Joseph: Man of mercy

Joseph knew Jewish law, and the law said his wife deserved to be punished.

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Several years ago, I was inspired to dig deeper into what we know about Joseph, the mysterious man who was Jesus’ earthly father and who would have had a great influence in Jesus’ early life. As I studied, Matthew 1:19 provided an aha moment:Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”

In this context, being “faithful to the law” means a number of things.

First, it means that Joseph knew the Jewish laws about relationships. When a husband suspected his wife of cheating, he turned to Numbers 5. Here the protocol is spelled out, and it’s a humiliating, disciplinary procedure performed by a priest where the woman “drinks the bitter waters that bring the curse,” basically subjecting herself to the consequences of her sin, assuming she has sinned.

After a priest carried out the lawful “bitter waters” procedure, it was not uncommon for the discipline to get out of hand with the other villagers bringing their own “discipline.” The sinful woman was usually brought into a public place and made into an object lesson. Her clothes were torn, her hair let down, her jewelry removed and passersby—especially other women and younger girls—were encouraged to stare. Hence the phrase “public disgrace” in Matthew 1:19.

Being “faithful to the law” also meant that Joseph knew the second half of Deuteronomy 22 which explains the consequence of infidelity—death by stoning.

Here’s where it gets heavy. Since Mary was pregnant, Joseph couldn’t just apply the rules about “the bitter waters,” because those were for suspected unfaithfulness. Joseph didn’t just suspect her of unfaithfulness. She was pregnant—all suspicions were confirmed. Being “faithful to the law” meant that as a pious Jew, Joseph was expected to carry out the law and hand his bride over to be publicly disgraced and stoned to death.

In my opinion, Joseph’s tentative decision to “divorce her quietly” is one of the best unsung acts of mercy in the Bible. Mary had broken his heart. He had every right to be furious, humiliated and outraged. Joseph had every reason to seek revenge for Mary’s unfaithfulness.

He was lawfully justified in stoning her to death, and yet two things stayed his hand— mercy and unconditional love. He was in love with his bride, and his love was without conditions. Even though he knew she’d sinned against him, Joseph chose to extend mercy to Mary and to spare her life because he loved her.

Imagine Joseph’s relief when the angel tells him to take Mary as his wife because the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The original Greek implies that Joseph immediately went out and brought Mary home as his bride.

Does this remind you of someone?

“I will make you my wife forever, showing you righteousness and justice, unfailing love and compassion. I will be faithful to you and make you mine, and you will finally know me as the Lord.” These are the words of the Lord recorded by the prophet Hosea in chapter 2:19-20.

Does someone in your life need mercy from you today? Is there a more a grace-filled way for you to resolve a situation? My prayer is that we can follow the examples of both Jesus’ earthly father and his Heavenly Father and be a people of “unfailing love and compassion” this holiday season.



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