Summary: What can we learn from the bibles Silent Witness?
Joseph @ the school Nativity - illustration
At the school nativity play a boy desperately wanted to play the role of Joseph. He didn't get the part – he was to be the inn keeper. Instead the part of Joseph went to his greatest rival in the class. He was very upset. All through rehearsals he was planning what he would do. On the first night of the play when Joseph knocked on the door, the Inn keeper opened it. Joseph asked if they had any room. The Inn keeper said “Of course, there's plenty of room, come in.”. There was a bit of a silence and you could see the confusion on Joseph's face. Finally he moved forward, looked in the Inn and said to the Inn keeper “Never mind, no wife of mine is staying in a dump like this!” Turning to Mary he said “Let's see what's round the back”. The nativity was back on track.
Introduction to Joseph
It seems that there's something special about playing Joseph. Sure, Joseph's part is probably seen as the staring role for boys in the Nativity play. Although he is in many of the scenes, his only lines are with the Inn keeper – who has a similar number of lines.
Perhaps there is something deeper going on. Could it be that playing the role of the father is still seen as important. Perhaps it is something about being the father of God that makes the role attractive.
Last week Jo and I went to the Baptists Church to see Star Wise – the story of the Visit of the Magi set in a science fiction genre. There the star ship captain, who represented the modern sceptic, got to play hide and seek with the baby Jesus. Quite a lot was made of it, as it was the point in the play where the Captain began to change his mind. What was it like to play with Jesus as a toddler?
I'm sure Joseph enjoyed playing with the young Jesus as much as any father enjoys playing with his son. The reality though is that in the Bible Joseph has a bit part. The focus is on Jesus – exactly where it should be, of course. Joseph doesn't have a single word recorded. He is a silent witness but we do have a record of his actions. As my mother constantly reminded me “Actions speak louder than words”. Lets take a look through Joseph's story to see what he did, to see what we can learn about him and from him.
1st Century BC marriage
When we meet Joseph he is already being described as Mary's husband. In the first century BC the Jewish marriage process was nothing like ours. The system was based on arranged marriages. Joseph's parents and Mary's parents would have made an arrangement between them. When Joseph was old enough and established enough to support a wife the wedding would take place. This would probably have been the first time the couple met. After the wedding celebration the couple would return to their own homes. The period known as betrothal had started. During this time Joseph and Mary would get to know each other and begin the process of learning to live together. From the point of view of the Jewish law they were married. If anything happened – such as the death of one of them the other would be a widow, or widower. The divorce law also applied.
One of the most serious sins a woman could commit was to be involved with another man during the time of betrothal. The penalty was death by stoning.
If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the girl because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.
We have no idea what Joseph thought of Mary – we cannot tell whether he was in love, or whether he even liked her, but the reading tells us that he was a righteous man (v19). So when it became clear to him that his wife was pregnant and he knew that he couldn't be the father, he knew he must end the marriage.
Joseph was righteous – meaning that he kept the Law as best he could. So he could not complete the betrothal. He could not be married to someone who did not start out a virgin, and especially someone in a relationship with another man.
By Jesus time the practice of stoning was not so common, although it was still an option. He could have called for the full force of the law to be applied and made a public denouncement of Mary. Being righteous does not mean you lack compassion. Psalm 112:4 links the characteristics together: