Debbie Eisenbise

God Finds a Way

The Politics of Scripture

Joseph knows that this situation with Mary is not about legalities, or honor or shame or what other people may think or say; it is about God bringing Christ to the world. All that matters is God’s call. Joseph honors Mary, and their marriage, this family, as the opportunity God has created to bring hope, salvation to all the world.

Matthew 1:18-25
18Now 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. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

The beginning of Matthew’s gospel contrasts God’s way of getting things done with that of the world. Humanity sets up structures—laws, rules, hierarchies—for how things are supposed to work. Politics assumes organized control influencing human community, a way in which power is exerted, maintained, transmitted from one group to another. God’s reign—the Messianic hope—is outside of that. God works in the margins, like water flowing through fissures, making its way as it finds space and openings, not by force but by opportunity.

Joseph is a man open to opportunity. On the cusp of a change in his life, wherein he would enter society in a new way—as a husband—he finds he is also to be a father. This is not what he expects, or if he does, not how he must have been thinking about it. After all, to become a father, he expects to father the child. Being a “righteous man” and knowing Mary is pregnant not by him, he seeks to do what is best—what is in keeping with the law and yet what is merciful. His contemporaries would understand and think well of his choice to “dismiss her quietly.”

We know very little of Joseph. He is of the lineage of David. He is a carpenter, and he is older than Mary to whom he is betrothed. Of his character, we only know how Matthew’s gospel portrays him. We are left to speculate about his motivations. Is he in love with Mary? We do not know. The situation in which he finds himself is one of shame and embarrassment. He is engaged to marry a woman who has clearly been unfaithful. There is no other way to interpret this. She has informed him that she is “with child.” She has also informed him that this is “from the Holy Spirit.” He understands the former but how is he to understand the latter?

Within the context of his culture and faith, he knows stories of miraculous births. He knows of women barren and of advanced age who have conceived by God’s providence: Sarah, Hannah, and the mother of Samson. Pulling on the Lukan narrative, it would not be far-fetched to think that Joseph heard of the miraculous conception of a child by Elizabeth, the wife of the priest Zechariah. All of these are occasions for rejoicing and celebration for families and society—God bringing forth new life where none has been before. But in all of these cases God does so through the natural order, that is, there is a man and a woman blessed. A closed womb has been opened.

Mary is neither barren, nor old. She has conceived, so it must be through contact with a man other than Joseph. He believes that she is with child, as she has told him. Perhaps, he even believes it is somehow from God. He knows his lineage outlined at the opening of the Gospel of Matthew, and how David’s line progressed at times through opportunities taken when propriety and the law itself were violated. He knows that there were times when men chose, through will or desire, “inappropriate” women with whom to engage in intimacies: Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar; Salmon and the prostitute Rahab; Boaz and Ruth, the Moabitess; and David and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Joseph knows that the lineage continued through these liaisons, but this is not his situation because he has not had sex with Mary.

Matthew opens his Gospel with this genealogy understanding Jesus’ birth as falling in line with these stories; it is woven of the threads of this lineage. But since Jesus is not biologically from the line of David, and the Messiah must be, the opportunity of adoption presents itself. The angel calls for Joseph to name and so adopt Jesus as his own. This is not at all a consideration Joseph entertained before his dream. He had other concerns on his mind.

What troubles Joseph’s sleep? How had Mary been when she spoke to him? Had she been distraught?  

After all, they live in an occupied land. The people have few rights, and women have less than men. There are no protections under civil or religious law for a woman if a Roman soldier should rape her. Indeed, women have no protection from sexual violation at all. It would not be out of the question for Joseph to think that such a thing had happened to Mary. In fact, early critics of Christianity circulated the name of Pantera as the Roman soldier who had indeed fathered Jesus.[1] If Joseph thinks this is the case, that Mary had been raped, he might, out of compassion decide to address this privately.

At this time, while penalties for illicit pregnancy are serious (see Deuteronomy 22: 2029), the Romans do not allow stoning for this offense. The man is expected to publicly divorce the woman. Not doing so leads to assumptions of impropriety and suspicions that the man might be exploiting his wife as a prostitute.[2] Joseph is a righteous man who knows these social implications. His reputation and that of his family are at stake. His kindness and mercy toward Mary comes in his handling of this divorce with discretion.

Considering marrying Mary given the situation is really outside the box for Joseph as a man of his time. He is discerning what is best for all concerned and no one can say he is ungenerous in his decision. Still, as he sleeps, he remains open to something beyond his own reasoning, and the angel comes to him. He hears in his dream a confirmation of what Mary has told him. Her truth is validated by God. Joseph’s dream reveals a different story than what he had to this point understood. He had seen himself at the center of a not uncommon narrative wherein a woman’s fate lies with a man’s decision. He decided what his response would be to that scenario. His dream reveals a different story.

Joseph wakes to find himself cast in an epic narrative. He is not the subject of this story with Mary as the object.­­ Concerns about patrimony and propriety are set aside; these are not of interest or importance. God is the subject and Mary and Joseph are commissioned by God to be agents in this unfolding story of salvation. As with the anomalies in the Davidic lineage— Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah”—this is entered as one more. This final entry in the Davidic line leading to the Messiah, calls on Joseph to confer patrimony through adoption. The narrative thread throughout is of God’s plan for salvation. Mary and Joseph are together called to ensure the fulfillment of the scriptural prophecy heralding the Messiah’s birth: Mary to give birth and Joseph to lend lineage and to name.    

The words that stay with me from this text are “Joseph awoke from sleep.” He is visited by God in a dream and through this is transformed. He comes to a new understanding and consciousness. When Joseph wakes and decides to take Mary as his wife, he is a fool in the eyes of society. He gives away his reputation, his power—even to do “the right thing.” Joseph is now cast as one who has broken the covenant of betrothal and no longer to be known as “righteous” by his community.

But Joseph knows that this situation with Mary is not about legalities, or honor or shame or what other people may think or say; it is about God bringing Christ to the world. Mary, for Joseph, is no longer merely his betrothed, but the one who will bear the Messiah, and he is called to protect her and give legitimacy to her child. Mary and Joseph are partners now. The gender dynamic set up by society and the role given to Joseph to judge and act are stripped away. Joseph, an older man who has power and privilege that Mary does not, chooses to set himself and his own interests completely aside, and to do as the angel of the Lord commands: to marry Mary, take on and share the public shame, and accept this call, this grand opportunity offered by God. All that matters is God’s call, and so Joseph remains true to his vows and “has no marital relations with Mary until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”  Joseph honors Mary, and their marriage, this family, as the opportunity God has created to bring hope, salvation to all the world.


[1]https://robinhl.com/2011/11/06/jesus-son-of-pantera/ Robin Helweg-Larson.

[2] Richard Gardner, Believers’ Bible Commentary: Matthew, pp. 131-2.

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