“When...Mary had been promised in marriage to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be pregnant... ” (Matthew 1:19, Amplified). Other translations use the word engagement. Both of these words fall short of the custom they are trying to describe. The ancient Jewish custom of betrothal was a much stronger, more binding state than engagement in our culture today. Betrothal is a foreign concept in our own hesitant, commitment-cautious culture. When a couple was betrothed, it was a sacred promise they would marry each other. They drew up a legal contract, known as the ketubah hbtk, which said that the groom promised to love and care for his wife and to give himself for her. The bride, for her part, promised him her yielded life and that she would keep herself pure for him alone. From that moment on, the bride was viewed as completely set apart for the groom and was referred to as the man’s wife. Legally, the couple was married. However, the couple had not yet consummated their marriage. Couples break off engagements all the time today. However, for Joseph to break off his betrothal to Mary, he would need divorce papers.
To say that Joseph was not rich would be an understatement. He was a hard working boy coming into manhood. More likely than not, Joseph had probably learned carpentry from his father and was just becoming proficient enough that he could start thinking about setting up his own practice. He had found a beautiful, Godly girl. And better than that, Mary had agreed to become his wife. Life seemed to be going Joseph’s way.
After the marriage had been arranged and the contract drawn up, the couple entered into the Eyrusin, or betrothal period. This time was also called kiddushim, which meant “sanctification” or “set apart”. It was a time when the couple separated themselves from each other for at least twelve months. During this year, they both prepared themselves to enter into a life together. The groom was preparing the place where the couple would live, building a house or adding a wing onto his father’s house. After the appointed year, when the father of the groom gave his nod of approval on his son’s preparations, the groom would come for the bride. Although the bride knew that the groom was coming, she did not know exactly when he would surprise her.
Joseph worked long hours in the shop, making enough money to support his young bride. The days crawled by, painfully slowly, as Joseph dreamed of Mary. He put down his tools and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Joseph stared off into space as he imagined what it would be like to sweep her off her feet and carry her through the threshold into the huppah, the bridal chamber he was preparing for her. He smiled dreamily as he pictured the look on her face when he came around the corner with the rest of the wedding party. I wonder how many times his father and others had to tell him to snap out of his daydreams.
When did Joseph find out about Mary’s pregnancy? How far into their betrothal period did the angel appear to Mary? Joseph was separated from her during this time. How did he find out? Was it through village rumor? Joseph would not have believed the gossip that caught his ear as he trudged through Nazareth’s narrow streets. He knew Mary better than that; he would have dismissed anything he heard as old wives’ warblings. Most likely, Mary sent for Joseph.
I can only imagine the pounding of his heart as Joseph went to meet with Mary. It would have been the first time he had seen her since the betrothal and the covenant he had made for her. What could she want? It couldn’t be something good. This was highly out of the ordinary. It would have to be something huge for Mary to break the betrothal period.
And then Mary’s story. The first thing Joseph may have noticed was that Mary would not meet his eyes. She scurried around nervously getting him a chair to sit on and something to drink, making small talk about the weather. Or maybe she didn’t beat around the bush. Maybe she simply started right into her story. I can almost hear Joseph’s thoughts.
Pregnant? How could she be pregnant? An angel? Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit? What does that even mean? Yahweh does not get people pregnant. It’s not possible. Not Yahweh. That is blasphemy, reeking of immoral pagan deities. What is she saying?? Mary must be lying. But why? She must have slept with another man. But Mary would not have done that! No, not her! Could a man have forced himself on her? But then why is she covering for him? And blaming it on Yahweh? Why is she sticking to her story so persistently? Where did she get these ideas? Does she honestly expect me to believe her?? She is acting like she actually believes it herself! Can she be crazy? Seeing things in the night? And what am I supposed to do about it?
Joseph must have walked away head spinning. Looking back for one instant, nausea swept Joseph’s stomach as he saw Mary watching him from the doorway. The more Joseph thought about it, the more confused and upset he became. He threw himself into his work, the only thing keeping him from going over the edge with his emotions. He had to do something soon. Mary was getting more obviously pregnant every day.
Joseph’s head was throbbing, trying to somehow logically put together everything. The price for adultery was high. Death by stoning was not unheard of, especially if he chose to publically condemn her. If he stood by her, the entire community would think they had broken their vows and slept together. Not that he cared that much about his own appearances. If he left her now, she was defenceless against the scorn and possibly harsh punishment of the community. But he couldn’t pretend nothing had happened either. Joseph was a righteous man and did his best to follow the Law, the Torah. He could not marry her. Especially with her lying to him and spouting blasphemies about Yahweh. Joseph worked through everything in his head many times over the next few days.
But try as he might, he could not ignore his heart. In the loneliness of his workshop, Joseph threw a piece of wood against the wall and pounded a nearby bench. His pain was screaming through him. How could she have done this? Why had she betrayed him? She had said she loved him and would keep herself pure for him. And now this? Joseph withdrew from everyone into the confines of his workshop. His hopes were crashing down around him and he needed time to think, time he did not have.
I wonder how long Joseph took trying to decide what to do. Maybe after a couple weeks, he had finally reached a solution. He still loved her. If only she knew how much I love her! But he could not abandon his faith and his devotion to the Torah. He would not leave her completely. He would not publically condemn her. How could he? The very thought of everyone looking at Mary and judging her made Joseph’s fist clench. But he needed to end the betrothal. It was the only thing to do.
I am so grateful that God did not leave Joseph there. He knew how hurt and broken Joseph was. He knew the thoughts, doubts, and fears roaring around his head. And he also knew the part he was preparing Joseph to play in the epic drama about to unfold. Someone had to raise the messiah. Someone had to try to fill the shoes of the boy’s Father in heaven. God chose Joseph, which says a lot about this humble man’s character.
But God knew Joseph needed a sign from Him. God knew Joseph needed something out of the ordinary as well. An angel appeared to Joseph in his dreams and revealed to him the miracle of Jesus’ virgin birth. I thank God that He sent an angel to Joseph as well. It confirmed that Mary was not crazy or a liar and what his own role would be in the months to come.
Joseph’s part in the epic was just beginning.
How to get a very pregnant woman halfway across the country, over 70 miles to the south? Nowhere in the Bible does it say they went on a donkey. Joseph was a poor carpenter and probably did not own his own donkey. Whether he borrowed a relative’s donkey, rented one, or walked the entire way is debateable. But both means of transportation would be equally hard for Mary.
And then, when they finally arrived at Bethlehem, Joseph had the job of trying to find a place for Mary to give birth. I can’t imagine the panic Joseph felt as he rushed desperately door to door begging for a somewhere, anywhere, for his wife to have a child. Joseph must have felt like such a shmuck when all he could find was a dirty stable. Some man I am. All I can provide for my wife is this! Those feelings of insufficiency were probably only intensified in the coming hours as he listened to his wife scream to the darkness as she went through labor. Joseph probably helped as much as he could, but what could a poor peasant man know about childbirth? How helpless and panicky Joseph must have felt as that night stretched on and on and his wife painfully delivered her first child.
And then! To act on another dream and lead his young family into a foreign country where he did not have relatives or friends and did not know the language. What a step of faith!
And raising the son of God! What would it have been like to nurture the Savior of the world?
There is so much more that could be imagined about this humble man. I admire Joseph very much. Although he has only a few sentences in the Bible, never speaks, and fades into the backdrop of the story quickly, I believe he was a very Godly man and played a monumental role in the messiah’s story. His part is often overshadowed by the Holy Mother. Mary is an important character as well. She, in many ways, has it as rough as Joseph. But there is something about the role Joseph played that commands my respect. He led his marriage and family through rough times, following God’s commands implicitly and helping father the world's greatest hope: Immanuel.
Note: Some scholars believe that Joseph was older than I have portrayed him, between 25 and 35. In the Jewish culture, it was much more acceptable for an older man to take a younger girl to be his bride. However, it was hard for me to imagine Joseph too old. I chose to imagine Joseph around my own age in his early twenties. Whatever Joseph’s age at the time of the Christmas story, it doesn’t change the internal struggles and doubts he must have faced.