The story of the annunciation to Joseph in the gospel of Matthew, Matthew 1:18-25, is our text for Sunday, December 13 (Second Sunday in Advent). [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are some notes on that text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This text comes immediately after the text we studied last week, Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, Christ.
It is the prelude to Matthew’s nativity story, the story of the arrival of the wise men from the east, the flight into Egypt, and the slaughter of the innocents, all of which is in Matthew 2.
We might watch for things we know about Matthew, in particular that he paints a picture of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, and of Israel’s messianic expectation, against a backdrop of scripture and in particular of wisdom as divine instruction.
Probably no surprise, this text is the Revised Common Lectionary’s gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A, when the gospel readings are mostly drawn from Matthew.
Also probably no surprise, Isaiah 7:10-16, the original of “the young woman/virgin is with child and shall bear a son …,” is the Old Testament reading for that day. This kind of juxtaposition will have lured many church-goers, including their pastors, into the trap of thinking that the whole Old Testament is nothing more than a kind of long introduction to the gospels. Let’s not fall for that, OK?
CLOSER READING: The word translated “birth” in verse 18 is the same word (“genesis”) that’s translated “genealogy” in verse 1, just in a different syntactical position. There is clearly something we’d properly call a genealogy in verses 2-17, and verses 18-24 clearly narrate events that lead up to the actual physical birth of the infant Jesus, so it makes complete sense to translate this one word in these two distinct ways.
On the other hand, the position and repetition of the word raises this thought: could Matthew be calling his whole gospel the “book of the beginning of Jesus …” (v1), making it a “genesis” that doesn’t conclude until the beginning of the “exodus” into all the world of Jesus’s disciples in Matthew 28:19-20? That seems at least possible.
There’s a remarkable pattern of passive and active verbs in this text. In v18, Mary is the subject of two passive constructions: she is betrothed to Joseph, and then she is found with child. In vv 19-20, Joseph is described as being righteous/just, and unwilling to make an example or show of Mary, and then was decided on a plan, with the result that thoughts were pondered by him. Mary in particular is on the receiving end of the verbs here, and the text treats Joseph similarly, even as he is making plans to take some kind of action.
The angel, on the other hand, actively appears. The angel also prescribes a set of three future actions, one for each member of the holy family, decisively changing the mood of the text: Mary will bear a child, Joseph will name that child, and Jesus will save his people.
The angel appears in a dream. This links Joseph to his namesake, the Joseph of Genesis 37, who received accurate communications about the future in dreams.
It seems significant that the angel addresses Joseph as “Son of David.” We probably don’t notice this as much as we should, because we think that title properly belongs to Jesus. But it must fit Joseph, too, somehow, since the angel uses it. This means Jesus will be a “Son of David” raised by a “Son of David.” It might be worth thinking about what messianic qualities Joseph shares.
The angel tells Joseph he should not be frightened [so as to avoid or withdraw from] marrying Mary. That is, he should not be phobic. The angel and the author might have in mind less the kind of phobia we find in arachnophobia, etc., and more the kind that shows up in, for instance, xenophobia.
The angel’s speech in Greek puts some extra stress on the Holy Spirit as the source of Mary’s pregnancy, too. This, come to think of it, would have been another, better reason for Joseph to have had some fear about taking Mary as his wife. If the angel hadn’t already told him not to have it.
V22 is a fulfillment-of-prophecy formula, the first of many in Matthew. It refers back to Isaiah 7:14, and uses the language of the Greek version of that text, the Septuagint. I don’t know whether we need to say much more about that.
Verse 24, “when Joseph awoke from sleep,” seems at least possibly figurative as well as literal. Joseph may do more than wake up physically. He may “wake up” in the sense of having clearer insight into the reality and gravity of the situation, and deeper appreciation of his responsibilities in it.