Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. [Matthew 1:19 (NLT)]
Yesterday’s devotion about Mary made me wonder about Joseph. Other than having the right lineage, why did God chose this carpenter to raise His one and only Son? Mary and Joseph were betrothed and engagement in 1st century Palestine was a serious commitment. A legally binding relationship, betrothal usually lasted ten to twelve months. Although the bride continued to live at home and the couple did not have marital relations, their engagement ended only through death or a divorce-like proceeding.
We have no idea when or how Mary told Joseph she was pregnant. Having gone to stay with Elizabeth just a few days after the annunciation, we assume she told him of her pregnancy after returning to Nazareth. The conversation couldn’t have been pleasant. We’re never told that Joseph was angry but it’s hard to think he wasn’t upset and perplexed by this turn of events. His fiancée went away for three months and returned pregnant! No matter how Mary explained it, there was no way she could prove its truth. Her story made no sense so Joseph assumed Mary had been unfaithful to him.
Betrothal was a sacred relationship and the law required a man to divorce an unfaithful fiancée. Joseph was a righteous man, a man who abided by the law; he was obligated to end the engagement by divorcing Mary. Although the Torah demanded stoning an adulterous woman, people couldn’t be executed without Roman permission. Instead, Jewish tradition called for any divorce on adulterous grounds to take place publicly. Mary would have stood in the public square to answer questions about her unfaithfulness while the townspeople watched and judged. Making Mary’s pregnancy public knowledge would have been a fitting punishment for her suspected betrayal, preserved Joseph’s reputation as a righteous man, and freed him of any responsibility for Mary’s child.
It would have been easy for Joseph to wreak revenge on his unfaithful bride, but he didn’t. While he wanted to do the right thing, which was divorce the woman he believed adulterous, he wanted to do it so that she wouldn’t suffer. Joseph decided on a “writ of divorcement” which could be done quietly in the presence of a few witnesses. The equivalent of “irreconcilable differences” or no-fault divorce, it would have allowed Mary the freedom to marry someone else. Once her pregnancy became public knowledge, however, Joseph’s reputation would suffer since he would be suspected of being the father. Nevertheless, because he loved Mary more than he wanted revenge or people’s respect, Joseph put her needs first.
Not a rash man, Joseph took no action immediately. While considering his plan of action, an angel appeared to him and reaffirmed Mary’s story that the child she was carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph now had a third option: marry the girl! But, by marrying her, Joseph assumed responsibility for the pregnancy, shared in Mary’s shame, gave the village fodder for gossip, became the legal father of Jesus, and accepted responsibility for a child who wasn’t his.
Although we don’t know much about Joseph, we know all we need to know: he was a man of integrity who valued God more than other people’s opinions of him. In spite of the consequences, he immediately obeyed God and took Mary as his wife. What kind of man was Joseph? A godly man is my answer. He displayed the character of God we find in Exodus 34 when the Lord passed in front of Moses: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” That’s the sort of man God chose to act as father to his boy!