How would Joseph’s original plan help Mary?

December 1, 2011

This Sunday I’m preaching on Matthew 1:18-25. This scripture tells the Christmas story from Joseph’s perspective. Originally, Joseph didn’t believe Mary when she told him that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph naturally assumed that another man was the father. But then we have this intriguing verse 19:

Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

I’ve always wondered what exactly this means. I’m aware that the couple’s engagement meant, in the eyes of the law, that they were already technically married, even though they hadn’t consummated the marriage. Therefore Joseph—not to mention anyone else who might hear the story of Jesus’ miraculous conception—believed that Mary had committed adultery. According the law of Moses, adultery was a capital crime.

I get that Joseph wanted to spare Mary both her life and public humiliation, but how would annulling his marriage help with this? Even if he “dismissed her quietly,” the conspicuous fact that Mary was pregnant would become more and more apparent, and someone was the father. Wouldn’t people put two and two together and assume that Mary slept with someone else, and Joseph, in his justifiable anger and hurt, divorced her for this reason?

Well, no… Not according to Adam Hamilton. By keeping quiet about the reasons for the divorce, people would assume that Joseph himself had sex with Mary (perhaps when he visited her at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house in the Judean highlands). By divorcing her and letting people believe that he was the father, Joseph would bear the shame, not Mary. Meanwhile, by divorcing Mary, Joseph believed he was giving the “real” father the chance to do the right thing and take Mary as his wife.

Out of great compassion, Joseph was willing to let people think that he was the irresponsible jerk.

This makes a lot of sense to me. As Hamilton writes,

Joseph knew that after he ended the engagement, everyone would soon discover that Mary was pregnant. They would naturally assume that Joseph was the father and that he had slept with her while she was in Ein Karem [the traditional home of Elizabeth and Zechariah], then broken off the engagement. The shame would be his, not Mary’s. Mary’s life would be spared, and she would have the pity of her family. Mary’s family would keep the dowry that had already been paid, and Joseph would provide the agreed-upon additional dowry that would have been provided at his wedding. He would also provide for the child and, if Mary’s father insisted, he could be required to take her as his wife.†

† Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 44.

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