Matthew 1:18-25 (NRSV)
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
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.”
“The greatest truth of the Scripture is that God is with us.”
–ascribed to John Wesley
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.
An important exegetical perspective that needs to be kept in mind is the Matthean text tells the story more from the angle of Joseph’s perspective, while the Lukan birth narrative tells the tale from the perspective of how things affected and were seen by Mary. What the two narratives have in common is interesting: 1) a birth in Bethlehem, even though the family is from Nazareth and Jesus would be called Jesus of Nazareth; 2) a virginal conception; 3) a pregnancy during the engagement period caused through the agency of the Holy Spirit; and 4) Joseph resolves to accept Jesus into his life and family, as is shown by subsequent events.
Some background information about early Jewish marriages helps the exposition of this text. In the first place, engagement in this culture was a formal contractual matter, usually decided on by the two fathers in question (i.e. it was an arranged marriage), and was, in fact, the first stage of the marriage itself, to be complete some months hence by the formal wedding ceremony. The reason Matthew says that Joseph had resolved to “divorce” a woman he was only engaged to, is because engagement then was a legally binding contract, unlike engagement in the West today.
Secondly, we need to understand in that patriarchal culture, the birth of the first born son was all important and crucial to the family line and property transfer. The fact Joseph is prepared to give up the right to sire his own first born son and accept and even name Jesus (Yeshua/Joshua means “Yahweh saves”) says a lot about the character of Joseph.
HERE is a Joseph carol — “Joseph’s Lullaby” by MercyMe.
The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.