Many Westerners have a bit of trouble understanding what betrothal in the sense of what the Bible means between Mary and Joseph, so I consulted a dear Arab friend whose culture at the time of her wedding still practiced betrothal in the area of Bethlehem.

 The marriage is arranged by the parents, with varying degrees of input from the kids (quite a bit nowadays).  The bride is usually between 16-18 years old (Mary could have been younger) and the groom a bit older, maybe in his early to mid 20s.  This is because he is expected to already have completed his education and be established in a career with a dowry saved up, and a household in place in order to support a wife who will raise the children.  The dowry is alimony in advance in case the husband divorces the wife, and is considered the complete settlement.  It is substantial, equivalent to $10,000-$15,000, and is the sole possession of the wife who usually invests it long term so she would not be destitute should she be divorced.

 Upon the proposal and acceptance the parents and the couple will meet to discuss the terms and conditions of the marriage; this is written up in a contract which is then signed by the couple at the courthouse.  Upon signature (and payment of the dowry) the couple is considered legally married, and cannot separate without divorcing.  Any infidelity at this point is also considered adultery.  However, the actual marriage ceremony may still be a ways off, from a couple weeks to a year, depending on the logistics involved; wedding arrangements, relatives out of the country, etc. can delay this and in Jesus’ time a year was pretty typical.  However, until this ceremony, the marriage is usually not consummated; sometimes passions get away and things happen, but this is considered bad form and rude, but not fornication.  During the time between the contract and the wedding the couple spends a lot of time together, without chaperones as they are considered married.

 Thus we see the predicament when Mary became pregnant during her betrothal period to Joseph.  She had spent three months off visiting her older cousin who was well past the age of child-bearing, but miraculously was with child (by the conventional manner with her elderly husband) and bore the baby who would become John the Baptist.  When Mary returned to Nazareth she was obviously pregnant, and Joseph had to consider what to do.  By rights he could have her stoned for adultery, but she was obviously a sweet girl and obviously he was in love with her, and considered quietly divorcing her.  This had complications, such as would she keep the dowry?  If so it would be a long time until he could afford another wife.  Thankfully the angel Gabriel appeared to him in a dream giving the theme message of Christmas, “fear not”.  He said,  “Joseph, son of David, fear not to take Mary to you as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirt.  And she will bring forth a son, and you shall call His name Yeshua [in English, Joshua, and in Greek, Jesus, which means “God is Salvation], for he will save His people from their sins”. 

 There was probably not a happier young man in all of Nazareth when Joseph woke up, as a huge burden was lifted from his shoulders, and he could confidently fall head over heels in love with his young wife.  And what a son they would have!  I’m sure great apologies were in order from him to her for ever doubting her, and I’m sure she understood.   

 Understanding betrothal also explains why Joseph took Mary along with him to Bethlehem to register.  She was considered his wife and he would hate to be separated from her again so soon; it was bad enough those three months she was at Elizabeth’s house.  It would not be unseemly for them to travel together alone as they were considered married.   However apparently others would have lingering doubts about Mary’s pregnancy which in time they would accuse Jesus of…

 To be continued


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