Although he’s not the biological father, he’s every bit part of this family.
This is Chapter, Verse, and Season: a lectionary podcast from Yale Bible Study. Join us each week as two Yale Divinity School professors look at an upcoming text from the Revised Common Lectionary.
This episode, we have Felicity Harley-McGowan, Research Associate and Lecturer, and Bruce Gordon, Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History.
They’re discussing Matthew 1:18-25, which is appointed for the Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year A. Here’s the text.
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 pregnant from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. But 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had given birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.
I love the strength with which Joseph comes forward out of this passage in a way that we don’t have the opportunity to see in the other gospels. And in reading the passage again, was quite ashamed of myself in forgetting that Joseph has his own angelic annunciation. And it’s a beautiful moment to revisit this and be walked through this dream with him. You know, the passage begins in quite a prosaic fashion. In my mind, Joseph comes forward in such a strong and almost vigorous way in a passage that also is pleasing in a sense that it returns Joseph to a prominence that, I think, if we consider the artistic representations over time. To be sure there are representations of this dream, and very early on, even by the fifth century in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, very prominently. Joseph in the mosaic is shown standing and the angel addressing him, and it’s adjacent, the scene that’s adjacent to Mary having her own annunciation. So, it’s a very prominent his and her kind of situation. And yet somehow, we over time lost this moment. In my experience, I guess. Other people may have other experiences of the way in which the passage has been part of their own imagination of the conception and birth of Jesus.
But it’s a great thing for me to revisit this and to have the imagery emerge afresh in my mind of Joseph’s strength, and also in this different social context where he is the father, he is the husband of Mary. There’s not this question of as we have in some cultural or social contexts
that if you’re not the biological father, then you’re somehow of lesser status. Joseph is here in the picture, in the frame in a very strong way that I found quite striking in revisiting the passage.
Yes. There’s a lot about Joseph here which is interesting. And for me, reading this passage again, I picked up on a few things that I’d never really thought of before. Yes, we know that he decides to divorce quietly. And then the dream reveals to him what he could not have known.
It strikes me that it’s a very sympathetic portrayal of Joseph. He starts out the passage as the wronged person. He’s in a way, he’s got this sort of moral high ground here because he’s been wronged. He could actually make a scene out of this. We don’t, I don’t know exactly what could have happened if he exposed what would appear to be Mary’s adulterous relations, or whatever people might have taken it to be. And yet he chooses a different path, and he does so before he knows the story. So, he comes across as a good guy here…
It’s, in a way then not surprising that as the story unfolds with the dream, he’s very much made part of the story. He’s a person who is righteous before he’s even had the visitation of the angel and much of Mary, you know, why is Mary favored. But the dream is fascinating. I was really struck this time by how much he’s told.
He’s told virtually everything in the dream about what has taken place with Mary. How she has conceived, and that he will have a son. And so, there’s this kind of reveal party of the story. He’s told what’s going to happen, and he’s even told what they’re to name this child and what the name is going to mean.
And so, almost he’s given more information than Mary is in the annunciation. He’s given the complete story, and so just as you say, he’s brought into this, he’s made a central figure of this. Although he’s not the biological father, he’s every bit part of this family and that he’s part of the revelation, and he’s going to play a role in it. And I think it’s also important that this is a dream, you know, that the angel doesn’t just appear to him during the day. He appears, or she appears in a dream. And it makes us think of how important dreams are in the Bible. We often think of dreams as being a time of irrationality or even of fear. And certainly, the history of dreams is that
they were a time that could be moments of great anxiety. But the Bible reminds us that they are also moments when God speaks to us. And God has chosen at various points through the Bible to use dreams. And certainly, in my own period, in the 16th and 17th century, there was deep interest in the way in which God spoke through dreams. Something that is very much revived later with the rise of psychiatry. But certainly, dreams were not seen as simply irrational, although they could be a time in which darker forces could be at play. But there was a belief that the Bible shows to us that dreams can be a moment of epiphany, of revelation.
That’s right. That’s what I was just thinking. There’s a vehicle of revelation. And I think that the
force of that here, with this repetition of call, you know, we have three times here. You call him
Jesus, his name, the thrice element has an additional force, in a sense, of not directing Joseph against his will into a line of action that will happen, but it seems of this very steady unraveling of what will happen and of Joseph’s pivotal role in this. The dream does operate at an important level to underscore that.
But there’s also a kind of open-endedness to this dream moment because he’s told about Mary and what has happened and that this is actually a wondrous thing. He’s told that there will be this child where we will hear about the language that we’re so familiar with at Christmas, of Emmanuel, the God with us. But the story stops there. He’s not told what’s going to happen with his son or what’s going to unfold. That story is still to come. This notion of that God is with us, but it’s kind of left there. Stay tuned for what’s going to happen because that’s not revealed at
No. It’s his character, in a sense, and obedience.
Yeah. He knows that there will be this very special child, but he’s not told what that child will do.
Thanks for listening. And thank you, Professors Harley and Gordon, for your insight on Matthew.
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