The annual reading(s) of the Christmas story, the annual pageants and plays, always seem to favor Luke’s version. I myself was drawn to it last year when compelled to pursue Mary’s experience through the lens of consent. I needed to know she had agency. (You can read about that here!) And I found that surprisingly, she did. That Spirit flipped the script, took the then-familiar language and mythology of demigods, and embodied it in a new and profoundly woman-first way.
This year, I was essentially tasked with looking at Joseph’s side of things, due to teaching circumstances. The last Sunday of Advent in the Revised Common Lectionary’s Year A takes us to Matthew 1:18-25, which seems to gloss over Joseph’s monumental moments of learning Mary is pregnant, deciding what to do about it, having a dream, and changing his mind.
It’s important to note that Luke also seemingly glosses over Mary’s progressive permission granting; they seem to gloss over it because we have forgotten or never learned how to read ancient texts, especially Sacred ones, well. A closer look at these stories showed me, for example, that several hours over several weeks on one verse of one passage can open a universe of knowledge to be felt and processed. It is my hope that you, too, see the powerful truth that is absolutely packed into this dense offering.
First, let’s read the full passage:
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Read together, it feels like a summary of familiar events. It would be SO EASY to move on, nodding your head. But what stood out to me, over and over, was that one verse:
Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
Public Disgrace. What did that mean exactly? My post-modern sensibility takes it as a phrase, a cliche, a matter of course. Women today are still shamed for so many, many things in public. And that’s with things having gotten tremendously better than they have been for us. But 2019 has had me digging into Matthew, so this time, this year, this reading? I knew that wasn’t just a saying. A catchall. Matthew’s audience, when he wrote it, was the Jewish community – Christian and not, alike – in exile after the siege of Jerusalem around 70 AD. They knew Mosaic law. They knew the way the Temple worked. They knew how the Sanhedrin operated. What did that phrase “public disgrace” mean to them? To Joseph and Mary?
At first, I thought possibly it meant that Mary could have been stoned. If you look at the passage, it says “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Yet, it’s presumable that Joseph didn’t believe that was the case, or he would have accepted her as his wife/betrothed. (Another time period fun fact: yes, technically engaged, but that was a year-long period that was as legally binding as marriage though the girl still lived at home.) Immediately, I thought of John 8:1-11, when Jesus is at the Temple, and they bring him the woman caught in adultery. Was part of Jesus’ movement here an echo of what his own adoptive father had done for his mother?
Thus began the Beautiful Mind webbing of ancient Hebrew laws and traditions, from what was recorded, to how likely they were to be parsed out, etc. And while we’ll come back to John, Jesus, and the woman later – I learned that given Mary’s circumstances, a stoning wasn’t the imminent threat that this “public disgrace” implied.
No, the imminent threat, was the ordeal known as the “Test for an Unfaithful Wife” described in
Numbers 5:11-31 (Trigger warning: miscarriage) Emphases mine.
The Test for an Unfaithful Wife
11 Then the Lord said to Moses, 12 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him 13 so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), 14 and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure— 15 then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah[a] of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing.
16 “‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. 17 Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. 18 After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. 19 Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. 20 But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— 21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse[b] among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. 22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”
“‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
23 “‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. 24 He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. 25 The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar. 26 The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial[c] offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. 27 If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. 28 If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.
29 “‘This, then, is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and makes herself impure while married to her husband, 30 or when feelings of jealousy come over a man because he suspects his wife. The priest is to have her stand before the Lord and is to apply this entire law to her. 31 The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her sin.’”
If you are anything like me, I am guessing you had to read that more than once. I encourage you to parse it as much as you feel compelled. I want to say it is uniquely horrifying amongst Old Testament laws, and Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs seems to agree:
“One major problem inherent in the law of the ordeal is the underlying assumption that by invoking the procedure a husband could force God, so to speak, to make the truth known. No other Torah law is dependent on such a divine manifestation.”
I see some other major problems. This was a patriarchal society. You know what that’s like. If a man, who holds all of the power, is jealous, he can publicly humiliate his wife. At church. Legally. He can take down her hair – just one of the layers of public humiliation for the time period – and poison her. AND SHE HAS TO AGREE TO IT. I bet we can imagine what would happen to her if she did not.
This translation says her lines are, “Amen. So be it,” which STRONGLY echo Mary’s lines of acquiescence to Gabriel, telling me that she knew exactly what could happen to her. But she believed it was worth it. And I believe she knew she would survive. Even if forced to endure this ordeal, she believed the life within her would survive. That does not take away from the fact, however, that this public disgrace ordeal could ultimately rob a woman of her child. You see – this ordeal was in place specifically for women who had not been caught. If a woman is caught in adultery – like we see handled in John 8 – she’s pulled to the Temple for the stoning trial. THIS ordeal is completely dependant on the man’s – the patriarch’s – FEELINGS.
I cannot be shaken enough by this passage. It is disturbing and dangerous.
And then comes Joseph. And one small verse in one often glossed-over passage in Matthew: “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace”
Righteous here is often translated as “just.” Whichever version you prefer, Freedom is CLEARLY on the move. At this point in the passage, Joseph is not yet an accomplice to salvation and liberation. He is an ally, though, willing to leverage his privilege and power to protect the marginalized.
Let me say that again: Joseph was a direct descendant of David. That makes him Jewish royalty, in the postmodern sense of the word. He is a man in the first century in the Middle East. He has power and privilege. He had the ability to abort Jesus and shame and potentially stone Mary to death, and he said no. Because he was just.
Numbers is in the Bible, but so is Matthew 1:19. Jesus has shown up to fulfill the law, and it is now clear that it is NOT JUST NOR RIGHTEOUS for a man in power to persecute the marginalized.
And while it was just and righteous of Joseph to become an ally and leverage his power thusly, it wasn’t enough. His plan was to dismiss her quietly, which while significantly better than the other option, still left her on the margins. Who would marry her now? How could she provide for herself and her Christ-child? Whom, by the way, would have been a “mamzen,” which is basically Hebrew for bastard. That meant he couldn’t be part of Jewish society, nor enter the temple. Neither could any of his descendents for 10 generations.
It wasn’t good enough to prevent a public shaming and poisoning, although it was good and just to do so. God was not willing to let Joseph settle for being an ally. So God sent Joseph a dream:
But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Joseph was a carpenter. He may or may not have been well-versed in the Law, though he would have known the customs and traditions of how they were carried out as a member of Jewish society. But knowledge wasn’t pushing him far enough. It wasn’t enough to make him do the fully best thing. It took a mystical experience for that. And it would be the first of four recorded dreams in Matthew for him. As far as history is concerned, Joseph certainly dreamed this dream, and followed it – according to a thesis on the function of dreams in ancient literature of record.
Given that his namesake was Old Testament Joseph, another man of dreams, it may not even have surprised his community. And each time he dreamed, he moved to protect. His dreams and experiences pushed him to the margins, too, and still he said, “yes.”
“The biblical St Joseph is ‘a man who doesn’t speak but obeys, a man of tenderness, a man capable of fulfilling his promises so that they become solid, secure’” – Pope Francis
Joseph both leveraged and gave up his power and privilege to protect those that the law would have quickly condoned his killing: his betrothed, her son, and by extension, all of us.
Public Disgrace or quiet divorce
A more lay-friendly divorce proceeding/bitter water/public disgrace source
OT Joseph parallels – systemically different but even NT authors make the connection
Dreams of St. Joseph source
Early Church History source
Biblical dreams infographic
Historical context for dreams