Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
(Matthew 1:19 NIV)
Yesterday we read how Jesus was conceived not from a male and female human being but by the Holy Spirit. This method of conception is absolutely essential to God’s plan to redeem mankind and, as we learned, was foretold by God in the Garden of Eden immediately after Adam & Eve sinned [Genesis 3:15].
Even though it was clearly recorded in the Old Testament that God would send a savior to the Jewish people in the form of a man born of a virgin [Isaiah 7:14], Joseph seemingly doubted Mary’s story.
Unlike today, engaged couples did not live together back then. In fact, they had minimal contact with each other between the time the marriage was arranged and the time it actually took place. This period of time was known as betrothal and it was essentially like our engagement period, except it was more contractual. In other words, the man and woman were legally obligated to marry each other at this point so it required a legal action (divorce) to cancel the wedding. And this is what Joseph, who was technically Mary’s husband, was thinking of doing.
This was very nice of Joseph because the penalty for adultery was death by public stoning [Deuteronomy 22:23-24]. But to pursue such a course of action would have put [Mary] to shame. Rather than drag her through the mud, he, being faithful to the law, was considering (had in mind) resolving the situation quietly by annulling the betrothal, which was another option available to him [Deuteronomy 24:1].
Rather than humiliate Mary in a public proceeding Joseph opted to pursue a quieter solution in which he and Mary could be privately divorced in the presence of only a few witnesses. According to the law, he wouldn’t even have to state the reason for the divorce.
Joseph certainly had to be extremely disappointed to find out Mary was pregnant. Although he certainly could have gone ahead and married her, that would have violated God’s law – something he was unwilling to do.
Joseph is not mentioned in the gospels aside from the stories of Jesus’ birth so we don’t know much about him. But from this passage we can tell something about his character. Here we see that Joseph was a godly man. God came first in his life. It was not revenge or his own personal interests that he pursued. Rather, it was important for him to do God’s will.
Additionally, Joseph clearly cared about Mary and did not want to do anything to harm her. He took the most compassionate option available to him. This can be a lesson for us today. When we are wronged we don’t have to take a course of action that will damage the other person. We can respond with mercy.
Doing so leaves room for the possibility that we are wrong, as Joseph will find out. It also pleases God as this is exactly the way – with mercy – that He has treated us for wronging Him.
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