Only after careful consideration had Joseph decided to remarry. He had managed to keep his family together after the death of his wife, but neither he nor well-meaning relatives could take the place of mother to his strapping sons and maturing daughters.
At first adrift, his life shattered, Joseph had longed for the wife of his youth.
It was not that his life was empty. At home the girls tended the fire, ground grain, washed clothes, and prepared the family's simple food.
He had taught his boys to saw and smooth planks, to cut mortises, to drill with an auger; they could now begin to fill the orders that came to the shop.
Yes, life was full, but not complete. Joseph missed the companionship of a wife and gradually acknowledged that he should look for someone suitable. It would not be an easy task. Nazareth was small and the girls of marriageable age so young.
The woman he sought must be mature, capable of stepping into a crowded house of independent young people. He would be wiser to remain a widower than to choose a maiden unable to cope.
Into his consciousness, like a seed dropped by a bird that flashes by, had come the thought of Mary. He had known her since she'd played with a toy carved in his shop.
Occasionally he passed her in the noisy streets, where she stepped aside, balancing a water jug, while he and his sons maneuvered a large house beam. She sometimes stopped at the shop to order a bushel or a stool.
Joseph knew that Mary was very spiritual, carefully instructed in the law and prophecies. He saw her at every synagogue service. Her head bowed, she listened reverently from the women's section. Like him, Mary eagerly awaited the coming Messiah, soon to reign on David's throne.
And so it was that Joseph had decided to speak with Mary's parents concerning the betrothal.
With pride Joseph remembered how the men had pressed around to congratulate him after the engagement had been announced in the synagogue.
Later, well-wishers had come to Mary's home where she sat, surrounded by other young women, her unbound hair a sign of her maidenhood.
The wedding might be as much as a year in the future, but the betrothal ceremony that would bind them legally as husband and wife would take place in three weeks.
On the betrothal day Mary's humble home, freshly whitewashed, was fragrant with the scent of dampened olive leaves and wildflowers. In the lamps burned the finest oil.
It delighted Joseph to see Mary's surprise as practical gifts of cloth, jugs, baskets, and numerous housekeeping tools were laid at her feet. Both laughed at the lavish compliments paid by each guest.
With love Joseph had presented the marriage fee, also handing Mary his girdle as a token of his covenant. Then he gave presents to Mary's father, her mother, and to Mary herself.
Before the rabbi Joseph vowed to work for Mary, to honor her as Jewish law required, and to make his property hers. When the children had been called forward for treats of nuts and cakes, Joseph had taken the betrothal veil and draped the face of his bride-to-be. These were simple yet meaningful acts, for they symbolized that Mary belonged to him and had kept herself pure.
And yet, not long after the betrothal, Joseph had a terrible shock.
Pure? Impossible that she who. had caused love to warm his life again could now be the source of his deepest torment! Lovely memories seemed to have no relevance to the harsh reality of the present.
"I am with child, Joseph," she had confided to him on that warm night as they stood in the olive grove.
Her manner had been confident, even joyous, as she repeated the incredible news brought by Gabriel. Only her eyes betrayed fear—fear of his reaction? fear of rejection? fear of the unknown?
The choices were too extreme: to doubt Mary and consider her an adulteress, or to believe her and consider her a chosen vessel.
If, indeed, Mary bore another man's child, there could be a public trial, with stoning the punishment for her guilt or a forced marriage in the case of rape.
"Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her" (Prov. 31:10, 11).
Open, believing, Mary had come to him with her momentous secret. He had no reason to think that she had been unfaithful.
But could he accept the fact that his espoused had conceived of the Holy Ghost and would give birth to the Son of God? Yes, Joseph looked for the Messiah, but not to be born to a peasant maid in the insignificant town of Nazareth. Whether God was the father or not, the whole affair cast a shadow on their relationship. How gossiping tongues would fly with speculations about Mary's condition!
What of his reputation as a strict ob server of the laws of Moses and of rabbinical traditions? Joseph must think of his children too. How could he answer their questions about neighbors' insinuations? He refused to be shamed by something in which he'd had no part!
Repeatedly he pitted these arguments against each other, wrestling to discover what was just. Sometimes he could be totally objective, judging as if Mary were any young woman in disgrace.
Other times Joseph seemed to be fighting his inner self. The days of turmoil had left him emotionally drained.
If he took Mary as his wife, his acceptance of this pregnancy would be presumed. If he did not, what was the worst that could happen? Mary would bear and raise a child alone. Was that necessarily bad? Perhaps God the Father wished His Son to be brought up as an only child. What mere man could presume to be father to a divine son?
This son should be the firstborn, not a younger brother to bossy stepbrothers and teasing stepsisters. God would care for Mary and the child.
Before falling into a deep sleep, Joseph reached a decision. He would divorce Mary quietly, privately, stating that she did not please him. There would be no questions asked.
"But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
"And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
"Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying.
"Behold a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us" (Matt. 1:20-23).
God with us! Personal involvement in God's plan may cost man sacrifice and suffering, even as divine involvement in man's salvation cost God His best.
We are not expected to accept God's working without questions. But into our limited answers and faulty conclusions He thrusts a further revelation of truth. Then the only acceptable response is quick obedience.
"Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife" (verse 24).
This article originally appeared in the Lake Union Herald, December 20, 1977. Used by permission.