It really looked like Joseph had every reason to divorce Mary. They were betrothed, though not yet living together (as was the tradition for betrothal, where the woman would continue to live with her family until a year had passed and her new husband had paid a bride-price for her). Now, only a few months into that year, Mary becomes pregnant, and the baby isn’t Joseph’s.
That of itself would have been scandalous, and a reason for divorce (then as now). During this year-long betrothal, Mary and Joseph wouldn’t have slept together. They wouldn’t have consummated their marriage, even though vows of commitment had already taken place. Odd? Yes, but some cultures in our world still do this today. “But but but I thought they were only engaged,” you might say. The short answer is “sort of.” We (today) might consider them to be only engaged. In their time, however, Mary and Joseph their betrothal was considered to be full marriage.
Now, betrothal looked like betrayal. Where did the baby come from? At first, Joseph didn’t know. His first assumption was the one any one of us would have made. The baby wasn’t his, so Mary must have had sex with someone else. Seemingly obvious adultery. Yet Joseph was a peaceful and righteous man. He understood the situation seemed morally, ethically intolerable, but he loved Mary. “He did not want to expose her to public disgrace.” Nazareth was a tiny village; in our world, it wouldn’t even have a Post Office. Everyone would have known everyone (and everyone’s business). Joseph, a known tradesman in his small town, didn’t want to disgrace Mary, a younger woman from the same town.
He simply wanted out, as was his right under Jewish law. It seemed like he had every righteous reason to. We find out in the next few verses that God had other plans, and those plans bring out Joseph’s good character in even finer ways. As of today, his feelings must have felt heartbreaking.
We can identify with Joseph, because so many of us get hurt in relationships. Beginning a marriage involves growing together, learning lessons from navigating issues. Some of them involve hurt, though hopefully not the possibility of infidelity. How many of us would stay together if it looked like the partner had been unfaithful? It’s at the heart of most divorce, and God bless those who choose to stay. As of today’s verse, it looked like Joseph SHOULD have wanted out, and it was his legal right. Anything less would have shown him to seem weak. Because it’s (about) Christmas, come back tomorrow to talk about the next great miracle.
For more reading: Deuteronomy 24:1, Matthew 1:20
Lord, bless Joseph and those who are enduring divorce. Let each have the heart of Jesus’ earthly father.