18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Translation: But the origin of Jesus Christ was this: When his mother Mary was asked in marriage to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child out of the Holy Spirit. But Joseph, her husband, being just and not wanting to make her a public example, had decided to release her secretly. But when he considered these things, behold!, and angel of the Lord was made manifest to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for that which has been brought forth in her is out of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." But all this had come to be so that what had been spoken of the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, "Behold, a virgin will be with child and will brihg forth a son and they will call his name Emmanuel," which, translated, is, "God with us." And Joseph, being raised from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and he took his wife, and he did not know her until of her was brought forth a son and he called his name Jesus.
Background and situation: Matthew's opens his gospel with Jesus' "genealogy." I put "genealogy" in quotes because this is not Jesus' real genealogy, but rather a theological statement in the form of one. For example, Matthew lists 42 generations, which is six blocks of seven names. The 7th "age"--the one of completion and wholeness--is about to begin.
Secondly, the list of names in Matthew's geneaology includes the names of five women. Matthew likes to do things in "fives." There are five sections of Matthew's gospel, for example, symbolic of the five books of Moses. In Matthew's Christmas story, there are five Old Testament citations, five dreams, five scriptural fulfillments, and five uses of the word "Messiah." Matthew likes "fives" because he is presenting Jesus as the "new Moses."
Including women in a geneaology was unusual. Yet, Matthew's list includes Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, "the wife of Uriah" (Bathsheba), and Mary. It is a checkered lot. Tamar and Rahab were prostitutes, Ruth a seductress, Bathsheba an adulteress. Rahab and Ruth were also foreigners. Mary herself would be accused of sexual impropriety.
The text has no parallels, and is, therefore, Special Matthew.
The Genesis of Jesus:
But the origin of Jesus Christ was this: When his mother Mary was asked in marriage to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child out of the Holy Spirit. But Joseph, her husband, being just and not wanting to make her a public example, had decided to release her secretly. But when he considered these things, behold!, and angel of the Lord was made manifest to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for that which has been brought forth in her is out of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
Literally, the first line reads: "The genesis of Jesus Christ was this." Matthew is drawing on the name of Moses' first book, drawing a link between the "genesis" of the creation, and the "genesis" of Christ, the new creation.
Engagement in those days was, you might say, "virtual marriage." The couple would be considered to be married, but were not yet living together. The length of this engagement would be influenced by the amount of dowry to be paid to the family for the wife, and also by the length of time it took the groom to make suitable living arrangements for he and his wife.
Mary turns up pregnant, which creates a crisis in their relationship. Who is the father? You wonder why Matthew chose to tell us that part. Luke tells his entire Christmas story without mentioning the questionable paternity of Jesus. Was Matthew dealing with an early rumor, one that asserted Mary was raped by a Roman soldier? (The Roman writer, Celsus, later asserted this c. AD 150, and used Matthew's gospel a source.)
Roman soldiers had likely swept through Nazareth upon the death of Herod in 4 BC. When Herod died, there were uprisings all through the land of Israel. Rome had to bring three Legions from Syria to suppress all the revolts. This would have involved about 20,000 soldiers. (The soldiers were stationed in Syria to counter a major empire to the east, Parthia.) One of the revolts was in Sepphoris, only a few miles from Nazareth. The Roman Army destroyed the city.
Matthew presents Joseph as a "just" (dikaios) man. This is a tremendous accolade, coming from Matthew, for whom dikaios is a major category. He did not want to expose Mary to public ridicule and "decided to release her (apolusai) secretly."
One wonders about this. Apolusai may mean divorce, but it seems unlikely that such a thing could be done "secretly" in a small town. It could mean that Joseph was sending Mary away to have the baby. Even that, however, wouldn't have really solved the problem. In any case, the sense of the text seems to be that Joseph was trying to handle the situation with minimal damage to anyone's reputation--his, and Mary's as well.
This represents a new idea of "just." Joseph is not wanting Mary to be held up as a public example (deigmatisai). Technically speaking, Mary could have been stoned to death, as could the father of the child, if known. Strict adherence to the law was, in some peoples' minds, the very definition of "justice." Strictly speaking, under the law, Mary dies.
But Joseph is portrayed as elevating compassion--concern about disgrace for Mary--above strict adherence to the law. This pre-figures the "new justice"--compassion over "religion"--that will be taught by Jesus himself later in Matthew. Jesus will quote Hosea twice in Matthew, both times the same citation: "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" (9:13, 12:7). I desire compassion, in other words, and not the religious act.
In verse 19, the NRSV has: "...just when he (Joseph) had resolved to do this..." An alternate translation of the word enthumethentos would read this way: "...as he was deliberating about this..." In other words, his mind was not "resolved" at all. He was pondering, reflecting, thinking, mulling over this difficult situation.
Joseph's pondering is in verse 19. His deliberations are framed by two mentions of the Holy Spirit, one in verse 18, another in verse 20. These mentions of the Spirit frame Joseph's muddled situation described in verse 19. Might we say that, even in his doubts and ponderings, Joseph is held in the Spirit?
The angel intervenes by addressing Joseph as "Son of David." This is the sixth mention of "David" in Matthew's gospel, and we've only gone 20 verses! David was the "messiah" figure par excellance. He was the great king who had defeated Israel's enemies, and ushered in a great "golden age." For Matthew, not only is Jesus the "new Moses." He is also the "new David."
The angel encourages Joseph not to be afraid. Mary "will bear (texatai) a son." The root word is tipto, a word whose primary meaning is to bring forth fruit from a seed. The idea of "bearing fruit" is of major importance throughout Matthew's gospel. "Beware of false prophets," Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount (7: 16). How will you know if they are a false prophet? "By their fruits"--by what they do, by what they bring forth. Here, Mary brings forth the fruit of Jesus.
The angels tells Joseph that the child is to be named "Jesus"--"Yeshua" actually, which is "Joshua," which means "he will save." The name recalls the great leader, Joshua, who had led the people across the Jordan into the Promised Land.
This new Joshua will save "his people" from their sins. A major theme of Matthew is the problem of unbelief in Israel, the main subject, in fact, of Matthew's third major section of his gospel. Nevertheless, despite their sins, Jesus will save "his people." Matthew follows with the first of five Old Testament citations:
But all this had come to be so that what had been spoken of the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, "Behold, a virgin will be with child and will brihg forth a son and they will call his name Emmanuel," which, translated, is, "God with us."
Matthew must have been using the Septuagint--the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. (The Septuagint version of Isaiah 7: 14 uses "virgin," but the original Hebrew does not.) Isaiah was referring to a "young woman" who was already pregnant during the reign of King Ahaz, who was, at the time, dealing with a twin threat from Aram and Remaliah.
"Behold, the young woman is with child," says Isaiah. By the time this child is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, Isaiah continues, the land in front of the two enemies of Ahaz will be deserted. Isaiah was not predicting the future, in other words, but speaking to the immediate situation facing King Ahaz in the 8th century BC.
Here's a telling difference between the NRSV translation and that of the New International Version (NIV). The NRSV supplies "is" which is not present in the Hebrew--"the young woman is with child"--while the more conservative NIV has "the young woman will be with child." (Is it just me, or is the NIV always careful not to upset the sensibilities of the pious who want to see Isaiah as foretelling the future, even though he clearly wasn't?)
In verse 23, we are given another name the child--"Emmanuel" is added to "Joshua." The latter will be the child's personal name, and the former might be thought of as his ruling title: "God with us." When the book of Matthew closes, Jesus will say, "I am with you always" (28:20).
In fact, the phrase is ego meth hemone eimi. Note that the "with you" (meth hemone) is placed between egoand eimi. Ego eimi is the divine name (in Greek) and would normally be held together. That Matthew breaks apart the divine name in order to insert "with you" in the middle is a way of saying that God's people are held intimately within the very life and identity of God.
And Joseph, being raised from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and he took his wife, and he did not know her until of her was brought forth a son and he called his name Jesus.
As mentioned, this is the first of five dreams in Matthew's Christmas story. In the case of Joseph, it also recalls that earlier dreamer, Joseph, son of Jacob, who interpreted dreams for Pharoah in Egypt. Joseph, the "just" man, does as he was told, married Mary, and named the new baby Jesus. In those days, it was the father's perogative to name the child. In naming Jesus, Joseph is "owning" the child and accepting responsibility for him.
Image: St. Joseph the Worker, Museum of the San Fernando Valley