Matthew gets a lot of love for his inclusion of women into Jesus’ genealogy (Matt. 1:1–17), and rightly so. It’s a big thumb in the eye of a strongly patriarchal culture where women were chattel. With this in mind, however, I find the omission of a lot of Mary’s story surprising.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.—Matthew 1:18–25
So much of the story is missing. Matthew doesn’t mention the angel coming to Mary (Lk. 1:26–38), Mary’s visit with Elizabeth (Lk. 1:39–45), or the Magnificat (Lk.1:46–55), which I believe is one of Scripture’s most beautiful passages. Obviously Matthew is privy to these stories. I mean, he was a member of Christ’s inner circle. All of Luke’s Gospel was compiled from interviews with people that Matthew would have had first-hand experience with.
It’s curious to me that Matthew omits all that.
Matthew’s genealogy joke
“Well,” I can hear someone condescendingly say, “Matthew’s genealogy runs from Abraham to Joseph. He’s not really focused on Mary’s story here, he’s talking about Joseph.”
Right! But here’s the thing . . . he sets up this whole genealogy to get us to Joseph—who he calls the “the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born”—to only reinforce the fact that Jesus isn’t really even related. It’s like that whole genealogy is a prank. Here’s 27 people—broken into two groups so it’s easier to remember—that Jesus isn’t even related to.
My hero, Joseph
It’s interesting that Matthew focuses in on Joseph. He completely glosses over the chance that God chose some teenage girl out of the sweaty mess of humanity to carry his greatest gift. Luke, some gentile Dr. McDreamy, gets it, but not Matthew. Why? In the whole gospel story, Joseph is a bit player—a narrative prop that moves the story along. Here today—gone tomorrow.
When I read the first chapter of Matthew, I get melancholy. Here’s a patriarchal culture where genealogy is everything—and Joseph comes from pretty good stock. But when it gets to the climax, he becomes the simple husband of the girl that is carrying the messiah. In fact, the way the story presents itself, I can’t imagine him not wondering in the back of his mind throughout Jesus’ childhood if he’d been had.
All the sudden you find that the girl you’re engaged to be married to is “found to be with child (vs. 18).” Neither Matthew or Luke mention how Joseph finds out. Did Mary tell him? Was she too embarrassed or know he’d never believe her? Did a relative tell him? Was she showing after her trip to Judah? There’s so much of the narrative left to our imagination. And within that missing narrative element, there’s a whole lot of unaccounted for humanity.
We do know that Joseph didn’t know how to respond and was mulling it all over. It’s interesting that Matthew takes Joseph’s desire not to humiliate her as a sign of Joseph’s righteousness (vs. 19). It would seem that following Old Testament law would have been a sign of his righteousness.
But if this charge is true, that the girl was not found a virgin, then they shall bring out the girl to the doorway of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death because she has committed an act of folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; thus you shall purge the evil from among you.—Deut. 22:20–21
Seriously, think about that for a minute. Here’s Joseph being considered righteous because, in his mind, he wants to send her away instead of inviting the local guys over for a BBQ and good old-fashioned stoning. The idea of stoning a betrothed non-virgin isn’t presented in Deuteronomy as a suggestion . . . putting her away quietly wouldn’t have been a righteous biblical alternative. It really seems to me that Joseph is being lauded for elevating common-sense humanity over a wooden understanding of the Scriptures.
I often wonder if Jesus is thinking about Joseph’s kind heart when he is standing between the woman found to be in adultery and a mob of men who want to stone her (Jn. 8:1–11). Was he kneeling in the dirt and doodling Jospeh’s name? Probably not, but the idea always makes me smile.
Would I believe such a dream?
While Joseph is struggling with what to do, he goes to sleep and has a dream. In that dream, he is visited by an angel who tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. The angel basically confirms what Mary has probably already told him, “The Holy Spirit knocked me up!” And when Joseph wakes up from the dream, he does exactly what the angel says.
I wish I understood how this worked. I remember once waking up after dreaming I got a train set. I spent half the day looking for that train set, and the other half crying because it was just a stupid dream. What does a dream like this look like? How do you know its true and not nonsense? Was Joseph inclined to follow the dream’s advice because it kind of confirmed what he really wanted to believe?
Look, I don’t doubt the validity of the dream. I’m probably kind of messed up after spending years around charismatics who often pointed at dreams to confirm that God wanted them to do what they already intended. Holy visitation in dreams happens so infrequently in the Bible, and they always go well. I don’t know of any stories where the dream was misinterpreted or ignored with a dismissed shrug. And yet, every one of my dreams is a strange cornucopia of profanity-screaming chickens running around with baseball bats (I should probably see someone).
All I know is that Joseph receives, and follows, this dream—and the dreams that he’ll get from here on out. And then, as Jesus grows, he just disappears from the story. Like the heroes of Hebrews 11, he doesn’t seem to stick around to experience the fruit of his obedience. He is not there for Jesus’ miracles, death, and resurrection. Joseph made a lot of sacrifices that he couldn’t have ever been entirely sure were right. I know he had faith, but there had to be quiet a bit of doubt mingled in there with it.
He’s just a gentle, faithful guy stuck in the middle of a narrative that’s much bigger than he is. The kind of guy I hope to be.