Joseph was a righteous man. He followed the law. He followed the rules. Of course he would. He was a builder, not merely a carpenter, but what the Greeks called a “tekton,” a designer and builder. Such a man would recognize the importance of rules. You cannot build a complicated piece of cabinetry just by eyeing the wood and the space and grabbing your hacksaw. No. You plan, design, use what you have been taught about proportion, about the bearing strength of different kinds of wood, about the different requirements for different kinds of furniture. You measure, and you measure again before you cut, because wood is costly.
A chair for a fat man must be much sturdier, for example, than a small stool for a young woman to use while milking the goats. A small pretty young woman…like Mary.
Joseph was glad for the rules. They ordered his work as they ordered his life. And in the manner approved in the law, he had become betrothed to Mary. She had not yet moved into his house…soon, he hoped, because he was longing for the pleasure of being closer to her…but they would follow the law and do things in the proper way.
Joseph was a “dikaios,” a righteous man, a model citizen, a man who followed the rules. It had served him well. He had a prosperous little business, as prosperous as one could be with the Romans taxing them more and more each year. Still, he was doing well enough to negotiate for a bride, a pretty young girl, modest and sweet, quiet. A girl who seemed to like following the rules, doing things the right way, the orderly and proper way. A girl who could give him sons and care for their home and cook a good meal and loaf of bread. And she could do those things, by God, because she knew the rules of cooking and making bread and keeping a house. There was a right way to do things, and he knew it, and she knew it, and that was why they were a good match.
Ah, life was good, despite the Romans, despite the requirements of the High Priest, despite the day to day challenges of living in the Galilee.
Joseph was a righteous man, and it seemed that living right was paying off for him. Good business, nice little house, a lovely young girl to whom he was betrothed.
And then it all changed.
The rules were broken. She had broken them.
She came to him, looking frightened, as well she might be given the news she had to give. She told him the impossible, the horrible, the ultimate rule-breaking.
She was pregnant.
He was normally a gentle man, but in that moment he was enraged. On fire. That she would betray him in this way? Someone else had had the pleasure of her body, when she was betrothed to him? Oh, the pain! The fury! He could hear nothing more that she said, after the first few words, those horrible words – “I am with child….”
Well, there were rules about that sort of thing. It was clear. The law said that he not only had the right, but the obligation, to divorce her. She was fallen, sinful. No good could come of such a marriage. She needed to be divorced, and quickly, and Joseph planned to go to the religious leader in their village and attend to it immediately…
…but there was no need to make her shame the subject of village gossip. No need to provide fodder for the old biddies who stood by the well after they had fetched their water. No, she was a tender girl, even if she had done something bad. No reason to add to the harm. No, just divorce her quietly and send her away – didn’t she have a cousin a few villages away? – and get on with life. Find another girl, though no girl as lovely and sweet as Mary lived in their village. Ah, appearances deceived. Joseph went to bed that night musing on that thought, with a bitter taste in his mouth.
It was a rough night, a restless one. Sleep did not come easily. She had looked so forlorn, standing there, small, no swelling evident yet in her belly, and she had told him, and then seemed to have more to say, but Joseph had turned his back on her in anger. What more had she wanted to tell him?
He finally dozed off into an uneven sleep, sinking down into the place where the mind is open to the thoughts from which we hide when we are awake.
And in that sleep, something strange happened. He heard a voice. Whose voice? Not his dead father or mother. Not his friend Eliezer. Not the rabbi’s. Sweeter somehow. Was it Mary’s voice? No, there was something different about it. Not a man’s voice. Not a woman’s. Something…else.
And even in his dreaming, Joseph who loved the rules was struggling to use those rules to figure out where that voice was coming from, who or what that voice was coming from, whispering, “Joseph, Joseph.”
No words, please…he just wanted to sleep deep and dreamless, to sleep away the embarrassment and anger and pain of Mary’s betrayal.
But the voice would not let him rest in darkness: “Joseph, Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
What madness was this? A child in her belly from some Holy Spirit? This did not follow the rules. Spirits don’t make babies, men do. That is the way of things, the rules of the body. Spirit…and a spirit-child would come of this? Who would save people from their sins?” No, that didn’t work. People were forgiven when they carried out the rituals, bathed in the mikvah, made burnt offerings at the temple. A child saving people?
And then he remembered one of the old texts, the words of one of the ancient prophets, Isaiah. "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."
What madness was this? Was God speaking to him? Was this child truly from God? What was it that Mary had tried to say to him when he turned from her? “This Child is not from my being with a man, I swear to you. There was an angel….”
Another angel.That voice he had heard – was it an angel? Scriptures did not tell him how angels were supposed to sound…they simply said angels were messengers from God, and you had best pay attention to them. It was strange. It broke the rules of his everyday life, but a higher rule now seemed to shape his thoughts. God had spoken. He was to listen.
Never mind what the gossips said. Never mind that he could not comprehend how this could be. It was of God – it MUST be of God – and he must obey. That rule was unbreakable – he must obey.
The next morning, he got up early, and went to Mary’s house. The tension there was terrible. Both Mary and her mother Anna had clearly been weeping all night. Joseph looked at them both, shaking a little at what he was about to say. It was breaking the rules, and yet it was not. It was confusing, and yet his path suddenly seemed very clear.
“Mary, will you come now and live with me as my wife? I understand. I believe. Come now. We will do this thing together.”
And so it began, with a breaking of the rules of nature and of the rules of the ancient traditions. A voice in the middle of the night, reordering two lives, and every life.
What would have happened if Joseph had simply said, “It was just an odd dream?”