December 12, 2019

The Remarkable Story of Joseph



Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus Christ, is perhaps one of the most overlooked characters in the life of the Savior. Yet, there is no question that Joseph left a powerful impact on Jesus, Mary, and their other children. He was a man of solid conviction. His love for Mary, the mother of Jesus, is unmatched. Because Joseph’s story is only covered in four chapters of the Bible and he most likely died before the ministry of the Savior, we often gloss over him, and sadly miss the powerful witness he left of his adopted son, the Messiah of the world.

We know relatively few details about Joseph from the scriptures, but through insights from the historical background of life in Israel, we can actually weave together a beautiful tapestry on the life of Joseph.

Joseph was of the tribe of Judah, and in particular a direct descendant of King David (Matthew 1:20). This would mean that he, at least in some regards, had a legal right to the throne. Consequently, any of his descendants, including Jesus through adoption, would also have this same status. Despite his royal lineage, the scriptures tell us that Joseph was only a poor carpenter or craftsman. Joseph is typically portrayed in art as working with wood, but because Israel has a limited number of trees and stone is by far the more abundant resource, Joseph would have actually been a carpenter of mostly stone.

According to Jewish custom, we also know that Joseph was most likely quite young. In fact, he probably was only about seventeen to twenty years old when he was engaged to Mary. We also know that from a very young age Joseph had been trained in the law at the synagogue, and that he had a profound understanding of the scriptures because of his faithful, yet merciful way of obeying the law.

To better comprehend the significance of the story of Joseph and Mary, it will help to understand the marriage customs during the time of the New Testament. Ancient Jewish marriage included three main parts, the betrothal, the period of preparation, and the actual wedding feast.

A young bride typically between eleven and thirteen years old would be formally betrothed to a groom aged about seventeen to twenty. [1] While comparable to an engagement today, it was a far more significant commitment. The bride and groom were actually legally married at the betrothal as wedding vows would be exchanged. The distinction being that the marriage is not yet consummated nor do the couple live together. A period of waiting and preparation would follow when the groom learned a trade, in Joseph’s case stone masonry and carpentry, and built a small home for his future bride.

The two families would also prepare for the wedding feast. Unlike today with the convenience of modern-day stores, everything for the wedding would be made by hand, grown, or traded in the market including harvesting all the food, making white robes for each participant, and other significant preparations. This enormous amount of preparation meant that it was very common to wait a full year before the actual wedding feast. Once ready, the groom would go to the home of his bride with a large procession of his family and friends with torches and oil lamps. He then would take his new bride to his father’s home where the marriage feast would occur and the marriage would be consummated. The wedding feast was huge often lasting for seven days—all the more reason for a yearlong preparation!

With this understanding of marriage customs, let’s read from the Gospel of Matthew. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:18 NKJV). According to the Law of Moses, if a young man found that his bride was pregnant before their marriage, he had two options. First, he could publicly divorce her, meaning he would bring formal charges against her before a court. If found guilty, she would be stoned to death. Second, the young groom could divorce her privately, or in other words, he would not bring formal charges against her, but simply end the marriage. In this situation both the life of the mother and child would be preserved. Both options were legal under the law. Matthew tells us that Joseph chose to be merciful and “and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.” (Matthew 1:19 NKJV).

However, before Joseph was able to divorce Mary, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream telling him to take Mary as his wife. The angel also directs Joseph that he is to name the infant Jesus. By naming the child, according to Jewish tradition, Joseph would formally adopt Jesus as his own. We often just gloss over these few verses, but the implications are massive for Joseph! Consider this story from the perspective of the townspeople who all would know that Mary got pregnant before marriage. By taking her as his wife, Joseph is saying that either he broke his own vows and got Mary pregnant before the wedding feast, or he does not mind being the father to what the people would consider an illegitimate child. Either option would forever brand Joseph as a father of questionable background. Yet, the text seems to imply that Joseph shrugged off these massive consequences, and the instant he awakes from his sleep, does exactly as the angel commands.

The love and compassion Joseph showed to Mary and the unborn Messiah is absolutely remarkable. He disregarded all cultural consequences of marrying Mary, forgoes the elaborate wedding feast that every young couple would be looking forward to, and took in the young innocent Savior of the World as his own. Truly, God could not have chosen a better man to raise His own Son, then Joseph, the humble carpenter. Though we have no recorded words of Joseph, no recorded witness of his testimony, his actions of obedience, kindness, and love speak volumes about the character of this most remarkable man and his testimony of the Savior. As followers of Christ, we can learn much from Joseph the carpenter.


[1] As there always is a debate on the age of Mary, here are a few notes regarding the age of betrothal for women in the Bible. The Midrash and Talmud both state that young men were married by the age of eighteen and girls by the time they were thirteen (Midrash, Aboth 5:21 and Talmud, Pesachim 113). "For the other parameter, age at marriage, no real statistics exist for ancient Israel.... In Egypt, girls were married between twelve and fourteen; boys, between fourteen and twenty." (Life in Biblical Israel, page 37). "The consent (betrothal), usually entered into when the girl was between twelve and thirteen years old" (The Birth of the Messiah by Raymond E. Brown, page 123). "The earliest age for marriage, which typically follows betrothal by a year, is twelve years and a day [meaning betrothal could be at the age of 11]." (BYU New Testament Commentary, The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, page 107). "According to ancient Jewish custom, Mary could have been betrothed at about 12." (Wikipedia, Mary, mother of Jesus)

3 comments:

  1. Beautiful depictions. I have to add something to his piece which I learned several years ago. When the betrothal ceremony was complete, the groom went to his own home, having promised his bride that he would prepare a home (this might be an actual home, or he would be adding a room onto his father's house for her. Think of the scripture, "In my Father's house are many mansions... I go to prepare a place for you. If I go & prepare a place for you I will return to receive you to myself, that where I am you may be also.") Then.... & this is the part I find fascinating... the groom could not go get his bride until HIS FATHER told him that it was time to return for his bride! Think about it... If you're an eager young bridegroom who wanted to go get his bride, you might be in such a hurry that you slap up a quick "house" (or room in his father's house), & call it good so that you can rush to go bring your bride home. But a wise father was in charge. He would see to it that the place prepared for his new daughter-in-law was just perfect before allowing his son to go for her. This is so significant when we think about the Bridegroom coming for His Bride at the Second Coming. Only the Father knows when it is time for His Son's return to earth for his Bride. I just find the symbolism so fascinating! (You can read more about this in Donna B. Nielsen's (a member of our faith) book, "Beloved Bridegroom: Finding Christ in Ancient Jewish Marriage & Family Customs," as well as a wee bit in Donna Baer's (not a member of our faith) book, "The Bible's Feasts: The Secrets Behind the World's Oldest Holidays."

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  2. I love it! Thanks fo this one!

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  3. Thanks for sharing this.

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