Matthew 1: 18-24
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Matthew’s birth narrative is extremely short and yet, in its efficiency, it links us into the story of God’s people and introduces us to a pattern for what the life of the people of God will look like in this new age. Most Christians know the two highpoints of the church year are Christmas and Holy Week which form the bookends of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The ancient creeds of the church (the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed) spend almost all their words about Jesus focused on the birth, death and resurrection. Matthew simply tells us, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” And then in seven short, but packed verses, takes us from the announcement of Jesus’ impending birth to the birth and naming of this child from the Holy Spirit.
In contrast to the Lukan birth narratives which primarily focus in on Mary and her relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary is in the background of Matthew’s narrative. Mary is found to be with child, Matthew informs us that it is from the Holy Spirit, but Joseph initially is placed in the position of having to decide about his betrothed who is suddenly pregnant. Marriages were negotiated between families and during this time men typically were significantly older than women when they married so they could establish a household. The natural assumption by Joseph is that Mary has had intimate relations with another man during this time of betrothal. The legal penalty for her in the law is outlined in Deuteronomy 22: 24-27
23 If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, 24 you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
25 But if the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 You shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has not committed an offense punishable by death, because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor. 27 Since he found her in the open country, the engaged woman may have cried for help, but there was no one to rescue her.
The practice of stoning was probably no longer used for adultery in the time of Mary and Joseph, but Mary’s public humiliation by Joseph could place her in a vulnerable state and labeled as a sinner and an outcast from the community that she knew. Joseph is called a righteous man, and in the character of Joseph we are exposed for to what righteousness will look like for Matthew’s gospel. Instead of righteousness being a strict adherence to the letter of the law it will be a far more gracious understanding of righteousness. Joseph’s resolution to quietly end the engagement and not expose Mary to public shaming is viewed as a model for the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven. Joseph must resolve how he will interpret the commands of the law in his life and he becomes one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness and will be filled, who shows mercy and will have mercy shown to him as Jesus will later say in the Beatitudes.
Joseph’s namesake in the Hebrew Scriptures is a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, so it is fitting that Jesus’ father receives his revelations in dreams. The angel of the Lord, the mouthpiece of God in much of the Hebrew Scriptures, appears to Joseph in his dreams and reveals the origin of Mary’s child and tells Joseph to take her as his wife. The only speaker in this narrative is the angel of the Lord, Joseph acts in obedience to the angel’s words in his dream but we never hear him utter a word in the gospel. Two additional times Joseph will receive guidance from the angel of God in a dream and all three times Joseph will obediently follow the instructions of the dreams. Joseph will take Mary as his wife, Mary will bear their son, Joseph will name him, and both the angel and scripture will speak about this child to be born.
The name Jesus, or Iesous in Greek, is the adaptation of the name rendered Joshua in the Hebrew Scriptures. The name means ‘God saves’ and like the original Joshua who brought the people of Israel into the promised land, Jesus will be responsible for bringing about the kingdom of heaven. The act of Joseph naming Jesus also means that Joseph acknowledges the child as his own responsibility and a part of his own household. But beyond the name of Jesus, we also are told by the angel what his role will be: “He will save his people from their sins.”
The role of Jesus, to save the people from their sins, has received multiple interpretations in recent scholarship. Most people have traditionally linked this to the forgiveness of sins that a person would receive in confession and that Jesus’ ministry is primarily concerned with wiping away the individual transgressions they have made. Yet, I think that Matthew is connecting this vocation with the story of the people of Israel. As Richard B. Hays can state:
Here we see an example of the hermeneutical significance of the genealogy: it compels the reader to understand the “sins” from which God’s people are saved are not merely the petty individual transgressions of a scrupulous legal code but rather the national sins of injustice and idolatry that finally led to the collapse of the Davidic monarchy and the Babylonian captivity. The Messiah, in Matthew’s narrative world, is precisely the one who saves his people from the consequences of their sins by closing the chapter of powerlessness and deprivation that began with the “deportation to Babylon.” The opening chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is strongly consonant with interpretations of Jesus’ work as bringing about an end of Israel’s exile. (Hays, 2016, p. 111)
Just as the first Joshua would close the chapter of the people’s wandering in the wilderness after their liberation from Egypt and initiate their dwelling in the promised land, so Jesus closes the chapter of powerlessness and deprivation that occurred in the exile. Something new is happening in Jesus’ birth.
The other voice that speaks, in addition to the angel of the Lord, is the voice of scripture and here the quotation comes from Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
Matthew quotes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, where the Hebrew ‘almah is rendered parthenos in Greek. Unfortunately, any translation into another language locks in certain meanings and while ‘almah is a broader term that includes young women of marriageable age and one gloss of the meaning could be a virgin, in the Greek the term parthenos means virgin. This caused quite a stir in the history of bible translations and is one of the reasons there was a break between RSV (now NRSV) and NIV (and later TNIV) translations. When the RSV translated Isaiah 7:14 as ‘young woman’ many conservative Christian traditions demanded a translation that was harmonious and the NIV translation was formed to address this need.
Aside from the disagreement over a word requiring a new translation is the broader question about how Matthew interprets scripture and how we are to interpret scripture. The language of scripture has been the language of faith and Matthew more than any other gospel will introduce short passages of scripture that prefigure what he and other followers of Christ have experienced in Jesus of Nazareth. This is one of ten times that Matthew will introduce a quotation with, “this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.”
In the original context of Isaiah 7, King Ahaz of Judah is fearful on an attack by King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel who have formed an alliance against Judah. The Lord speaks to Ahaz through Isaiah to reassure him and gives him permission to ask for a sign that the words of the Lord will come to pass. When Ahaz refuses to put the Lord to the test, the sign he is given is that a young woman will become pregnant, name her child Immanuel (God with us) and before the child is old enough to choose right from wrong Israel and Aram will no longer be a threat. Matthew applies this verse to his own time, and this is not an unusual practice in scripture-the texts seem to have a certain elasticity in how they were used throughout the bible-and hears in this verse not only a prefiguring of Jesus’ birth by Mary by the Holy Spirit but also a critical idea of who Jesus is, Emmanuel, an idea so important he needs to emphasize it by translating it, ‘God is with us.’
While Mark’s gospel throughout its narrative will allude to the mysterious way that in Jesus, somehow, we are experiencing the presence of God, Matthew will, from the very beginning of the gospel, emphasize that Jesus linkage to several title associated with God throughout the scriptures. The idea that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, forms a bookend of the gospel of Matthew. In this first chapter we hear Jesus given this title in a quotation from Isaiah and in the final chapter the resurrected Christ will remind his disciples that,” I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Somehow Jesus will embody God’s presence among the disciples and in taking the language of the scriptures and the presence of the angel of the Lord we are quickly introduced to who this child will be.
Joseph never speaks, but he does obey. Joseph dreams and acts upon those dreams. He will embody a righteousness that is both obedient and merciful. Joseph takes Mary as his wife but waits to consummate the marriage until the birth of Jesus. Joseph gives Jesus the name he receives from the angel of the Lord in the dream, but unlike Luke we don’t hear any stories of shepherd and angels from the night of his birth, instead Matthew has set the scene with the announcement and scripture of who this child is and we end this chapter waiting to see how the world will receive him.