By Joseph R. Dodson
“… being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame”
Matthew 1:18–25; 2:13–15
There’s a palpable pressure that comes with being a parent. The great responsibility to meet your children’s needs and train them up in the way they should go can be paralyzing. I feel this burden enough with my first four children; the pressure is compounded—for various reasons—with my fifth child, whom we adopted. With Caspian, I constantly doubt myself. My fears are increased by the disapproving looks and whispers I get from my small-town neighbors whenever they hear my black son call me “dad.” Am I a good dad to Caspian? When he grows up will he appreciate or, heaven forbid, resent me? Who do I need to be in order to be the father he never had?
The other day Caspian was outside playing with two friends. When I went to check on them, they gave me toothy grins and a reassuring thumbs up. As I walked back to the house, I heard Caspian whisper to them, “He’s the best dad ever.” I broke down in tears. I knew it wasn’t true—I am far from being a great dad—but that he believed those words choked me up.
I wonder if Joseph ever struggled with similar doubts as he raised his adopted child: Jesus Immanuel Christ. When Joseph woke up from his prophetic dream, did he feel like he stumbled out of the gate for discounting Mary’s claims about the angel of the Lord and the overshadowing of the Spirit? Did he worry about how, as a refugee, he was going to physically protect and spiritually nurture his family when they got to Egypt—so far from his own home, religious base, and family support system? Did he have to strain to make a living in a foreign land, since he couldn’t depend any longer on his usual Aramaic-speaking customers in Nazareth? 1 Moreover, how did Joseph take 12-year-old Jesus’ question at the Temple? “Didn’t you all know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). 2
While Mary was treasuring these things in her heart (Luke 2:51), did that question cut Joseph to the core? Was this yet another reminder to Joseph that he was indeed not the father? In an honor-shame culture, did Joseph ever want to respond to the scarlet letter people pinned on him and Mary amid rumors of an illegitimate son?
My most burning question, however, concerns how much influence Joseph had on Jesus. I wish the evangelists would have told us, but they obviously had more pressing details to relate. Yet do the Gospel authors give us any information to help fill in some of the gaps? According to Bruce W. Longenecker in Hearing the Silence, they do. 3 Drawing from literary theorists, Longenecker discusses how “under-narrated” plotlines serve to mobilize our imagination, so that we ask probing questions and try to connect missing links in the narrative.
One scholar Longenecker cites is Kathy Reiko Maxwell, who argues that ancient authors intentionally left out details in their stories to encourage something called “gap reading.” 4 Gap reading occurs when a curious audience seeks to piece together bits and fragments from sparse details in the story, especially from information they find elsewhere in the book.
While the lack of details about Joseph’s influence on Jesus may not qualify as a proper gap, Matthew does leave hints that demonstrate the legacy Joseph passed down to his adopted son. For example, although Jesus was not from the bloodline of Joseph, Matthew gives us Joseph’s genealogy to demonstrate that Joseph was “a son of David,” 5 the messianic title handed down to Jesus as the Gospel proceeds. 6 But of course, whereas Joseph was a son of David, the Gospel will go on to show that Jesus is the Son of David—the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matt 16:16).
Gap reading points to another example of the connection between Joseph’s calling and that of his adopted son. When Matthew narrates how Joseph saves his family by going to Egypt, he intends to remind us of Joseph the patriarch—who also heard from the Lord in dreams and whose exile in Egypt also saved his family (Israel) from famine and death. If Joseph’s story takes us back to Genesis, then it sets up Jesus’ ministry as a new exodus and Jesus himself as a new kind of Moses who will save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21).7
My favorite resonance centers on Matthew’s first description of Joseph. Although he was a righteous man, faithful to the law, he didn’t want to shame Mary openly (Matt 1:19). To be sure, if Joseph were a law-abiding citizen, he would have obeyed Moses’ command in Deuteronomy 24:1, which calls for a husband to write a certificate of divorce to an indecent woman and then send her on her way (see also Matt 5:31; 19:7). Joseph was in a tough place. If he refused to expose his fiancée as an adulteress, then it would seem to everyone else that he must have been the one who impregnated her in the first place. He would have lost his reputation as a righteous man.8
In his embarrassment, it would have been natural for Joseph to consider treating Mary like the woman caught in adultery in John 8—to condemn her and cast the first stone. What’s more, in addition to publicly shaming Mary, it was within Joseph’s legal rights to impound her dowry and demand a refund for the bride price he had paid.9 Without anyone begrudging him, Joseph could have then gone on to find another wife, one without so much baggage.
But as you know, after that fateful dream, Joseph obeyed the angel of the Lord. And in the face of the damning derision he would catch, Joseph agreed to take Mary as his wife and her son as his own child.10 Therefore, if we read in the gaps, we find a significant legacy Joseph left his son. For the sake of God’s kingdom and the salvation of his people, Joseph, a righteous man, likely spent the rest of his days enduring the unjust condemnation of raising a bastard, a child born in sin. Until his death, he had to grimace every time he heard Jesus derided by his Nazarene neighbors as “the carpenter’s son.”11
If this gap reading is correct, Joseph taught Jesus much more than woodworking. He modeled for his adopted son how, for God’s glory, he must drink the Father’s cup no matter the cost and choke it down despite its bitter shame.
Nevertheless, just as God took away Jesus’ shame by raising him from the dead, I cannot help but believe he will do the same for Joseph on the day of resurrection. How awesome will it be when Jesus, the Lord of all, honors his adopted father, who suffered so much for him and yet refused to deny his son before men (Matt 10:33)? I bet Joseph will break down in tears when his adopted son says to him before his heavenly Father and all humankind, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Blessed are you whom people said all kinds of evil against because of me.”
Maybe then Jesus will even add: “You’re the best (earthly) dad, ever.”
1 I suppose it depends on how much gold the magi gave (Matt 2:11). Did Joseph have to stay up late, after Mary and Jesus had long retired, so he could learn enough Egyptian and Greek to do business?
2My translation and italics. The Greek text reveals that Jesus is asking this question to more than one person.
3 Bruce W. Longenecker, Hearing the Silence (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).
4 Kathy Reiko Maxwell, Hearing Between the Lines (London: T&T Clark, 2010). Maxwell writes: “At times authors use silence to speak to their audience. A gap, an unexpected hole in the presentation, impels the audience to do more than merely receive the story. If not provided in the narrative, the missing information must come from elsewhere. The silence of intentional gaps invites the audience to speak, to engage the unfolding rhetoric, and to become part of the stories themselves” (1).
5 Also note that the angel of the Lord addresses Joseph as “son of David” (Matt 1:20).
6 See Matt 9:27, 12:23, 15:22, 20:30-31, 21:9, 22:42–43. 7 This image underscores Matthew’s comment about Jesus’ exile fulfilling the Scripture: “Out of Egypt, I called my Son” (2:15). For more on this, see Joseph R. Dodson, “The Good News of Jesus” in Reading Scripture Deeply (eds. Rick Hess and Randy Richards, 2015), 61–72.
8 Although the command to expel a woman did not include public shaming, it did not preclude it either. In light of the Joseph typology, it is worth noting how Judah treated Tamar—the first woman mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy. In Genesis 38, when Judah finds out Tamar is pregnant, he sentences her to public execution. She is spared, of course, when Judah discovers that he is the father of the child.
9 Later Jewish law demanded a man charge his wife immediately if she was not a virgin. Roman law accused any man who failed to do so to be a pimp who was exploiting his wife as a prostitute. For more on these matters and the background of Matthew 1, see Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) and Craig A. Evans, Matthew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
10 And, like the Joseph in Genesis, Joseph of Nazareth exerted extraordinary sexual restraint. “He did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son” (Matt 1:25; my translation).
11 See Matt 13:55 (italics mine).