth, Joseph would be accountable for hurting his innocent wife. So, the only choice for him was to divorce Mary privately by writing a bill of divorce (Deut. 24:1). However, he did not take this action at once; but was only considering it.
Comparison with Joseph of the Old Testament
Joseph, the husband of Mary, has some resemblance to Joseph of the Old Testament. He was also a chaste and righteous man. The Bible presents his moral integrity in Genesis chapter 39, where he overcame sexual seduction from Potiphar’s wife even though he knew that she would give him misery for not yielding to her.
Joseph of the Old Testament could take revenge on his brothers, or at least put them to public shame when they came in front of him in Egypt searching for food. Instead, he treated them well and consoled them, “You intended to do me harm, but God intended to turn it to good in order to bring about what is happening today – the survival of numerous people. So have no fear! I will provide for you and your little ones.” (Genesis 50: 20-21). Joseph in the New Testament is also a favorite son of God the Father. He inherited the holiness and righteousness of his forefathers, especially Joseph of the Old Testament. He also wanted to deal nicely with Mary.
(20) While he was pondering over this, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, descendant of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She has conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah and Mary were in visions. But for Joseph, the angel’s message came in a dream. The Biblical concept of vision and dream are different. Vision occurs when one is awake, while dream happens when the person is asleep. Some studies show that people always dream when they sleep. But they remember only the dreams they had right before they wake up, or the dreams that make them wake up. Joseph’s dream was so real and moving that he woke up and considered it as a divine message for him.
The Bible gives importance to dream and interpretation of the dream. It uses dreams for various purposes. God used dreams to reveal prophecy. Like Joseph, the husband of Mary, Joseph of the Old Testament was also a dreamer. He had the gift to interpret dreams. His dream on his brothers bowing down to him came true. His interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream saved Egypt and Jacob’s family from seven years of famine. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and Prophet Daniel’s interpretation came true. Gideon got encouragement for winning a war through a dream (Judges 7:5).
The Bible used dreams also to give warning from dangers. The Magi did not return to King Herod because God cautioned them to do so in a dream (Matthew 2:12). God warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt for saving the Infant Jesus’ life (Matthew 2:13). Joseph’s another dream brought the Holy Family back to Nazareth (Matthew 2:19-22). These dreams differed from the ordinary dreams.
Angel of the Lord
The Bible does not specify the name of the angel in Joseph’s dreams. Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament is often a representative of God or God Himself to communicate with a human being. Some examples of the Angel of the Lord’s appearance are to Hagar (Gen. 16:7-14), to Abraham and Sarah at Mamre (Gen. 18:1), to Abraham on Mount Moriah (Gen. 22:11-12, 22:15), to Jacob (Gen. 31:11, 32:25), to Moses (Exodus 3:2), to Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15), to Gideon (Judges 6:22), and to Samson’s parents (Judges 13:21-22).
Son of David
The angel’s salutation of Joseph as “son of David” was attention catching. Joseph was not a direct son of King David. However, the angel acknowledged that Joseph was a royal descendant from the lineage of King David. Through this, the angel prepared Joseph for the next part of the message. Israelites were expecting a Messiah who would be a descendant of King David because of God’s covenant with him (2 Samuel 7:12-16). So Joseph, as the legal father, also had a role in the genealogy of the Messiah.
Several people, while seeking the mercy of Jesus, called him “Son of David.” For example, a Canaanite woman called Jesus, “Lord, Son of David” while she pleaded him to cure her demon-tormented daughter (Matthew 15:22). Two blind men requested healing from Jesus calling him, “Lord, Son of David.” (Matthew 20:30). In these cases, they were acknowledging Jesus as their savior using the term Lord and the messianic title “Son of David.” The angel addressing Joseph, “son of David” is not the messianic title, but only meant that God sees his ancestral connection with David, from whose line the deliverer would come. There is a difference in using “son” by the translators: They use capital “S” for Jesus as the “Son of David” and small letter “s” for Joseph as the “son of David.”
Do not be afraid
Some fathers of the church like Sts. Thomas Aquinas, Bernard, Basil, and Ephraim interpret that Joseph considered divorcing Mary out of “reverential fear.” Mary had told Joseph of her vision and the message of Angel Gabriel, and what had happened afterwards. Joseph trusted Mary’s narration and considered himself unworthy to be the husband of the mother of God and the foster father of her divine son. So, the Angel of the Lord relieved the fear of Joseph to take Mary as his wife.
Take Mary into your home
According to the Jewish marriage custom, the last stage of a wedding was when the bridegroom, also known as the husband, would come to the bride’s home and take her to his house. So, the angel was assuring Joseph that he could trust Mary and take her home as his wife.
The Role of the Holy Spirit
Genesis specifies the work of the Holy Spirit in the creation account. “The earth had no form and was void; darkness covered the deep, while the spirit of God hovered over the waters.” (Genesis 1:2). Psalm 104:30 says: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and the face of the earth is renewed.” God created everything with his Word (Jesus) and his Breath (Spirit) (Psalm 33:6). The angel informed Joseph that the same Spirit that created the world and the humans came upon Mary for her conception. So, Jesus is of divine origin and Mary remained a virgin.
(21) “And will bear a son, whom you shall call ‘Jesus’ for he will save his people from their sins.”
Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus.
Angel Gabriel told Zachariah: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” (Luke 1:13). This differed from what the Angel of the Lord said to Joseph: “She will bear a son” implying that this son shall not be his biological child. So, Joseph had to avoid consummating his marriage with Mary.
Mary allowed Joseph to name the child Jesus.
The angel gave both Mary (Luke 1:31) and Joseph (Matthew 1:21) the right to name the child Jesus. However, it was Joseph who named Jesus as the angel instructed (Matthew 1:25). Thus, Joseph received Jesus as his adopted son. According to the concept of the time, to name a child was to claim the child as one’s own. The fatherhood of Jesus belongs to God the Father, who assigned the name Jesus for His son. God asked Joseph and Mary to use that name at the time of Jesus’ circumcision.
Joshua and Jesus
The angel revealed Jesus’s mission to Joseph. Jesus is the Greek word of Joshua, which means “Yahweh saves.” Like Joshua of the Old Testament who led the Israelites to the promised land by crossing River Jordan and defeating the Canaanites, Jesus would lead the people to heaven through baptism and defeating Satan. According to Psalm 130:8, “He will deliver Israel from all its sins.” So, God’s promised deliverance through the Messiah was not from the Roman rule, but from Satan, who persuades people to commit sin and thus blocks their entry to heaven.
(22) All this happened in order to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet.
Matthew refers to Prophet Isaiah: “Therefore, the LORD himself shall give you a sign: The virgin is with child and will bear a son and will name him Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14).
(23) The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and he will be called Emmanuel which means: God-with-us.
“The virgin” (not “a virgin”) stands for a virgin that God had selected for this role. Mary was that chosen virgin that Isaiah had prophesied.
Emmanuel is more a title than a name.
Though Isaiah said in 7:14 that Emmanuel would be the Messiah’s name, people did not call him by that name. Again, in Isaiah 9:5 we read, “They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” These, including “Emmanuel,” are not literal names but are titles that specify the nature of the Messiah.
(24) When Joseph woke up, he did what the Angel of the Lord had told him to do and he took Mary as his wife.
A non-consummated marriage
Unlike Zechariah and Mary, Joseph did not ask for any clarification to the angel because the communication to him was not through a vision but a dream. Dream is not in our control. Joseph believed this dream because it was an extraordinary one. He rejoiced for the clarity he received from God and accepted Mary and the child. Joseph married Mary by taking her to his home as the Angel of the Lord had commanded, and he did not consummate the marriage.
The special fatherhood of Joseph
Joseph became the father of Jesus not by a legal adoption but by his marriage to Mary, the mother of Jesus. However, unlike other stepsons, Jesus had no human father. That made Joseph’s relationship with Jesus more intimate. Besides, Joseph knew that he was protecting and nurturing the God incarnate who created him and had been protecting him.