The other Joseph

While I am studying Joseph the son of Jacob in the book of Genesis, I am also learning about Joseph the husband of Mary in the book of Matthew. Beyond sharing a name, the two men are similar in other ways as participants in God’s plan to save his people from their enemies.

Mary’s husband is called a carpenter in English translations of the Bible, but “builder” might be a better translation of his occupation. Joseph probably worked more with stone than with wood, and he helped to build more houses and public buildings than tables and chairs. When the wise men came with gifts for the King of the Jews, they found Jesus and his mother in a house in Bethlehem–Joseph may have built that house during the infancy of Jesus. Joseph appears to have died between the childhood of Jesus (He is mentioned when Jesus is twelve.) and the preaching career of Jesus when Jesus was in his thirties. From the cross, Jesus assigned his mother to the care of his disciple John, something he would not have done if Joseph were still alive.

Early Christian traditions assign later ages to both Mary and Joseph, but those traditions are based more on Greek attitudes about marriage and family than on life for Palestinian Jews of the first century. Mary was probably fifteen years old, give or take a year, when an angel appeared to her and told her that she would have a son without the help of a man. Joseph was probably about thirty then. Women were married when they were in their teens, but men did not marry until they were successful in their careers and could support families. Nevertheless, marriages were based on love as well as convenience. Mary and Joseph were betrothed, which was a formal agreement between Joseph and Mary’s parents (but which probably included Mary’s acceptance and approval of Joseph as a husband). The wedding had not yet happened, but no doubt wedding plans were being made. On the day of the wedding, the groom with his friends would come to the house of the bride and escort the bride and her family and friends to his house. The celebration of the event included food and drink, music and dancing, and much merry-making. Communities looked forward to the joy of a wedding, and many wedding celebrations lasted several days.

Imagine Joseph’s consternation when he learned that Mary was going to give birth to a baby. Joseph knew that he was not the baby’s father. He had the right to demand that Mary be punished, even that she be stoned to death by the community for the sin of adultery. No doubt he found it impossible to believe Mary’s story of an announcement by an angel about her son. Being a righteous man, Joseph did not want Mary killed, so he was planning a quiet divorce–breaking the betrothal before the wedding could take place–when an angel spoke to him and explained the situation to him.

When Joseph accepted his pregnant bride, the whole town of Nazareth must have smiled and winked. Joseph was acting like a man who had been enjoying the privileges of a husband before the wedding day. That happened from time to time, then as now, and people knew that such behavior was sinful, but they tended to regard it as a natural fault rather than a grave sin. To protect Mary and her child, Joseph was willing to allow the appearance of guilt in his life, even though he had done nothing that was wrong. Joseph son of Jacob, in Egypt, was also treated as guilty though he had done nothing wrong. His master’s wife accused Joseph of attempted rape, and for that he was thrown into prison. Both men named Joseph became pictures of Jesus, who also was punished for sins he did not commit, taking guilt upon himself that others would be spared and protected.

In Egypt, Joseph son of Jacob was able to care for his father and brothers and their families. He became their protector during the famine and kept them safe from hunger. In Nazareth and Bethlehem, Joseph Mary’s husband was also a protector. Mary and her son would have been vulnerable to poverty and starvation had Joseph not taken her as his wife. In this way also, both men are pictures of Jesus who protects his people in a world that is filled with dangers.

Finally, dreams are important to both men. While he was a teen, Joseph son of Jacob had dreams that foretold the future, picturing how his family would bow down to him and honor him. Later, he interpreted the dreams of others. Joseph Mary’s husband heard from angels in a series of dreams that guided him to make Mary his wife, to take her to Egypt to protect the life of Jesus, and to return to the Promised Land after the death of King Herod. Not every dream is a message from God. Most of our dreams are shaped either by our hopes or by our fears. When he chooses, though, God can communicate through dreams, as he did in the case of both men named Joseph. Before accepting a dream as a message from God, though, the dreamer should first compare that dream to the message of God recorded in the Bible. If the dream contradicts the Bible in any way, the dream is just a dream and no message from God. J.

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