Troublesome Topic: What Were Joseph’s Options?

Matthew 1:19


Moreover, her husband, JOSEPH, being a righteous man, but not willing to expose her publicly, purposed to divorce her secretly.

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But her husband, THE ONE WHO IS INCREASING, being a righteous man, but not willing to expose her to public disgrace, purposed within himself to divorce her without bringing any charges of wrongdoing against her.

His first option was to accuse her of sexual misconduct with another man. Because the betrothed man was already called her husband, her sexual deviance was considered adultery, which would result in both the offenders being stoned, if they could determine who the other man was (Dt 22:22). If she had sexual relations with another man, it was a violation of the “husband’s” authority, therefore he and his father would be in charge of finding evidence to prove it was another man, and present that evidence to the town fathers. If they could lay hands on the girl when she was not guarded by her father, they would likely use any means possible (think torture) to get the truth from her. Then her betrothed husband, acting as the accuser and first witness, would be the first one to throw a stone at each of them. In this scenario, the girl’s father would be seen as the one to violate the betrothal agreement because he did not protect her from other men, therefore, the bride price would have to be returned to the betrothed husband’s father who could use it to secure a different wife for his son.

But if they were unable to find who the man was, the community would still stone the girl – in front of her parents’ house in order to show that the father had not done a good job of training and protecting his daughter (Dt 22:20-21). No one could remove the pile of stones from in front of the parents’ house without becoming defiled by proximity to a dead body.

The preference of the girl’s father would be to prove that it was the betrothed husband who had gotten her pregnant and convince him to follow through with marrying her. If he could prove this, he would not have to return the bride price and his daughter would not be stone. He would suffer some shame, but the betrothed husband would suffer more. Therefore he would be looking for evidence of this very thing which would be convincing to the city fathers. Thus two investigations would be going on simultaneously if the betrothed husband accused her of having sex with another man.

But Joseph had no stomach for this. He never dreamed that Mary would actually be that rebellious and do such a thing. She had never shown any hints of being that kind of girl. There had always been something special about her, or so he thought. He did not want to see her killed and he definitely did not want to take the lead in making that happen. Plus he had no “evidence” he could present of another man in the picture. So he put that option out of his mind as totally unacceptable.

His other two options did not involve making a formal accusation against her. By not making such an accusation, everyone would assume he was the father of this child.

If a betrothed husband got his betrothed wife pregnant before their wedding, the punishment was not explained clearly in the Torah. It became a set of choices involving the two men that shared authority over her, her father and her “husband.” Sex before marriage on the part of the betrothed was a violation of the authority of the girl’s father. Therefore, the silence of the Torah on this point was intended to allow the girl’s father to decide what he wanted done.

The girl’s father had the authority to call off the wedding, but a father would seldom do that because it would be very hard for him to find another husband for his “tainted” daughter.

However, the outcome depended in part on the decision of the betrothed “husband.”

If he was willing to accept the guilt of his act, marry the girl and care for her, the “husband” would have to pay whatever was necessary to satisfy the wrath of her father, and he would be considered irresponsible and undisciplined by the community, which would likely hurt his business dealings.

So his second option was to accept her as his wife, and, by so doing, admit to being the father of this “illegitimate baby.” In his case it meant lie and take the blame.

He could not bring himself to do this either. He did not want a miserable marriage. He did not want their oldest child to be a constant reminder that their marriage started off on the wrong foot. He did not want to constantly wonder if she might do this to him again. Besides that, he tried to follow the Torah faithfully, therefore he wanted a wife that was pure. This option was also unacceptable to him.

His third option was to divorce her “quietly” meaning without public accusations or formal charges. Divorcing her quietly was a way for Joseph to abdicate his authority, meaning that she was now totally under the authority of her father once again. It would be assumed that the young man’s silence in the matter meant that he had gotten her pregnant. It would be seen as trying to back out of the planned marriage after having sexual relations with the girl before the wedding. Since he had violated the betrothal agreement, the bride price would not be returned.

As a consequence he would have to pay whatever the father demanded. He was literally at her father’s mercy, and yet no mercy could be expected. The father could not have the young man killed, but he could make his life miserable for as long as he (the girl’s father) lived. In this situation the amount the girl’s father demanded would be much greater than if the young man agreed to marry her. This fine could be much greater than the amount of the original bride price paid by the young man’s father, possibly double that amount.

How much was a bride price? One source says that, in those days a normal bride-price was often their equivalent to what modern Americans might pay for a house.

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Obviously, the people in the upper class would pay more for a house and for a bride than those of the lower classes. Another way to describe the ancient bride price is in the number of years needed to save that much money. The fact that it often takes us 30 years to pay off a mortgage is irrelevant here. They had fewer expenses than we do, and our mortgages include interest. According to my calculations, it would take between 10 and 20 years for a father to save enough money for a bride price. This penalty by an angry father against a recalcitrant young man would be much more than the average bride price.

Therefore the young man could expect to be weighed down with heavy payments to the girl’s father as long as her father lived.

This would also put a huge strain on the relationship between this young man and his own father. His father had already paid the bride-price at the time of betrothal, so that money was lost. And for what? A few moments of pleasure? All because his son was impatient and could not control himself? His father and his family would also suffer irreparable shame because of what had happened. It was understandable if the father disowned his son over something like this.

It would also ruin his reputation. He would not be able to find work locally and would have to walk to a larger city every day.

To make matters worse, he would not easily find another man to offer his daughter to him in marriage. What father would trust him to keep his clothes on since he has already violated one betrothal agreement?  Therefore he would probably live the rest of his life as a bachelor, and have no children. They could not refuse him an inheritance, except by applying the death penalty which did not fit this situation. But, if he could not find a wife, he could have no children and when he died his land would go to his brothers and their children.

As for the girl, she would live with her mom and dad the rest of their lives and with a brother after that. There was no hope of her father finding another husband for her. Because she had caused them great shame, she would be treated much like a slave.

(The divorce situation only partially applied to Joseph. He was considered the “husband” but he had not yet accepted full responsibility for her; the father still had most of the authority. There was ambiguity in the law granting the girl’s father control over the conditions under which he would allow her back as his full responsibility. The young man could get out of the marriage agreement only if he agreed to meet all the demands of the girl’s father.)

In summary, Joseph was a righteous, upright, Torah-follower. He could not marry a woman who had committed sexual immorality with another man while they were engaged. Yet he did not want to see her stoned, nor was he willing to actually cast that first stone. So he concluded that divorcing her without making any accusations would be the best thing to do even though the price for that decision was extremely high.

The next lesson is: What Was that Place We Usually Call an “Inn”?


1: “divorce her secretly”

In that culture an engagement was serious enough that it required a type of divorce ritual in order to be negated. How could Joseph do this secretly since people knew they were engaged and they could see, or would soon see, that she was pregnant? Besides that, there are no secrets in a small town. What is meant by this statement is that he would not press charges resulting in her being stoned (see full comment below).


Ray VanderLaan in his video series That the World May Know.