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The Joseph dilemma

“After Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together, that she was pregnant. So, her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.”(Matt. 1:19)

Wait a minute. Divorce her? What kind of a decision is that? Matthew removes this agonizing decision with an angelic vision in the next verse; Joseph won’t have to divorce Mary after all. But I want to go back before the angel came. I want to see this young Galilean bridegroom sitting with his head in his hands trying to figure out what to do with his brand-new pregnant bride. All of us are faced with life-shaking decisions; this is huge.

I know that Matthew is not writing history. Crossan and Borg in their beautiful book, “The First Christmas,” call this story a parable. It doesn’t matter. Joseph plays a big part in our understanding of Christmas. I want to know more about his dilemma.

Joseph is legally “engaged” to Mary, but he’s called her husband. They live in a small village where everybody knows everybody else. It was customary for the young couple to begin living together whenever the man decided. Joseph had not yet decided to sleep with her when he finds out Mary’s pregnant.

Joseph knows he’s not the daddy. Who is? Why doesn’t Joseph race over to Mary’s house and demand an answer? His wife is pregnant by another man. She could have been raped. But no, for some reason, Joseph decides that Mary had an affair. Mary’s got a lover. She has deliberately betrayed her husband and she’s going to have her lover’s child. No, that’s impossible; Joseph knows that Mary would never do that. What a dilemma!

Ten years later, Luke creates a similar parable about this same incident but leaves out the “Joseph Dilemma.” In Luke’s gospel, Mary has the vision; Joseph somehow is told, and there’s no big controversy over which decision to make.

So why does Matthew invent this possible betrayal by Mary and the question of divorce by Joseph? Well, it has nothing to do with the historical Joseph; it’s Matthew’s way of continuing a “Jesus/Moses” theme, this time from the Jewish Midrash on Exodus 2:1:

“The parents of Moses had decided to divorce rather than have a child until they were informed by an angel to stay married.” (Sefer ha-Zikhronot) Jesus is the new Moses. Matthew’s Jewish readers would immediately get the connection; they read the Torah and the Midrash every Sabbath. But we don’t.

Instead, we’re left with a man who evidently is in love with his bride, but has decided she must have — somehow — cheated on him. He’s got three choices. He can bring her before the Sanhedrin and have her stoned to death, or he can swallow his pride and his shame and his continuing suspicions, and marry her, or he can divorce her quietly and let her wander off in shame to some other village to have her baby. He chooses to divorce her.

Think about this: no investigation; no consultation with his dad or with his friends; no meeting with Mary. Nothing. He makes this choice all by himself: I’ll divorce her. She’ll have to leave her home here in Nazareth; maybe her cousin Elizabeth will take her in, or maybe she’ll just die in the Galilean wilderness. Who knows?

Now, I understand the Jesus/Moses theme. Matthew’s comparisons to Moses permeate his gospel. And I understand that this should be my focus and not some insane “Joseph-dilemma.” I also understand that this is just a parable and not history. However, I keep seeing the picture of this poor peasant lad who’s afraid to marry his pregnant bride so he chooses to divorce her and let her wander off.

Whenever I have a tough decision to make, I like to think of Joseph and I don’t feel so lonely.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.

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