December 4th  … 21  NIGHTS TIL CHRISTMAS




“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.” [Luke 2:4,5 ]

Why does Luke write, “…to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife”— why doesn’t he just say “to be taxed with Mary, his wife, being great with child”? 

Because the word espoused adds so much extra meaning to this passage, that if we will take the time to understand what espousal means in terms of Jewish marriage, we will get a far greater understanding of this account of the familiar  “Christmas Story” in Luke Chapter Two.

You see, Jewish weddings are not like our modern weddings. In our day a man might propose to his bride-to-be, and give her an engagement ring— but then for some reason he or she might change their mind and break off the engagement.  Although in our culture breaking off an engagement is considered rude, it is not a legal matter. You don’t have to get a divorce to break an engagement.

But the Hebrews called their “engagement ceremony” an “espousal”. An espousal was more than just a public announcement that two people  were engaged to marry at some time in the future. An espousal was more than just a verbal promise between two people. To the Jewish people an espousal was a legal matter. In the Jewish culture, a young man would formally espouse a girl to be his wife by the payment of a bride price to the parents of the bride— in the presence of two witnesses— and then he would recite the marriage formula, “Thou art consecrated to me according to the law of Moses and of Israel.”  This legally made the girl his wife— but with a condition. He could not physically consummate the marriage until after the public marriage ceremony— which often occurred much later. Usually the young man would go out and build a house for his intended, and then therewould be the public wedding ceremony. After the Jewish wedding,  the bride and groom would consummate the marriage— and if at that time the groom discovered she had been unfaithful to him (if she was not a virgin) he could legally annul the marriage.

This was the case in this story of Mary and Joseph. Joseph the carpenter had espoused Mary to be his wife. Unfortunately, before the official public wedding ceremony could be arranged,  Mary was found to be pregnant. We know there had not yet been a public marriage ceremony, because if the wedding had already taken place Joseph would not have had to consider annulling the marriage. After all, if she was found to be pregnant after the official ceremony, Joseph would certainly not have raised a fuss then, because he was so willing to not make a fuss before. You see, in a Jewish wedding, the night of the wedding, when the marriage is consummated, if the groom discovers the bride is not a virgin,  he has legal grounds to divorce her, to “put her away” as we read in Matthew 1:19::  “Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily.”   

When did he ponder “putting her way?”  During the time of their espousal, before the actual public wedding.  That’s why it says in Matthew 1:20  But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of  David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy  Ghost.” 

    This means that after he had taken Mary as his espoused wife, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. Joseph had just cause to annul the marriage, to divorce Mary, or as they said it in those days, “put her away.”    But Joseph did not want to “put her away” publically, because he was a kind, just” man (“just” here means honorable, decent)  so he was going to do it “privily”— in private (not in front of everybody).  And while he was pondering on what to do, “while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.  And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.”

Matthew also provides us with an explanation of why God led these two together in such aroundabout way—   “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,  Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” 

And Matthew concludes by telling us what Joseph decided to do: “Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: and knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.” [Matthew 1:20-25]

What is so remarkable about all this is that God was able to have his son born of a virgin, and yet at the same time,  have that virgin protected  and “covered under  the sanctity of marriage”  by a kind,  honourable, decent, Godly man.