Let’s talk about misunderstanding. Who can tell me what an American would understand by the phrase, “It will be difficult.” She would interpret it as, “Yes, we can do that.” Go to Japan however and it means “No, it’s not possible.”
The meaning comes not from the words, but from the culture. When we are reading the Bible we have to be careful not to apply our own cultural interpretations to words and situations. They may have a different meaning in that culture.
Here’s another example. You meet a lady friend you haven’t seen in a while. You want to say something nice, so you say, “You’re looking good, you’ve lost weight.” Now she feels great. Unless she is African. In that case you should say she has put on weight, which means she is physically healthier than before or had a nice holiday. What in Europe would be an insult, in Africa is a compliment.
In Korea, take green and blue for example. The colours of a Korean traffic light are red, amber and blue. Blue, not green. The Zulu people have 39 different words for green. For an Englishman compromise is good, because both parties ‘win’ something. In the USA it has a negative connotation, because both parties ‘lose’ something.
For us here in the International Fellowship, we can never assume that the other person has understood us just because they knew the word we spoke. We need to be alert and make extra effort to ensure understanding. Understanding across time is even harder.
Two thousand years ago in Israel, a woman was usually seen as a possession. That was normal. It was the culture and everyone assumed it was the way things would always be.
Perhaps you can try to imagine how it was. A man would have some goats, some chickens and a woman or two. Perhaps a mother, a wife and some daughters. The women existed for his benefit. They existed to cook, clean, wash, labour in the fields, serve, give pleasure. They married who they were told to marry, and could be sent away if they were unsatisfactory. They didn’t need an education, except to learn how to serve the men.
With the Hebrews, married life was the normal life. The Talmud says, “Any Jew who has not a wife is no man.”
It was regarded as awaiting everyone on reaching maturity.
The ancient Hebrews regarded the family as the social unit. Of the three great events – birth, marriage and death – marriage was regarded as the most important. It led to the gravest tribal and family consequences. If a daughter should prove unsatisfactory to her husband, she would likely be returned to the ancestral home, discarded and discredited. There would be almost inevitably a feeling of injustice, and a sense of mutual irritation between the families. If she failed to pass muster with her mother-in-law she would just as certainly have to go.
It was natural and necessary, therefore, that the selection of the wife and the arrangement of all contractual and financial matters connected with it should be decided upon by the parents of the couple involved. Though the consent of the parties was sometimes sought, the woman was not thought of as having a personal existence at her own disposal. She was simply a passive unit in the family under the protection and supreme control of father or brothers.
Bargaining played a large part in the transaction. The family was a little kingdom and the father was the king, or absolute ruler. The father was God’s representative, and he was simply carrying out God’s purpose in selecting a bride for his son, or giving the bride to be married to the son of another. The young people simply acquiesced, without question or complaint, in what was thus done for them, accepting it as though God had done it directly.
In this world lived a girl called Miriam. She shared all these cultural assumptions. She was young. Maybe she had a quick smile and a cheeky sparkle in her eyes.
Maybe she liked to run around playing with other children when she wasn’t helping her mother. One day the girl became a woman. She had to be married. Miriam was probably 13 or 14 years old.
There was another family with a son. He was probably 18 years old, which the rabbis said was the best age. His name was Joseph. The families negotiated and eventually agreed. The children accepted. There was a ceremony with witnesses and a contract was agreed. All the financial exchanges were completed. They were betrothed. This is the most important part of the marriage. It is the only ceremony. It is absolutely binding.
The actual marriage will be a relatively relaxed affair some months or even years later.
Joseph and Miriam, whom we call Mary, would probably not see each other again until the marriage day. The way out of this contract was death, in which case Mary would officially be a widow, or divorce for adultery.
This was the situation in Matthew 1:18 when Mary shockingly became pregnant.
From our cultural viewpoint, we often miss the seriousness of this situation. Mary, only 13 or 14 years old, could perhaps even be stoned to death.
How did her family feel about the shame? How did his family react to the scandal? What thoughts boiled within Joseph’s mind when he found out?
She had brought great dishonour to their families, and if divorced with a child would struggle to find another husband to care for her.
Joseph could go before a judge and explain the case in public. All the money would be returned to him by her family. He would keep what they had given him. The couple would be divorced. Joseph would retain his good reputation.
There was another way. He could divorce her quietly, in front of two or three witness, with a letter and so spare the public shame.
Matthew says that Joseph was a good man. He decided to take the second route.
Staying betrothed was obviously not an option in his mind. Not in his culture.
But God had other plans, as of course we already know. God sent Joseph a message.
In Greek literature there are many examples of dead people turning up in dreams with messages. This never happens in the Bible. When God sends a messenger in a dream it is always an angel. Joseph is told by an angel to take Mary as his wife. He is also told to name the baby Yeshua, which means ‘God is salvation’. And he is also told that Mary has not committed adultery. She is pregnant by the power of God.
Most men in this situation would not listen to such a dream, but Joseph is obviously not most men. Verse 24 says: “When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.”
Did Joseph argue that he was too young? Did Joseph complain that he didn’t understand why God had to bring such shame on him? In all probability, Joseph was confused. He had faith in God, but the events in which he was involved made no sense.
How do we usually respond when God puts us in a situation that is so totally alien to our way of thinking. Do we respond as this teenager did, with humble obedience? He had to face his family and persuade them. He had to face a hostile society. He had to endure awful personal humiliation.
God calls on each of us to put aside our own understanding, and to forget our culture. God is calling each one of us to trust him when it makes no sense and is bad for our standing in the community.
God needs us to be people after his heart, who trust him absolutely. Then God can do amazing things to save his children from sin. Please don’t limit God with your small mind.
Allow God you use you for his great purposes. Be like Joseph. You don’t need to understand anything except that God has asked you to do it. The hardship you may experience is nothing compared to the blessing he will bring as a result of your faith. Let’s all be like Joseph.