Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Gospel Coalition on December 24, 2014.
The New Testament starts with the story of two pregnancies. Disgrace is part of each of them. In one case, disgrace is removed; in the other, disgrace is imposed. But in each, we see miraculous demonstrations of God’s amazing grace in offering salvation to all men.
First, there’s Elizabeth, the wife of the priest Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25). Though “advanced in years” she became pregnant through God’s miraculous intervention. Her son became John the Baptist.
Understandably, Elizabeth was thrilled. To have a baby after years, perhaps decades, of resigning herself to never becoming a mother would make any woman rejoice. She also could rejoice in knowing her husband’s disappointment at not being a father would become a faded memory.
But part of Elizabeth’s joy was related to the shame attendant to childlessness in the Jewish culture of her time.
Shame of Childlessness
The matriarch Rachel was so pained by not having born a child that she said to her husband Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die” (Gen. 30:1). New Testament theologian John Byron writes, “Socially, the position of the childless woman in the Hebrew Bible is ranked among the despised, the poor, the helpless, the widow (Job 24:21) and contrasted with the mother who is blessed, joyful, and rich in children.”
The husband was not without his own pain, and even perceived religious failure. He had not been “fruitful” or “multiplied” (Gen. 1:28, 35:11). “While childlessness was perceived as a grave misfortune for both men and women," Jewish scholar Judith R. Baskin writes, "a male’s failure to generate offspring violated a legal obligation, since men alone were obligated to have children.”
This is the context of Elizabeth proclaiming that by virtue of having a baby, the Lord had removed “my disgrace among men” (Luke 1:25). She felt she had failed her husband, a man of prominence whose duty to help Israel flourish through having offspring had not been fulfilled. So, in Elizabeth’s case, a disgrace had been lifted. In the words of the David, God had turned her “mourning into dancing” (Ps. 30:11).
Then there’s Mary, the mother of Jesus. In her case, disgrace was imposed. She was to become an unwed mother.
She was “betrothed” to Joseph (Luke 1:27), a legally binding commitment to live with a man and create a family with him once proper preparation (sometimes lasting more than a year) had been made. During this time, however, the legal commitment was not consummated sexually. As the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia described it, “The term ‘betrothal’ in Jewish law must not be understood in its modern sense; that is, the agreement of a man and a woman to marry, by which the parties are not, however, definitely bound, but which may be broken or dissolved without formal divorce. Betrothal or engagement such as this is not known either to the Bible or to the Talmud.”
Joseph wasn’t quite sure what to do with the news that his betrothed, virgin wife was pregnant. Being “a righteous man,” he understood the Torah’s condemnation of adultery as sin (Deut. 22:20-24), but as a loving almost-husband, he didn’t want to see Mary exposed to public humiliation, to see her “put to shame” (Matt. 1:19).
The Greek term for “put to shame” or “disgraced” means literally “to make an example.” The idea is that were Joseph to divorce Mary, he would have been holding her out as an example of an adulteress and probably not only ruined her chance of ever marrying but also condemned her to a life of isolation and possible impoverishment. Not knowing what to do, as a man of honor and of love, Joseph “resolved to ‘send her away’”—to annul their marriage commitment—“quietly.”
Then, as recorded by Matthew:
[A]n angel of the Lord appeared to (Joseph) in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son; and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a son; and he called his name Jesus. (1:20-25)
Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” A righteous man, indeed: like the Son to whom he would be an adoptive father, Joseph “despised the shame” (Heb. 12: 2) attendant to complete obedience to the will of God. Unconcerned with the scorn of ignorant, hostile people, Joseph’s focus on complete submission to God’s will and plan deserves not only our admiration but also our emulation.
The misunderstanding of at least some of his religious leaders and social peers mattered as nothing to Joseph compared to being an instrument of realizing God’s plan for human salvation. And how could Mary not love a man who embraced, deliberately and without hesitation, profound social disapproval out of love for his Lord and his soon to-be wife?
Elizabeth’s disgrace was removed; Mary’s was placed upon her. But both knew the joy of something far richer: the grace of a loving, present, and personal God, which each of them embraced without vacillation. Elizabeth and Mary, Zechariah and Joseph, enfolded eagerly in the love of the Father. And the world has never been the same.