Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. – Matthew 1:18-19, ESV
For many of us, these are familiar words. If you are like me, you have heard them read literally hundreds of times at various Christmas services and Christmas Bible studies. However, I wonder if you have ever paused to think what these verses say about divorce. I know I never did until recently. And what I discovered goes against much of what was assumed in the evangelical Christian culture of my upbringing.
Before continuing, I need to make a brief exegetical comment. I want to note that I am drawing conclusions about divorce as that is the term used in verse 19 for Joseph deciding to end his betrothal to Mary. The word here is the same word in Greek used in Matthew 19 where Jesus teaches on divorce. In other words, I feel I have a Biblical warrant to draw conclusions on divorce from these verses as these verses are talking about divorce as per the language used. Betrothal–thereby–was culturally more sacred and committed than our current cultural view of engagement as demonstrated by the terms used in these verses (e.g. “husband,” “divorce,” etc.).
Let’s review the scene:
Mary is pregnant. That is how the scene opens. And the child is not Joseph’s. Joseph, understanding how babies are naturally made, assumes Mary has been unfaithful and decides to divorce her. It takes a supernatural intervention to halt this decision and convince Joseph of Mary’s innocence in the matter. She did not cheat on him.
From this situation, I contend we can draw conclusions about how God views faithful spouses confronted with the reality of infidelity. This is true even though Mary was faithful and was with child by the Holy Spirit. We still see how a faithful spouse is treated when he is convinced–from plain, natural evidence–that his partner was unfaithful.
Here are the lessons I draw from this passage:
1. Joseph is called a “just” or “righteous” (per NRSV) man in deciding to divorce.
This is how Scripture characterizes a man deciding to divorce in the face of what naturally would have been unfaithfulness. Notice what adjectives are conspicuously absent in describing a man deciding to divorce after apparent infidelity:
Joseph is not called:
- or “bitter”
to name just a few frequent flyers leveled at faithful spouses deciding to divorce after discovering infidelity.
He is called “righteous!”
2. Divorce is the assumed response of a godly, faithful partner here and not reconciliation!
Remember that the book of Hosea is now hundreds of years old by the time of these verses’ events. If it was normative for faithful, Jewish spouses to take back unfaithful partners, one would expect a negative adjective describing Joseph in his resolve to divorce Mary and not an endorsement of his character in making such a decision. Clearly, Hosea’s actions towards unfaithful Gomer were an exception and not the modeled rule for dealing with infidelity. Thus, divorce seems to be the assumed course of action for a man faithfully following God at this time in Israel. This alone ought to give Biblical Christians pause in abusing Hosea to suggest an assumed marital reconciliation following adultery. Apparently, the just person responds by divorcing the cheater (albeit in a non-flagrant way, i.e. quietly).
3. Righteousness matters more than keeping the marriage intact.
The only reason that Joseph remains married to Mary is that he believes the Angel of the Lord (see Matthew 1:20ff). He believes Mary is innocent and no breach of character has taken place. In other words, the marriage is only preserved through assurances that Mary is a righteous woman and with child by God.
A conclusion from this part of story is recognizing what is prioritized: preserving the marital union takes second place to ensuring righteousness.
In my experience (and that of other faithful spouses I know), this is not the order of priority for many evangelical pastors and Christian counselors. Righteousness (e.g. repentance from adultery) takes second place to avoiding divorce following discovery of infidelity. Talk about polar opposites on how faithful spouses are counseled today!
Let’s keep these lessons in mind as we celebrate the coming of our Lord this Christmas season. May it give us all a pause before judging the “poor divorced people” in our congregations. Their divorce status may be a reflection of their good character rather than any shortcomings or flaws.