I'm really enjoying Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey. Here's one of the little pieces in it that really struck me.
I wrote a while ago about the message of the book of Ruth being that the law should be interpreted generously and inclusively, and that being about David's ancestors this story provided a model for the governing of Israel. Bailey draws attention to a similar story about David's descendent Joseph in Matthew 1:18-19.
His (Jesus') mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because her husband was a righteous (or "just") man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
This was not just tact. The Old Testament punishment for a woman caught in adultery was stoning to death, and John 8:1-11 shows this was still practiced in the first century. Joseph, knowing that he's not the father of the child, decides to save Mary's life. Subsequently the angel's intervention convinces him to go ahead with the marriage, but Bailey suggests that Mary would not have been out of danger even then. Part of Joseph's motivation in taking Mary to Bethlehem with him despite her advanced preganancy may have been to protect her from her angry relatives at home.
The bit of this story that jars is the use of the word "just" or "righteous" to describe Joseph's action. Why not "kind" or "merciful"? Surely the "just" thing to do is to apply the law without fear of favour, equally to all people? To explain this, Bailey quotes Isaiah 42:3
A bruised reed he will not break
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
Here, in Isaiah's vision of the suffering servant who will save Israel, is a version of justice which is not about retribution or equal application of the law, but about the protection of the weak. Joseph, the descendent of David and of Ruth and Boaz, lives by this kind of justice. He is prepared to lower his own dignity in order to protect a defenceless young woman, even before he understands the significance of her pregnancy. He would be within his rights, and upheld by his community, if he insisted on her stoning. Instead he steps out against his community and humiliates himself in order to carry out God's version of justice.
Like Boaz, Joseph is a precursor and shows in a small way the kind of justice God wants in the wider world, writ large by his son Jesus. God is not a law enforcer. His desire is not to hand out justice in an even-handed, impartial way. Instead, God's justice is about protection, mercy and love. We do not flee to the protection of the Son from the hard hand of the Father, because the Son reveals the Father's true justice, as shown here by Joseph right at the start of the story.