After beginning with a foundation of making sure people know that Jesus’s story is not supposed to be told in isolation, that continues what God was doing through Abraham, and David, and the whole people of Israel across the centuries, it adds the layers of Jubilee and that Jesus was not the end of the story but the one who would usher in an era when all people would be one people who really care for each other.
That’s the prologue in Matthew 1:1-17. Then it continues with the next section: Matthew 1:18-25. Here’s my translation:
18 And this is how the birth of Jesus, called Messiah, happened. While his mother Miriam was engaged to Joseph, but before they got married, it was discovered she was pregnant from the Sacred Life-Breath. 19 Because Joseph, who was going to be her husband, was committed to justice, he did not want to shame her publicly. He decided to separate from her privately.
20 When he had considered the idea, he had a dream in which the LORD’s messenger said to him, “Joseph, descendant of David, don’t be worried about getting married to Miriam because the baby in her womb is from the Sacred Life-Breath. 21 She’ll give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus because he’ll restore his people from their deviations.” 22 All these events happened to give fuller meaning to what the LORD communicated through the prophet Isaiah: 23 “Look, the unmarried girl will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’” 24 When Joseph woke up, he followed the directions given to him from the LORD. He married Miriam 25 but was not intimate with her until after she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus.
You’ll notice the name ‘Miriam’ instead of ‘Mary.’ That’s her name. The long tradition of double translating names is problematic and connected with the Church’s history of systemic antisemitism. The Greek name Maria was the Greek version of the Hebrew name Maryam. The English version of that name is Miriam (or sometimes Mariam). It means ‘rebellion of the people,’ so the story starts with a young, marginalized mother named after revolution.
The first thing that strikes me about this section is that it isn’t about Miriam and her response but rather a question of ‘will the man in the story respond justly or unjustly?’
He has all the power, the power to decide to allow her to maintain a family and the livelihood and provision it brings or to publicly label her a slut, ruining any chance she has at a life of anything other than absolute poverty and social exclusion, and with a baby on the way too.
The “understandable” thing to do would be to separate. She seems to have had an affair before they were even married. If I had a friend in Joseph’s situation, I would recommend not getting married. Have more self-respect than that, right? But the situation was different. It’s not like today, that she would have other options. He has all the power. She has none.
Then it gets to some weirdness of biblical proportions. “The Angel of the Lord” as seen frequently throughout the Hebrew Bible (traditionally called the ‘Old Testament’) makes an appearance. ‘Angel’ is not a type of being but the role of communicating on behalf of another. It’s a messenger. What type of being is not specified. It could be supernatural, or it could be a burning bush or a prophet, or any number of things.
But the point is God sent the message, the message not to send Miriam away because the baby is from the Sacred Life-breath, the same breath that nested over the waters in Genesis 1 and was breathed in the one made of the soil in Genesis 2, giving life where there was none before. Miriam’s womb has been filled with a new life.
The promise is that the baby will be named ‘Yhwh liberates’ (Jesus) because he will grow up to liberate the entire people from the ways they have gone off course (as a people) from God’s teaching given in Torah and the Hebrew scriptures. The results of that deviation are violence, oppression, greed, and prioritizing short-term personal gain and security over long-term goodness for the community.
Liberation leads to Jubilee, to everyone having their needs met and being free from anxiety about what to eat, where to live, what to wear, free from fear of violence and oppression, free of fear of exclusion and poverty and rejection. Free to focus on love rather than survival.
And as Matthew so often does, the story is connected with history, with the Hebrew Bible and the wisdom people have found from God through the centuries. It’s connected with a reference to Isaiah, when another young woman who was not yet married was predicted to have a child (though her pregnancy was after she got married). But the connection was enough for God to bring it to Joseph’s attention and that this child too would be called “God with us,” but this time it would be lived out to its fullest.
So, since Joseph was a man who was so committed to living justly that he was willing to receive input on how his well-intentioned plans were still perpetuating injustice, he listened to God’s instruction and married Miriam, the woman who would birth a revolution for all the people.
That’s the setting into which Jesus was born. A revolutionary mother, a father figure who understood real power is in humility and being willing to use his privilege to support the needs of the marginalized, and foreshadowing of a world turned upside down.