Matthew 1 and the Paradox of Incarnation

This is a piece I wrote some time ago, but it seemed fitting with our Christian friends thinking of the birth of Messiah this week.

Now the birth of Yeshua the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Yeshua, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. –Matthew 1:18-25

The story behind Yeshua’s birth is full of human emotion and divine mystery. From Joseph’s quandary to the incarnation’s conundrum, there is more drama here than the terse narrative implies. The biblical writers, from Moses to biblical historians to the evangelists, wrote in a compact style, leaving gaps and ambiguities for the reader’s imagination to fill in. There is a power to this type of narrative that belies its alleged simplicity.
For instance, behind Joseph’s quandary of the scandal of a pregnant fiance lie the unusual customs of second temple marriage. Of these customs, we know a little from references in Hebrew Bible and the Gospels. Later rabbinic regulation likely reflects the same traditions, even if details may have changed by that time.
Malachi 2:14 suggests that part of the process was a declaration or agreement before witnesses. Another part of the process is seen in Matthew 25:1-13, a processional to the wedding feast. The process is delineated with clarity in the Mishnah tractate Ketubot. There are two ceremonies, erusin or betrothal and nissu’in or transferral, that were separated by a period of time.
At the erusin the agreement of marriage was made before witnesses. At nissu’in the groom transferred support of the bride from her parents to himself in a ceremony at the home of his parents. In the time in between, the woman was already considered the wife. This is reflected in Matthew 1:20, where the angel refers to Mary as Joseph’s wife, though they are in between erusin and nissu’in. Mishnah Ketubot 1:5 even suggests that consummating the marriage before nissu’in was permitted in Judea. Raymond Brown suggests that in Galilee the code was stricter and the bride was to be brought to the groom’s parents a virgin (The Birth of the Messiah, p.124).
Thus Joseph’s quandary. His wife, not yet his bride, was pregnant. In Galilee, this was definitely a problem. Yet Joseph was a man of hesed. He wished to spare Mary the shame though, as far as he knew, she had shamed him. In this one act of Joseph’s we see a kind of selflessness that makes us wonder about his character and background. Such righteousness is far from ordinary.
Yet Joseph’s quandary stands beside a deeper conundrum, the seeming irreconcilable contrast between the earthly and heavenly realities. The earthly reality was a teenage wife-to-be, bound by contract, who was in violation of the severest laws of the land. The heavenly reality is stated by Matthew: “she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”
Other mothers had seen their wombs opened by God’s power. No mother had been found to be with child by the Holy Spirit and not my man. The teenage bride-to-be seemingly scandalized her betrothed, yet the heavenly reality was other: she bore God in the flesh. Just as he would always appear to be merely human, so Mary’s shame would appear to be real. Just as he would always be actually divine and human, so Mary’s glory would be for those who would see with faith and not just with the eyes.
So this story, poignant on a human level, is profound on the divine level. This is how the incarnation must be. The infinite cannot dwell in the finite without scandal and controversy. God is not so easily understood and much the less believed. Yet, like Joseph who showed hesed in a time of potential shame, so should we endure the shame of faith in our incarnate Messiah.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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