Maybe Joseph wondered why God seemed to be throwing him a curve ball. Having sought the Lord about marrying Mary, now he was seeking the Lord about a divorce. To understand his predicament beyond what seemed to be betrayal of the heart, some cultural background is beneficial.
Mary had agreed to be betrothed to Joseph, her older cousin. From traditional writings, Mary supposedly was orphaned. Established in life, Joseph could provide for Mary, a young lady between 14 to 16 years of age. While he could have arranged for her to marry a suitable younger man, he must have known that the Lord was calling him to marry her. She could have declined, but understood God’s will for her life. In Middle Eastern culture, marrying paternal cousins was considered an honorable choice. Their betrothal would have been culturally acceptable and even honorable.
A betrothal was a period of time when a man and a woman pledged themselves to marriage. Along with their families, they entered into a written agreement of marriage called a ketubah. Each party contributed financially. While the groom’s father gave a mohar, a bridal price or ransom, to the father of the bride, the groom gave a matttan, a gift, to the bride, and the bride’s father provided her with a shiluhim, a dowry, for her future security. If she died before having children, the dowry was returned to her father; otherwise, her children inherited it. To terminate a betrothal required going through a legal divorce. Ideally, this marriage contract protected both parties. Though the betrothal period was flexible, the average time was a year. Until they united in marriage, celibacy was expected during the betrothal period. Marriage was a covenant sealed by the purity of the partners on their marriage night.
If the woman broke the agreement by infidelity during the betrothal period, the man could seek a divorce, recover the mohar and keep her shiluhim by proving her unfaithfulness in a public trial. Standing trial before the Sanhedrin, she would be exposed before all. The priest would tear her clothing to reveal her bosom, undo her hair, and tie an Egyptian robe above her chest. If the man chose a private trial, he would still need two witness to sign and validate the divorce. So, complete secrecy of the situation would be near impossible.
When wrestling with circumstances, we ask questions and desire a remedy. Definitely, Joseph had struggled with how best to handle the situation concerning his betrothed, who had become pregnant. Because she had negated her betrothal duties, the righteous thing required by the Law would be for him to divorce her. Yet compassionate, he could not see her humiliated in Jerusalem by obtaining a public divorce. Surely, Joseph wondered what had happened and was shocked to hear her story of becoming pregnant from the Holy Spirit. Unwavering with her tale, he probably thought she feared to divulge the truth. Sweet Mary! Her heart had always been to love the Lord! Who would have taken advantage of her or perhaps convinced her that he was too old.
On the other hand, Mary had had a spiritual encounter that left her physically pregnant. How would Joseph handle the news that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit? Would he believe her? If not, how would he respond? Would he file for public divorce? Could the presence of the Lord in her life give her a peace that defied her circumstances?
Once we understand the cultural significance, Joseph’s anguish and fear holds a deeper meaning. Now, what was he to do?
Copyright by Beth Piepenburg, 2013. All rights reserved.