The birth stories in Matthew and Luke are so familiar that they nearly lull us to sleep. Here, perhaps more than anywhere in Scripture, tradition and text come together to create a beautiful, gentle picture, dominated by soft attractive colors.Of all the characters in the stories, poor Joseph seems to be the most passive. He somehow just stands there and does nothing. Yet, looking at these stories from Jerusalem, I find three startling shocks in the brief accounts of Joseph. They are as follows:
1. Joseph, a just man (Matthew 1:19) Joseph discovers that his fiancée is pregnant (Matthew 1:18). He is described as a just/righteous (dikaios) man. So what is a just man expected to do in such an unfortunate circumstance? Naturally (we assume)a just person is law-abiding. In this case the law is clear- take her out and stone her (along with the man; cf. Deuteronomy 22:22). But there is a shock in the story. Precisely because he is a just man, Joseph decides to break the law of Moses.
Early in the first century the great rabbinic schools of Shammai and Hillel had recently been formed. Thus the religious community was hard at work on the long process of defining precisely how the 614 laws set forth in the Torah were to be kept.
Only a brave man with great personal integrity and courage would dare oppose the spirit of the age and set aside the Mosaic legislation in the name of justice. This is the kind of a man Joseph was, and Matthew did not forget it. Neither did Kierkegaard, who found in Joseph an example of the “fear and trembling” of authentic faith which is not controlled by law but rather stands in an absolute relationship to the absolute.
Obviously, Joseph exhibits a definition of “justice/righteousness” that goes beyond the common understanding of any age. The just person is here not one who supports a strict and impartial observance of law. Rather, the just person is defined as one who has compassion for the weak and downtrodden. What, then, is the source of this definition of justice?
Isaiah 42:3 provides precisely the understanding of justice that Joseph acts upon. In this verse, the suffering servant of the Lord is described as follows: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice“ (Isaiah 42:3; emphasis added).
Clearly, the servant sees justice as a form of compassion and succor to the weak and downtrodden. Thus, is it not possible to see this prophetic understanding of justice (set forth in a song of the suffering servant) as profoundly illustrated in the actions of Joseph in Matthew 1:19? Without such a vision of justice in the heart of Joseph, the servant of the Lord (Jesus) would have died unborn with his mother.
2. Joseph “considers”(?) the news of his fiancée’s pregnancy (Matthew 1:20). The Greek text says, “While he was enthumethentos this.” We have traditionally translated this. “While he was considering this.” Granted, this Greek word can mean “think” or “consider.” Furthermore, this translator’s choice has centuries of tradition behind it.
But a quick check in the definitive 2,000-page Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford ) makes clear that the verb can also mean, “be concerned or angry at.” The word itself, en-thumoo, is composed of two words which are en (in) and thumoo (to get angry). The noun form of the verb thumoo is thumos and means anger, wrath and rage. The verb thumoo appears only once in the New Testment and this is in Matthew 2:16, where Herod is in a great rage (magon ethumothe). Thus en-thumoo can be translated “he was enraged.”
In time, Joseph became St. Joseph. Saints appear in icons with halos. They do not get angry.
We are obliged to wonder if this has influenced our traditional choice for the translation of this key word? It is significant that the oldest extant Arabic manuscript of the Gospels (Vatican Arabic No.13; 8th century ) translates Matthew 1:20 with “falamma hamm bihatha“ ( while he was disquieted/uneasy/anxious/distressed/grieved about this). So there is early evidence that Eastern Christians did see Joseph as deeply troubled and who understood en-thumoo as meaning more than mere contemplation.
Furthermore, Greeks are philosophers and may (?) be able to sit calmly and “consider” all matters objectively. Yet I wonder if even a Greek philosophical mind can calmly “consider” the news that one’s fiancée has been unexpectedly found pregnant?
In any case, Middle Easterners, as I have known them for 54 years, are a very emotional people. Anything that touches personal honor stirs great and explosive passions.
So is Joseph really described by Matthew as calmly “considering” the shocking extramarital pregnancy of his fiancée? Or has Matthew rather told us that he was angry, upset and fuming when the angel’s message came to him telling him of the miracle of God?
Herod fumed for a very bad reason and acted in great brutality. Joseph fumed for a very good reason and yet acted in great compassion. Perhaps with this good man the light of a new dawn is already breaking.
3. A Savior—but from whom?
Military occupations across history have a horrible sameness to them. Beatings, killings, outrageous taxation, detention without trial, concentration camps, arrests without charge (usually in the night), suspension of civil rights, confiscation of land and the destruction of houses without notice are all agonizingly common occurrences under military rule. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
So, in a situation of oppression, what do people cry out for? Naturally, they want salvation! But salvation from what or whom? From their oppressors, of course! Thus it comes as a shock in Matthew 1:21 to read that Mary will give birth to a son and ” you [Joseph] shall call his name Jesus [jashu‘] because he will save [jasha’a] his people from…their sins.”
This is not the agenda! The people are oppressed! They want salvation from their enemies, not their sins! So Joseph’s dream ends on a frightening note. He cannot help but know that the bearer of such a message will be deeply resented and perhaps violently opposed.
The Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79 ) deals with the same issue and opens with the expected emphasis. God has “visited…his people,” the reader is told so “that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke1:71). Such sentiments are understood and appreciated by the oppressed. But in the middle of the song there is a sudden shift of focus. The child to be born (John) is sent
‘to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
through the tender mercy of our God,…
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1:77-79).
The wording is incredible! The people indeed sat “in darkness.” But they surely understood that darkness as having been created by their Roman oppressors. Of course they wanted to walk in “the way of peace.” But peace will be a result of victory in the war of liberation from Roman military occupation.
Salvation? Of course–from our enemies! Dawn for those who live under the shadow of death? By all means—over-throw the marching legions and this dawn will at last break!
Who dares tell the oppressed that they are sinners and in need of salvation from their sins? Sitting in Jerusalem, the word “shocking” Strikes me as almost too weak for these texts. “Jarring might be better. But in that very jarring is there not hope for all of us?
by Ken Bailey