Why Does The Bible Say That When Joseph Discovered That Mary Was Pregnant He Considered Divorcing Her. Weren’t They Only Engaged At The Time? (Matthew 1:19)
Mary, as the Gospel of Matthew indicates, was pledged to be married to a man named Joseph. Some knowledge of Jewish marriage customs is necessary to fully appreciate the circumstance.
Jewish marriage at this time consisted of two distinct parts, the betrothal and the home-taking (Dt. 20:7). The word betrothal translates the Hebrew verb ‘aras, which in cognate languages carries the root meaning of a fine, a price or the payment of tribute. Betrothal, or the pledge to be married, was usually sealed for the girl at an early age with the paying of the bride price to the father (mohar) in the presence of witnesses. Until a girl was twelve and a half years old, her father could arrange for her to marry whomever he wished, and she could not refuse. When she had come of age (twelve and a half years or older), she could not be betrothed against her will, and thus, the usual age of betrothal was between twelve and twelve and a half years old. Betrothal signified the acquisition of the woman by the man and began the transfer of the girl from her father’s power to her husband’s power.
Once the betrothal was valid, the betrothed woman was called the “wife” of the man, and while they were not yet living together, she could be widowed, divorced, or even executed for adultery. In fact, the betrothal could be broken only by divorce, a divorce which could be initiated only by the man. While in Judea the engaged couple could have sexual relations under some circumstances prior to the home-taking, in Galilee no such leniency was tolerated, and the wife had to be taken to the husband’s home as a virgin.
The second stage, the home-taking, was the marriage proper, in which the girl would be transferred to the home of her husband, who then would assume her full support, since she was now under his full power. The home-taking usually occurred about a year after the betrothal, and it was celebrated with a processional to the husband’s home followed by a wedding feast.
Given these circumstances, Mary may have been quite young at the time of the annunciation, which presumably took place between her betrothal and her home-taking. Little is known of Joseph, Mary’s fiancée. Later tradition pictured him as a widower with children at the time he became betrothed to Mary, but the reliability of such tradition is uncertain. Still, the salient point is that in Galilean culture, a betrothal could only be broken by a divorce, even though the home-taking had not yet occurred.
Pastor Dan LewisDecember 1, 2013