Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
Matthew tells us that Joseph, a direct descendant of King David, was engaged to Mary, another direct descendant of David, to be married. Espousal, in those days involved a simple ceremony, involving the couple and witnesses, and the recital of a blessing of this sort, from first century Judaism,
“Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the World, Who hath sanctified us by His Commandments, and enjoined us about incest, and forbidden the betrothed, but allowed us those wedded by Chuppah (the marriage covering) and betrothal. Blessed art Thou, Who sanctifiest Israel by Chuppah and betrothal’ -“
A small dowry would be given and the man would go about preparing a home for his espoused wife, anticipating his new life with her.
The couple would be engaged but would live separately until the marriage which could be up to a year later. The ceremony would conclude with a shared cup of wine between the couple. It is important to our account, to note that from the time of the espousal, the couple were bound together, and only death or divorce could separate them. the relationship was considered sacred, and any breach of it would be considered adultery, for which the possible punishment would range from divorce to death by stoning.
When Mary returned from a three month stay with her cousin Elizabeth, she announced to her husband that she was with child, by the Holy Ghost. Luke gives us the account of the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel, that she would conceive a Son, when the “Power of the highest overshadowed her”, and that He would reign on the throne of His father David forever.
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. (Luke 1:32-33)
The carpenter, Joseph was a Tsaddiq, that is a righteous man, according to the piety of the Old Testament, and of the Law of Moses. Therefore this upsetting news threw his soul into tremendous conflict. The news shocked and mortified him, on the one hand. This was scandalous and would certainly expose Mary and her family to shame, dishonor and reproach. How could she have betrayed him so? What actually happened?
On the other hand, Joseph was both a merciful as well as a just and honorable man. What would be the best way to divorce her, for divorce her he must. There was a provision in the law of Moses that if during an engagement, a man finds “uncleanness” in her he was allowed “put her away” (divorce),
When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.(Deuteronomy 24:1)
But this was village life, and the people of Nazareth and the surrounding towns would know everything about each other, the reproach would be lifelong and costly. Mary would be ruined, and it would be very unlikely that any would consent to marry her, in view of the disgrace.
On the other hand, He could “Put her away privately”.
One could either sue for divorce before a magistrate, bring charges and proof, and obtain the bill of divorcement in that fashion, which would involve the public naming and exposure of the wife being put away, and in some cases possibly stoning.
Or there was another option, a private divorce without the public disclosure of the reason for the Divorce. this would raise questions, and even cast doubt upon Joseph himself, (Did he abandon her? What was the problem?).
By simply handing her a bill of divorcement in the presence of two witnesses, he could spare her the utter reproach and shame for the most part.
The scripture says “while he thought on these things…” (but for Joseph such thought was agonizing wrestling, perplexity, sorrow, hurt, and doubt). What to do ? How do I fulfill Righteousness? How can I protect Mary? How and I going to live with the reproach?
But that night the Angel of the LORD came to him in a dream. It would take a dream from God to resolve Joseph’s doubts. Whatever he had thought of Mary before, nothing less than a divine revelation would calm the storm that erupted when she told him she was pregnant, with child by an act of God.
It must have been startling to Joseph to be addressed as “Joseph, Son of David…” for though he was a direct descendant of David, the fortunes of the house of David had long ago seemingly diminished, it had been centuries since a Son of David sat on the throne, in fact currently the throne of Judah was occupied by an Edomite!
The tree of the house of David had been reduced to a stump, few expected the “shoot “to spring forth out of it, especially in such mean and lowly circumstances.
The Angel instructed him to go ahead and marry his espoused, pregnant wife, for she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Then the Angel preached the virgin birth, long anticipated, since Adam and Eve had first heard of the promise, in their trial in the garden.
They had refused accountability when God brought the first couple up for inquest. Then God moved on to the serpent. But he asked him no questions for he had no intention of saving the Devil. Instead he made an announcement to the serpent that must have seemed to our first parents, hanging their heads in shame, like a beam of light, penetrating the gloom of the fall,
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. (Genesis 3:15)
Salvation would come, the primal curse would be reversed and the Serpent and all of his works would be decisively crushed, but not by the seed of a man, rather by “the seed of the Woman”! A virgin born Savior would come into the world, and ‘destroy the works of the Devil’ once and for all.
It was given to Joseph to confer upon the child the name, “Jesus”, (Jeshua) , which means “Jahweh will Save”.
Israel had long awaited a Savior, another ultimate Judge, such as Samson, Gideon or Jephthah. They had longed for the removal of the Gentile Yoke, an the restoration of the Sovereignty and scepter to Judah and to greater Israel. But the Angel tells Joseph that this Savior, the King Messiah, will first save the people from something even more basic than the yoke of Gentile powers, “He shall save the People from their sins”.
Alfred Eidersheim shows us that the fact that this was conveyed to Joseph in a dream , disposed him to accept and act unquestioningly. Dreams were highly regarded and seen as signs of the very blessing of God himself in those days.
The fact that such an announcement came to Him in a dream, would dispose Joseph all the more readily to receive it. ‘A good dream’ was one of the three things55 popularly regarded as marks of God’s favour; and so general was the belief in their significance, as to have passed into this popular saying: ‘If any one sleeps seven days without dreaming (or rather, remembering his dream for interpretation), call him wicked’ (as being unremembered of God5657). Thus Divinely set at rest, Joseph could no longer hesitate. The highest duty towards the Virgin-Mother and the unborn Jesus demanded an immediate marriage, which would afford not only outward, but moral protection to both.58 ( The Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah, Alfred Eidersheim, Eerdmans)