• Mark Ledbetter

The Christmas Story Rarely Told

Christmas from Joseph’s Perspective

“And Joseph her [Mary’s] husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…”- Matthew 1:19-20

As a child our annual Christmas decoration wasn’t complete until the Manger Scene was set in its prominent place just inside the front door in plain sight to anyone entering our house. With room lights off, the soft lighted manger with accompanying music box playing “Away in a Manger” set the spiritual mood for our Christmas celebration.

I remember gazing at the scene – Mary and the Christ Child, the Wise Men with camels, the Shepherds with their sheep, the Angel, the Star, and then there is Joseph, a quiet and unassuming man that is a chiefly marginalized character leaning on a staff and almost as an extra in the scene, standing and looking on with the host gathered to give honor to God’s only begotten Son.

We try to capture this moment in a Nativity Scene, some quite simple while others are very elaborate. Captured in a single scene is Jesus in a manger, an angel with the shepherds with sheep, the wise men with their camels paying homage to the child, a star, and the devout and meekly Mary, mother of Jesus.

Tradition rightfully attributes Mary as a major character. She is a young woman of great exception chosen by God to be the mother our Lord. The miraculous conception of the Christ-child is captured in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:26-38).

Then we add the supporting cast of characters - The Shepherds, the Wise Men, and even the Inn Keeper. The pageantry of song, cantatas, movies, and television often gives the Christmas Story a surreal, miraculous, mystical, almost Disney-like atmosphere. All of it is very real, however, and perhaps in the minds of many, vital to capture the birth of no ordinary child – The Son of God.

The story includes the shepherds startled by a heavenly host of angels announcing the birth of the newborn King of Israel (Luke 2:8-20), there are the Wise Men from the east following a “star” that marks their path to the place where Jesus was born (Matthew 2:1-12), and there is the drama of the inn keeper who turns the expectant mother away from the comfort of an inn to give birth to her son in a cattle stall (Luke 2:1-7).

It is Joseph, however, whose story is rarely told, that gives a “human” perspective on the events leading up to the glorious birth of our Savior. While Mary’s selection to be the mother of God’s son is the most essential headline of the Christmas Story, the selection of the man to serve as the Guardian Father also proves to be an integral part of the story. Joseph’s perspective also needs to be considered.

Joseph, the Son of Jacob (Matthew 1:2-16)

The lineage opening Matthew’s Gospel reveals Joseph’s is a son of Abraham and is of the tribe of Judah. The more notable of his ancestors include David and Solomon. His father’s name was Jacob. His home was found in Bethlehem in the province of Ephrathah.[1]

Joseph is described as a righteous man, a Tzedek,[2] meaning he was Torah-observant, as were John the Baptist’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were also described as being “righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord”.[3]

In his community, he would be known as Yosef haCharas – Joseph the “Carpenter”. By trade the Scriptures describe Joseph as a carpenter.[4] Though the Greek[5] means one who works with wood,[6] the Hebrew equivalent[7] can mean an engraver, a carpenter, a “blacksmith”, or a mason – or all of the above. In 2 Samuel 5:11 it is included in the expressions “carpenters,” as workers with wood and “stonemasons” as workers with stone.

As a carpenter he would have been easily recognized by his tool kit.[8] Joseph could have produced common doors and shutters for houses, yoke for oxen, or a feeding trough. Or, he could have combined his trade and worked with stone.

The carpenter in first century Israel was held with high regard and “particularly learned. If a difficult problem was under discussion they would ask, ‘Is there a carpenter among us, or the son of a carpenter who can solve this problem for us?’”[9]

Although originally from Bethlehem, Joseph settled in a small and obscure village in Galilee – Nazareth. Nazareth’s water supply would not have supported a large community, and it would seem that a carpenter’s trade would bring limited income. Yet, within walking distance was Sepphoris, a city constructed by Herod Antipas in 4 BC and served as his capital until he built Tiberias. Archeological excavations have uncovered very elaborate and ornate structures that would have required the work of either carpenter or stonemason. A community of the richer members of Galilean society, it was extremely influenced by Greek [Hellenistic] lifestyle and values. Yosef would have found plenty of work to do during its continued construction.

Joseph and Mary

How and when Joseph met Mary we are not told. Some traditions suggest that Mary’s parents were from Sepphoris[10], and if true, it is plausible Joseph could have easily met her while working there.

Regardless, as was the custom in their day, an arrangement was made and they became “engaged.” Derived from a Greek word that implies “a promise to marry” (Archaic words such as betroth or espoused are sometimes used), the Jewish custom goes beyond the concept of engagement in the terms of modern western customs. It was more than a time for “testing” and preparation for marriage, it was a binding arrangement.

Although the couple had not consummated the marriage through a formal wedding, they were committed to each other as if already married. If either party engaged in sexual relationships with anyone else prior to consummation, it was considered a breach in the arrangement and the consequences severe.

As one of the 10 core commandments of the Torah, if the relationship was with another married individual it would be considered at worse adultery and the death penalty could be exacted.[11] If the man in question wasn’t married then a “certificate of divorce,[12] or a public declaration and written document is given that “sends” the woman away.

Apparently Joseph had not seen Mary in some time. Luke 1:56 reveals after the angelic visitation Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth for three months.[13] When she returned home, it was obvious that she was pregnant.

Joseph’s Response to Mary’s Pregnancy

A casual reading of the Biblical text might suggest that Joseph appears to take the news of Mary’s pregnancy in stride and simply seeks a gracious and pragmatic resolution to the situation.

The passage reads, “But when he considered this…” In the English, considered can mean, “careful, measured, well thought-out.” A more colloquial rendering might be, “While he mulled over.” Other versions offer the following translations: King James, “thought on,” The Message, “trying to figure out a way,” Darby, “pondered,” Young’s literal, “on his thinking on these things.” Yet, none of these translations capture the emotions of the passage.

The word “considered” is from the Greek word[14] that has a rather benign meaning, “to bring to mind, revolve in mind, ponder… to think, to deliberate.” [15] Yet, it has another meaning, “to become angry,” from the root[16] meaning “passion, angry, heat, anger forthwith boiling up and soon subsiding again” and is the same word we find frequently rendered as “wrath”.[17]

An eight century Arabic translation renders the passage as, “While he was disturbed over this matter” which is consistent with an underlying Hebrew text[18] of Matthew’s Gospel rendering the passage as he “despised the word in his heart.” Compare Micah’s reaction when she saw David dancing before the Lord: “…she despised him in her heart”.[19]

Although a righteous man, Joseph was also human and the bitter thoughts he had are understandable. His wife-to-be, the one he had hopes of building a life together, or providing a family, had apparently been unfaithful. His dreams were shattered and the predicament would be a public scandal and embarrassment. Mary had disgraced not only him, but her family and the community.

Though he greatly esteemed Mary, the apparent circumstances made him fume inwardly, yet he had determined to be gracious to her. Rather than exact justice in terms of exact retribution for her apparent transgression, he had decided to take a nobler path, granting her a private divorce[20] rather than public humiliation.

A Lesson from Joseph’s Perspective

Joseph’s story adds considerable insight into humanity of the Christmas Story. For rightful reasons, the supernatural factor overshadows the human element. The birth of Jesus remains at center stage and is the message of the ages.

Yet, interjecting the human element provides a realistic balance to what was taking place in the heart of the man God had chosen to serve as the guardian father of His Son.

Joseph’s story has another message to be considered. Anger is a legitimate emotion but the Apostle Paul teaches it should be managed appropriately.[21]

And note this: Joseph was angry but he didn’t have all the information. Again, it is easy to understand his initial anger when he believed he had been betrayed, but until the angel appeared, he didn’t have all the facts. The insight the angel made was profound, and provided a decidedly different reaction and decision:

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 1:20-25

How often do we get angry only to realize our anger is misplaced or inappropriate because we don’t have all the facts. James writes, "This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger…"[22].

Thankfully, God sent a messenger to Joseph to give him the full picture. There was more than what met the eye.

When we are faced with conflicting circumstances it may be in everyone’s best interest to not react to the apparent but stop and consider the full picture. There is an axiom that is part of a good chaplain’s approach: “What you don’t know about a person is more important than what you know about that person.”[23]

And may God send someone, whether human or angel, that can provide the information and insight to a situation before we fly off the handle.

Joseph was hurt but rather than react openly in a volatile manner he sought a gracious way to resolve the issue. Yet, internally he fumed and if anger is not allowed to be processed properly it will project and unfortunately it is too often projected against the innocent.

Joseph internally fumed but God intervened. Thank the Lord for His wisdom and compassion.

Joseph Took Mary as His Wife

Having full knowledge of the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph married her and demonstrated great restraint by not having sexual relations with her while she was expecting. Indeed, Joseph was a Tzedek.

Yet, by taking her to be his wife regardless of the scandal revolving around Mary, Joseph demonstrated another aspect of righteousness – compassion. Joseph willingly and willfully accepted not only Mary and forthcoming child, but he was also willing to accept and enter into her shame, to take on the brunt of social scandal.

Thank God for men like Joseph!

Merry Christmas!

[1] Luke 2:4. [2] Tz’dukim. [3] Luke 1:6. [4] Matthew 15:55. [5] tekton (τέκτων) [6] Strong, Vine, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker and Bauer. [7] charas (חָרַשׁ) [8] Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, Daily Life at the Time of Jesus, Palphhot Ltd: Israel, 51. [9] David Flusser with R. Steven Notley, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius, citing J. Levy, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids: Michigan (2007), 14. [10] “According to tradition, Sepphoris held the distinction of being the hometown of Joachim and Anna, the parents of Mary.” LaMoine F. DeVries, Cities of the Biblical World, Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, Massachusetts (1997), 318. [11] Leviticus 20:10. [12] Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Also known as a get. [13] See Luke 1:39-56 [14] enthumethenious (ἐνθυμηθέντος). Enthumeomai [15] Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship. [16] thumos (θυμός). [17] See Romans 2:8; Ephesians 4:31; Revelation 14:10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1; “rage,” Luke 4:28; Acts 19:28 [18] bazah hadabar b’lavu. [19] vatibez lo b’libah. [20] Which apparently was the accepted alternative by the community rather than her execution by stoning. [21] Ephesians 4:26-27 [22] James 1:19 [23] Dr. Jake Popejoy, coordinator for the Community Service Chaplains in Cleveland, Tenn., (Retired) shared in Chaplain training session.

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