Joseph a righteous man
What does a "righteous" man do when confronted with the
"obvious" sin of another? Does he "righteously" rebuke, and punish the sinner?
"To the full extent of the law!"; how often we hear that cry of righteous zeal,
or its equivalent, today! A wise man once remarked: "Every man wants justice for
others... and mercy for himself. Sometimes God tests our reactions. Are we too
quick to pass judgment? Are we eager to stand up for our rights? Are we as eager
to cover a sin? We have all known the brother (maybe we see him in the mirror
every morning) who is quick to judge, who relishes the role of "the righteous
arm of the Lord" in dispensing His judgment, but who is aghast at the suggestion
that he can dispense His mercy. "God can forgive, but we do not have that
prerogative." "We must make this sinner a public example, so others will be
discouraged from doing likewise." "God may have mercy on her, but that is for
Him to say, not me."
Joseph was not that sort of man; he was -- "righteous", with
all the qualities of strength, decency, and mercy (but none of the harshness and
arrogance) that that word implies.
This description seems an intended contrast with two of
Joseph's ancestors who are listed in the preceding genealogy of Mat 1:
If the lessons of the genealogy might be pursued a bit
further, Joseph was in fact much more like two other of his ancestors:
- Judah was all for putting to death his daughter-in-law Tamar for playing
the harlot. His "righteous" zeal was interrupted only by her proof that he had
been her consort; that he, in fact, was guilty and she innocent. He was only
lying with a harlot, but she was fulfilling the Mosaic law of succession and
inheritance as best she could (Gen 38:24-26).
- David, a man after God's own
heart, was anything but "righteous" in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah,
compounding adultery with murder. But, when told of the theft of a little ewe
lamb in Nathan's masterful allegory, he burned with zealous fury: "As surely as
the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die!" (2Sa 12:5) How flimsy his
"righteousness" really was, he soon found out to his
What options were available to Joseph? The law of Moses
outlined three possible courses of action to a wronged husband in Joseph's
position. All three are summarized in Deu 22:
- Salmon "covered" the past sins of Rahab the harlot by marrying
- Boaz married Ruth the Moabitess even though she had been rejected by
the nearest kinsman.
Pursuing the first alternative was clearly out of the
question. Joseph "did not want to expose her to public disgrace" (Mat 1:19). And
so he considered, as the best course of action, a private bill of divorce, after
the precedent of either Deu 22:26 or Deu 22:29. Such an action would need only
two witnesses, and would bring the least possible reproach upon Mary. This
solution would allow her either to bear her illegitimate child in private away
from Nazareth, or to marry the father, if possible. Obviously Mary's future
well-being was more important to Joseph than his own vindication.
- A betrothed wife found by her husband not to be a virgin (assuming no
mitigating factors) was subject to death by stoning (Deu 22:13-21): "She has
done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her
father's house" (Deu 22:21). Possibly this severe punishment was no longer
possible in Roman-occupied Israel. At the very least, however, such a woman
would be divorced and ostracized from all proper society.
- But perhaps -- and
it is not difficult to imagine "just" Joseph casting about for a better way out
-- perhaps Mary had been forced against her will (Deu 22:25-27). Perhaps it had
happened during her trip to Judah, and she had been too ashamed to tell anyone
until now. In which case, she was not an adulteress after all.
- Or, a third
possibility, perhaps this had happened before their betrothal (Deu 22:28,29). In
that case, the matter could be remedied by Joseph releasing Mary so that she
might marry the father of her child.