Historical Cultural Context
Honoring God’s Will
Betrothal And Marriage
It would be wrong to consider betrothal as similar to our idea of engagement before marriage. Betrothal was the initial phase of the marriage process in which prospective spouses (commonly first cousins, see Gen 24:4; Gen 28:20) were set apart for each other.
Though a betrothed couple did not live together, a formal divorce was required to break the public establishment of the betrothal. Sex with a betrothed woman was considered adultery (Dt 22:23-24).
In the ancient Mediterranean world, marriages were arranged by parents to join extended families and not individuals. The bride did not expect love, companionship, or comfort. In this rigidly gender-divided world, men and women had very little contact. Both partners realized that their union was arranged for the political or economic advantage of their families.
The entire marriage process is a ritualized removal of a woman from her family. The groom’s father offers gifts or services to the bride’s father to win the wife he wants for his son. The bride’s father makes the final decision.
The women of both families negotiate the contract to be certain neither family is shortchanged, but the patriarch of each family ratifies the contract publicly. When the groom takes the bride into his home, the marriage process is completed (see Mt 25:1-12).
Given the very nosey nature of Mediterranean village life, the separation of men from women, and the fact that the betrothed couple were not yet living together, Joseph may have been among the last to learn of Mary’s pregnancy. Women would have noticed that she was not participating in their obligatory monthly ritual purification.
The honor code of the Mediterranean world demands that no one take what properly belongs to another. Mary’s child is not Joseph’s, so he hesitates to take it. If he doesn’t act quickly, he will be shamed.
By law, Joseph is entitled to return Mary to her father and expose her to death. Num 5:11-31 describes the ordeal Mary would have to undergo. But Joseph is an honorable man and determines to divorce her leniently.
His sense of honor hopes that the rightful father will seize this opportunity to claim the child and marry Mary. In all of his decision, Joseph acts very honorably.
The Will Of God
Our Mediterranean ancestors in the faith generally tried to live by the will of God. But how did God make his will known and how did people learn it?
Ordinary folk had to rely on ordinary means. The prophet Joel (Jl 2:28) reports a proverb that captures a basic Mediterranean belief: “Old men dream dreams, young men see visions.”
That Joseph (Mt 1:20-21; Mt 2:13, 19) and the astrologers (Mt 2:12) learn God’s will in a dream is not only the ordinary way of learning God’s will but also an allusion to their age. (Yet remember that fewer than 5 percent of the population lived to the age of thirty!)
God personally announces to Joseph the gender of the child (a highly prized male is a special gift of God in this culture) and assigns his name (Jesus).
This fact immediately immerses Jesus in honor far surpassing human calculation and further enhances Joseph’s honorable reputation, for God would not honor a shameful person.
In an effort to contemporize the biblical record, some modern preachers speak of Mary as a pregnant, unwed, teenage girl and describe Jesus’ family as homeless.
These clever descriptions are ill-suited to Mediterranean culture and are unfair to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.
While the circumstances and embarrassment of Mary’s predicament look similar to American experiences, the consequences in her culture are radically different.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to find out more.
**From Saint Louis University