[December 23, 2007] The first verse of the Gospel according to Matthew introduces Jesus as the Messiah depicted and foretold by the Old Testament: “the son of David and the son of Abraham.” He is the son of David not only in terms of descent but also as the ‘anti-type’ King David, the fulfillment of David as a ‘type’ or pattern. The son of David was—literally—Solomon, and he too is a picture of Christ, for he was presented as a man of peace and wisdom, who also built the temple, the house of God. Jesus is also the son of Abraham as his ‘anti-type’ as well. Abraham was a model of faith and dependence on God. His son was Isaac, also a picture of Christ, for he offered himself up as a sacrifice unto death and afterwards inherited all that was his father’s. Jesus is like both David and Abraham, and by the time the Gospel according to Matthew reaches its conclusion, Jesus will also have fulfilled the types of Isaac and Solomon.
The purpose of the genealogy in the beginning of Matthew is to show Jesus’ legal descent from David through Joseph, and the purpose of the remainder of the chapter is to show how Jesus became Joseph’s son, through adoption. Jesus’ entitlement to David’s lineage is important, for in His coming as God he fulfills the pattern and the promise of David and becomes the fulfillment of Solomon. If we would know and understand our Lord Jesus, we need to take this connection to heart.
The story that begins in verse 18 takes place in Nazareth, in the region of Galilee about an equal distance from the Lake of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea. It was a town terraced on a hillside overlooking a fertile basin surrounded by other hills and towns. An international road passed through the town bringing news of the outside world. The priests also collected there on their way to Jerusalem to fulfill their course (see Luke 1:8). Though the region had been devastated centuries before by the Assyrian invasion, it was now thriving, and the town of Nazareth was not isolated either from the rest of the world or from the religious life of Jerusalem.
Here is where Mary and Joseph became ‘engaged,’ or rather, ‘betrothed.’ Joseph was of Davidic descent, as the genealogy shows us, and Mary was of Davidic descent on her father’s side, of Levitical descent on her mother’s side (she was cousin to Elizabeth). Mary’s parents would have to have had some status for such a union to have taken place, but we know that Mary and Joseph were both quite poor at the time of Jesus’ birth from the offering of turtledoves which were made at the time of Mary’s purification. How they came into such poverty we do not know. Traditionally all Jewish young people were expected to marry: young men between the age of sixteen and twenty and women as young as thirteen.
They became betrothed in the presence of witnesses either by solemn word of mouth with a piece of money (or its equivalent) given as pledge, or by writing. This prescribed formality was concluded with a benediction over a cup of wine, praising God for the gift of marriage, with the wine being then tasted by the betrothed in turn. From that moment, any breach of their betrothal would be treated as adultery, and the betrothal could only be annulled by a formal divorce, even though it might be many months before they actually married. Mary and Joseph and their families probably celebrated the occasion with a feast.
In the Gospel according to Luke, we are told how Gabriel appeared to Mary and Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. There were several miraculous pregnancies in the Old Testament, such as Sarah’s and Hannah’s, but never a virgin birth.
Without telling Joseph, Mary left Nazareth to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea, to the south. She did not return until after three months. When she returned, she revealed to Joseph that she was pregnant.
Presumably she told him what had happened, but he did not accept her word since he was determined to divorce her. He had the right to take her before a court of justice, but “being righteous” he did not want to shame her. He wanted to divorce her as quietly as possible by handing her a letter of divorce privately in the presence of two witnesses. We can only imagine the pain that the two of them must have felt.
However, before he could carry out this intention, he was visited by an angel in a dream. When Gabriel visited Mary, she was awake. Nevertheless, dreams are also one of the ways in which God communicates with us. In both the Old and New Testament, and in most of the history of the church, people took dreams very seriously. If we take our dreams more seriously, God might be able to use them to communicate with us.
In the dream, Joseph was addressed as the son of David. This is, after all, what is at stake for the Child. Joseph is told, as the son of David, to take Mary as his wife (to go ahead and marry her). In doing so, her Child would become his. Why should he do this? Because “that which has been begotten in her is” not of another man but “of the Holy Spirit.” That is, she is pregnant by the direct action of God; indeed, God is the Father. For according to the medical science of the day, the child is the product of the father, not the mother. According to modern medical science, virgin birth is possible but in almost all cases the child is a girl. In rare instances the child might be a boy, but with genetic deficiencies. It is almost impossible for the child to be a normal boy, that is, when all the genetic material is coming from the mother, but scientifically it is possible. In any case, the child was brought into being by the sanctifying action of the Holy Spirit out of Mary’s genetic substance, the unborn child being God in person from His very conception, as Mary’s natural child. (This answers the question in the abortion debate, “When does the fetus become a person?”)
“You shall call His name Jesus.” By giving Jesus His name, Joseph made Jesus his own Child, an heir to the Davidic lineage. Jesus (Yehoshua or Yeshua in Hebrew, the same as Joshua) means ‘Yhwh (the Lord) is salvation’ or ‘Yhwh the Savior,’ on the one hand signifying Emmanuel— meaning ‘God with us’— and on the other hand signifying that “He will save His people from their sins.” Not only is God everywhere, but God is personally present with His people by the human presence of Jesus. Though many Jews looked to the Messiah to deliver them from their social, economic and political troubles, some rabbis (Rabbi Berakhyah and Rabbi Levi in particular) spoke of the Messiah as “He who makes expiation for the sins of Israel” and that God provides this man as the atonement. Isaiah spoke of the Servant of the Lord offering Himself as atonement for the people, cleansing them so that the promise of the kingdom could be fulfilled.
In the passage from Isaiah (7:14) that Matthew quotes, “virgin” is often translated as a ‘young woman.’ However, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament that predates Jesus (called the Septuagint), the word is translated ‘virgin’ (showing that this is how the word was understood by the Jews). In Isaiah the prophecy has a double portent. On the one hand it seems to speak of a young woman in King Ahaz’s household who would bear a child. By the time the child had grown to two years old, “the land whose two kings you dread will be abandoned,” referring to the king of the northern kingdom of Israel and the king of Aram, the country around Damascus. On the other hand, it points beyond this to the Messiah in the distant future.
When Joseph awoke from his sleep, he married Mary. Even though Luke 2:5 still speaks of them as betrothed, it is unlikely that they had not married, since they could hardly have traveled to Bethlehem together without being married, and it is hard to imagine that Joseph (“being righteous”) would have allowed Mary the indignity of having a child out of wedlock. For their own protection, Joseph would have married Mary with all speed. (Luke 2:5 probably only means that they had not yet had sex.)
Though the marriage would not have been entirely regular (there would have been no evidence of her virginity after the chuppah), certain conventions would have been followed. They would have married on a Wednesday afternoon. They would have written a marriage contract, stipulating the dowry provided by Mary’s father (which would then belong to Mary, Joseph adding half more to it), and stating Joseph’s promise “to please, to honor, to nourish, and to care for her, as is the manner of Israel” to which Mary would have had to give her consent, and it would have been signed by two witnesses.
Joseph would then lead Mary, who would now be covered with a bridal veil, to his house, preceded by musicians and people waving palm and myrtle branches. Grain and money would have been thrown about and anyone who met the procession would have been expected to join it.
When they arrived at Joseph’s house, there would have been gift giving by guests and the ‘friend of the bridegroom’ would have taken up a cup of blessing and given a benediction to the couple before Mary was handed over to Joseph and they were escorted to the bridal chamber, her hair still tied up and her head still covered. How Mary and Joseph would have handled this aspect of the wedding, we do not know, since “he did not know her until she bore a son.” (How many other people knew of their situation?) In any case, the wedding festivities that followed usually lasted a week.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the city of David.
“And he [Joseph] called His name Jesus.” This would have taken place at Jesus’ circumcision in Bethlehem (Luke 2:21). The circumcision and naming took place on the morning of the eighth day of the male child’s life and was usually a joyous occasion. This is when the yoke of the Law, with all the duties and privileges it entails, was laid upon the child. The father basically acted as a priest offering the child sacrificially to God out of gratitude and love. A benediction was spoken before the cutting, then the cutting took place, and then another prayer was said over a cup of wine in which the child received his name. In Jesus’ case, it went something like this: “Our God, and the God of our fathers, raise up this Child to His father and mother and let His name be called in Israel Jesus, the son of Joseph …” etc.
From this point on, in the Gospel of Matthew, He who came into the world as ‘God with us’ is Jesus, the Son of David, the Messiah promised to Israel. Hallelujah!
I took most of the geographical and historical details from Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah(Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993; first published in 1883) and his Sketches of Jewish Social Life(Hendrickson Publishers, 1994; first published in 1876). Brad H. Young, in Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus(Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), cautions on page 6 that these works “are out of date and full of incorrect views of Judaism.” I have not verified independently the information I have relayed in this exposition.