In keeping with the Christmas season, our church held a Christmas pageant put on by the kids. It was cute. The kids put on a great show. Honestly, I’ve not been to many Christmas pageants. For most of my childhood, my Christian tradition didn’t celebrate advent or even pay much attention to the birth of Jesus. The reason was that the New Testament doesn’t tell us to celebrate Jesus’s birth. And, after all, Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th anyway. To be honest, it was a pretty jacked-up way to interpret scripture.
Our Christmas pageant reminded me how often we insert our traditions (and ourselves) into the biblical story. Our traditions can blind us to other details in the text. In truth, our traditions (and cultural perspective) often prevent us from asking specific questions about the text. The role of Joseph is one where our traditions keep us from seeing some crucial details in the story and their implications.
Previously, I’ve written about our misconceptions of the nativity story and how we miss important themes. In another post, I looked at Joseph as the oft-ignored character in the birth narrative. In this post, I’d like to give a little more attention to Joseph and what it tells us about righteousness—even within Judaism.
As I noted in a previous Christmas post, Joseph comes across as a prop in the story. He’s a one-dimensional figure. We give more attention to the shepherds and the magi bringing gifts than we do to Joseph. He has no lines of dialogue in any of the Gospel accounts. Joseph is only referenced 13 times in the Gospels. Matthew gives us the most information, while Mark doesn’t mention him at all.
Joseph: A “Righteous” Man
Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous” man. The Greek word for “righteous” is díkaios (δίκαιος). Besides meaning righteous, it is also the word for justice (In Hebrew, they are the same word as well). Joseph was a “just” man. So, as someone concerned with justice, what were his options in dealing with Mary’s pregnancy? If Joseph was a strict Torah-keeping Jew, what was he to do? Well, Deuteronomy gives us a pretty clear indication of what the Torah required:
If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.Deut 22:23–24 (NRSV)
Joseph’s situation is practically the textbook case for Deuteronomy 22. As a righteous/just man, one could argue that he was obliged to bring Mary out to be stoned. After all, Deut 22:24 says, “you shall purge the evil from your midst.” Of course, finding the “man” that did this to her would have been a problem.
Yet, Joseph had another commandment in the Torah that he could have fallen back on. Numbers 5:11–31 provides the course of action for a man who thinks his wife has committed adultery. He is to bring her to the priest, who basically makes a potion from the dust of the temple floor and some holy water. The woman drinks it while the priest makes her recite an oath that she is innocent. If she is guilty, the potion aborts the fetus. If she is not guilty of adultery, nothing happens. Yet, Joseph doesn’t take this course of action either—even though one could argue that Torah obliged him to action.
Joseph’s actions go against the explicit stipulations of the Torah, but he is considered righteous. I think this is one of many indications that following the letter of the Torah was not necessary for Jews to be considered righteous. For too long, Christians have believed the lie that Judaism teaches works-based righteousness. Joseph, a righteous Jew, shows us otherwise.
However, Joseph’s intended course of action (before the angel visits him) relies upon a different view of righteousness and justice. Here, I think Isaiah 42:1–4 reflects the sort of action that Joseph plans:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,Isa 42:1–4
my chosen, in whom my soul delights.
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
At this point, I expect some of you are thinking, “I thought that passage was about Jesus!” For the sake of space, we don’t have time to talk about how prophecy works in the Old Testament. For now, let’s say that the identity of this servant fits different people (and groups) at different times. It is not meant to be a “one-and-done” prophetic utterance.
Nevertheless, I think this poetic description of God’s servant aptly describes Joseph’s view of justice and righteousness. The Isaiah 42 servant won’t break the crushed reed and will not snuff out the dimly burning wick. As Ken Bailey points out in his book, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, reeds were of great use in ancient times as writing utensils and building materials—until they were damaged. At that point, all they were good for was throwing into the fire. Likewise, a wick reaching the end of its useful life would be extinguished and thrown out. Bailey notes that as the lamp oil ran out, there was a risk the wick would fall out, risking a fire in the house. They often placed a water bowl underneath the lamp to quench any potential flame.
Isaiah 42 uses the metaphors of a crushed reed and dimly burning wick to talk about justice. Here the prophet of Isaiah 42 says that God’s justice refuses to destroy seemingly worthless people. That’s the plan of action Joseph devises before the angel visits him. Rather than subject Mary to public disgrace, he plans to divorce her quietly. For Joseph, justice is not retributive (i.e., eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth); justice does not demand following the letter of the law. Justice requires mercy. From Matthew’s story, Joseph’s understanding is more closely rooted in Isaiah 42 than in Deuteronomy or Numbers.
What Was He Thinking?
Because Joseph says absolutely nothing in any of the Gospels, we have very few clues as to what might have been going through his mind. However, Matthew gives us one indication that gets obscured in our English translations. In Matt 1:20, “But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…” the word for “resolved” is enthuméomai (ἐνθυμέομαι). The primary definition of this word is “to process information by thinking about it carefully.” That’s what our English translations reflect. However, according to Liddell, Scott, and Jones’ lexicon, there’s a secondary definition: to become angry.
While English translations are not wrong in their translation, I think they miss a nuance in the text. Joseph is not exhibiting a “stiff upper lip” as he considers what to do. He’s ticked. He’s angry and hurt—and rightfully so. No doubt, even divorcing Mary will cause him some difficulty and dishonor. There is no good choice. Nevertheless, he chooses mercy even before the angel shows up in his dream.
Joseph reminds us what justice and righteousness look like among God’s people. Righteousness and justice are not about retribution. For God, righteousness and justice mean looking after the weak and helpless. It’s not concerned with getting revenge or compensation for how you have been wronged. Instead, Joseph shows how he puts aside his anger and hurt and plans to act mercifully towards Mary, despite his obligations under the Torah. That’s right, mercy takes precedence over following the letter of the law.
I think it’s intentional that Joseph doesn’t utter a single word in the Gospels. He doesn’t need to. Joseph’s actions (even before the angel told him what to do) demonstrated righteousness and justice. Perhaps we should be more like Joseph.