Updated: Jan 16, 2020
Matthew writes his Gospel to a community of first century, Jewish Christ-followers trying to determine what it looks like to live their faith in the face of enormous change and conflict. These people did not need to be convinced that Jesus was the Christ.
They were living that reality.
A possible clue to that there is more going on in Matthew’s Gospel is that Joseph—the husband of Mary—is not the first Joseph in Scripture to receive divine instruction through a dream.
The final fourteen chapters of Genesis provide the story of another Joseph. In this longest and most detailed story in the entire book of Genesis, we are told the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob—you know, the one with the technicolor dream coat.
- Joseph, who received and interpreted numerous divine-dream instructions. - Joseph, the one whose brothers referred to him as “the dreamer.” - Joseph, who ends up in a position of power and authority in Egypt. - Joseph, the ancient Israelite—who according to the genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel, is an ancestor of Joseph, the betrothed of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Two Josephs, same name, both facing great change and conflict. Both receiving divine instruction in dreams. Both eventually winding up in Egypt as a result of following those dreams.
This is not just a coincidence. This is unmistakable.
This is known in Hebrew as remez – a directional arrow or hint that points to another story.
This is how the story of God works when we let it: burying beauty on top of meaning in layer after layer after layer.
N.T. Wright says it this way,
“Matthew is not asking his audience to take this story all by itself. He is asking his audience to see this story in the light of the entire history of Israel…”
Hearers of Matthew’s birth narrative are being asked to bring the ancient story of Joseph, the dreamer of Genesis, to mind as they receive this story about the birth of Christ.
Now, lest we think that Mary is going to get lost in all these layers of Joseph found in Matthew’s Gospel, biblical theologian and scholar Eugene Boring reminds us that this emphasis on Joseph is not a reflection of patriarchal culture or misogyny.
In fact, Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus testifies to the role of five women in the appearance of the Christ, and Mary most certainly plays the essential human role in the birth of the Christ child.
But this…this is where the needle scratches off the record for me.
Dr. Boring states,
“…the modest role assigned to Mary in this story shows that the narrative is not a birth story but an illustration of a central problem faced by Matthew’s community.”
Dr. Boring—whose name is certainly not descriptive of what he is asking us to consider—says the fact that Mary is not featured heavily in this story tells us that this is not a birth story.
Our friend Dr. Alexander John Shaia agrees…writing, “Matthew is telling a story of faith and of faith tested—not a biography of Jesus. His focus on Joseph is on a person faced with a great dilemma.”
Let’s be honest…we don’t talk about the great dilemma Joseph and Mary faced very often when we talk about this story.
We may nod in its general direction, but we don’t want to be immodest and impolite with the implications of a young, betrothed virgin being pregnant before she is married.
We tend to just metaphorically pat Joseph on the back and say, “Atta boy, Joseph, way to take one for the team…now, be quiet and get back in your place between the donkey and the manger.”
We don’t usually address the very particular scandal that Mary and Joseph face in the conception and birth of this Christ child with great specificity.
But Matthew sure does. Matthew has no problem talking specifics…which is kind of odd when we remember he wasn’t even born when this story took place…and he doesn’t write about it until 70 years later.
Matthew shares extremely specific and intimate details about Joseph’s thoughts, Joseph’s dreams, and the relationship between Joseph and Mary—both before the conception and before the birth of Jesus.
These are specifically odd and private pieces of information.
Why tell your audience that?
What is all that information supposed to communicate?
Contrary to how we may have interpreted this in the past, I would invite you to consider the possibility that these details have nothing to do with the dirtiness of our flesh or the holiness of chastity.
I would invite you to consider the possibility that these intimate details in Matthew’s narrative exist to drive home one singular point.
Joseph is not the father of Jesus…no way, no how. That’s it.
No matter how we may try to explain it away, what the narrator of this Gospel is telling us is that there is no possible way that Joseph was Jesus’ dad.
Matthew is telling us that a “cover-up” was not an option, that Joseph and Mary could not explain this scandal away.
We can all agree that given our day and age, these circumstances might not seem so scandalous to us, but to Joseph and Mary—and to the ancient audience receiving this story—this was an extremely not-immaculate scandal.
Mary and Joseph were betrothed, which in first century Palestine was much more binding than modern western engagements.
The betrothal was formalized in a contract and could only be ended by death or divorce. Betrothed couples were referred to as husband and wife and should one of them die, the survivor was recognized as a widow or widower.
To ratchet the seriousness up even further, the religious and cultural systems to which Mary and Joseph belonged provided very specific and strict consequences for infidelity.
According to scriptural laws in the Torah, Mary could be put to death for her scandalous pregnancy. At the very least, she was to be divorced and shamed and Joseph was to be offered restitution for his losses.
In this time and place and culture, Mary’s pregnancy was life-threatening.
It was, as Shaia calls it,
“…a situation for which the culture demanded action. Joseph and Mary must adhere to the accepted customs. For Joseph to accept Mary and deviate from the accepted norms would cause shunning by the entire tribe—a shame that would forever taint the family name and lineage.”
With that context, can we recognize Joseph’s initial decision to dismiss Mary quietly? Can we relate to it?
I sure can.
It’s a response that lies somewhere on the spectrum between religious conviction and avoiding humiliation: a spectrum I am way too comfortable blurring in my own life.
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