Joseph, the Just and Merciful Divorcer

This past Sunday we heard a sermon featuring the life of Joseph, the earthly (legal but not biological) father of Jesus. The speaker reminded us that “God fulfills his promises through the obedience of ordinary people like Joseph and you.” The speaker gave numerous examples from Joseph’s life but I would like to consider just one: how Joseph planned to divorce Mary after he discovered she was pregnant before they were married.

Here is the brief Scriptural description of this event:

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. (Matt. 1:18-19 ESV)

To understand this account well, we need to step back in time and understand what betrothal meant to Jews in their cultural context.

Betrothal was far more serious than our modern engagements are. It is tragic today when someone breaks an engagement, but it is not a crime. Hearts are broken, but laws are not. As an ESV footnote says, “betrothed” meant “legally pledge to be married.” Commentator R. T. France describes betrothal like this:

Though the couple were not yet living together, it was a binding contract entered into before witnesses which could be terminated only by death (which would leave a woman a “widow”) or by divorce as if for a full marriage…; sexual infidelity during the engagement would be a basis for such divorce. About a year after the engagement… the woman (then normally about thirteen or fourteen) would leave her father’s house and go live with the husband in a public ceremony [a wedding].[1]

The language of Matthew 1:19 reflects the legal seriousness of Jewish betrothal, calling Joseph Mary’s “husband” and saying he planned to “divorce” her—terms we would never use today of an engaged couple.

The seriousness of violating a betrothal is also seen in the Law of Moses, which prescribes the same punishment—death—for sexual unfaithfulness whether it happened during betrothal or after the wedding ceremony:[2]

“If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.

“If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deut. 22:22-24)

Notice that the betrothed woman is called a “wife,” just as Matthew calls Joseph Mary’s “husband.”

The law of Moses also included a test for a husband who, on his wedding day, suspected his bride had been unfaithful prior to their wedding (Deut. 22:13-21). Discovering such unfaithfulness was so important to Jews that they scheduled their wedding dates around this concern. Theodore Mackin, S. J. explains:

It was the custom, when the bride was neither a widow nor a divorced woman, for the marriage to take place on the fourth day of the week, so that if the husband found her not a virgin, he could accuse her before the court, which held session only on the fifth day.[3]

Commentator William F. Luck sums up Jewish law well: “In short, betrothal unfaithfulness is, according to the Old Testament, a kind of adultery.”[4]

(Bunny trail: These realities are one reason why modern debates about the “betrothal view” of Jesus’ exception clause are often misguided. Ancient Jews would not have understood our insistence on distinguishing between adultery during betrothal versus adultery after a wedding.)

Back to poor Joseph, who discovered that his dear “wife” Mary was already “with child.” How could she have committed such a terrible betrayal? And what on earth was he to do now?

Image from LumoProject.com, available through FreeBibleImages.org.

Well, Joseph was “just,” we are told (Matt. 1:19). Or, as the NIV puts it, he “was faithful to the law.” According to the original intent of that law, Mary should now be stoned. According to first century Jewish practice, after Roman law had abolished Jewish death penalties, “divorce was the normal course.”[5] The normal course, then would have been for Joseph to make a public spectacle of Mary, to “put her to shame” by putting her on trial for adultery.

But we are told Joseph was not only “just” but also “unwilling to put her to shame.” In other words, though he was just, his justice was tempered with mercy. Therefore, he “resolved to divorce her quietly.”

The story, as I’ve told it so far, is fairly well known, though I’ve added important historical details. But what I’m about to share includes something I never thought about until after church this past Sunday, as I discussed the sermon with the speaker.

As best we know, there were several kinds of divorce available in Jewish courts in Jesus’ day. On the one hand, there were divorces that required specific due cause. In limited cases, a wife was probably able to force her husband to grant a divorce on the grounds that he was not providing for her (Ex. 21:11). More commonly, a husband could charge his wife with adultery. Such divorces required public proof of wrong-doing, leading to shameful humiliation for the one convicted.

But another kind of divorce was also available and widely used—the any-cause divorce based on a distorted reading of Deuteronomy 24:1. This is the divorce Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:31): “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’” In such a divorce case, a man did not need to prove his wife did anything wrong. The only requirement was that he follow the proper procedures for giving her a divorce certificate, rather than just abandoning her. There was little a wife could do to prevent such a divorce, but at least it resulted in less public humiliation for her.

Jesus directly addressed both kinds of divorces in his debate with the Pharisees in Matthew 19, referencing both in his summary proclamation: “I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9). On the one hand, Jesus strongly condemned the any-cause divorce, calling such divorce (normally followed by remarriage) “adultery.” But he gave an exception, recognizing that divorce (normally followed by remarriage) based on due cause, on the grounds of “sexual immorality,” is not adultery.

Back to Joseph. Mary had obviously committed adultery. As David Instone-Brewer says, “It was considered very suspect when a man refused to divorce his unfaithful wife, which is why Joseph is described as righteous for wanting to divorce Mary, who appeared to be unfaithful.”[6] There was no escaping it: according to Jewish expectations and the law of Moses, Joseph had to divorce Mary.

But which kind of divorce should Joseph pursue?

The obvious answer, and the one that fit his sense of justice, was to charge Mary with adultery. The evidence (Mary’s womb) was obvious and growing day by day, so winning his divorce would not be difficult.

Image from LumoProject.com, available through FreeBibleImages.org.

But Joseph was also merciful, so he chose the option that would be easier on Mary. He chose, it appears, to take her before an any-cause divorce court, where he could “divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19) without proving her guilty and shaming her publicly. This sort of divorce “required no public trial, no evidence brought by witnesses, and very little fuss.”[7]

In other words–and here’s the observation that was new to me this year–Joseph chose the kind of divorce that his own Son, years later, would call “adultery.” Rather than choose the kind of divorce that would leave him looking like the innocent victim he understood himself to be, he chose the kind of divorce that would leave him appearing guilty according the One who held to a higher standard of justice than the flawed reasoning of the Jewish teachers of the law.

Joseph decided that, rather than prove Mary guilty and himself innocent, he was willing to be accused of callous disregard of his betrothal contract if only he could reduce the public shaming of Mary, his unfaithful “wife.” He would obey the law, but he would obey it in a way that avoided causing unnecessary suffering to others.

Joseph is a wonderful example for us today. No, I’m not saying that a simple cut-and-paste imitation of his actions is always in order, but I believe that his love of both justice and mercy should serve as a guiding light for how we think about betrayal and divorce.

I suspect Joseph’s heart of justice and mercy also helped him accept God’s explanation of what had actually happened to Mary:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20-21).

It is through the obedience of ordinary just and merciful people like Joseph (and you) that God fulfills his promises. May we, too, make way for the coming of the Messiah by how we live our lives, including as we respond to unfaithfulness, perceived or real, in our marriages.

Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. And Merry Christmas!


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[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 50.

[2] If a man violated an unbetrothed woman, on the other hand, he was not executed but only had to pay a bride price and honor her with a proper marriage (assuming her father wanted that to happen). Also, if a betrothed woman was violated in a deserted area where her cries for help could not be heard, she was declared innocent.

[3] Theodore Mackin, S.J., Divorce and Remarriage, Marriage in the Catholic Church, Vol. 2 (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 62.

[4] William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 107. A third edition (2016) is available only on Kindle; the second edition is free online: https://bible.org/series/divorce-and-re-marriage-recovering-biblical-view

[5] France, Matthew, 51.

[6] David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 146.

[7] Instone-Brewer, Divorce, 115.

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