Honor and Shame in the Advent

When Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem to register for the census, we see yet another aspect of the unimpressive, unfitting arrival of the long-awaited king. In Luke 2:7, it says that Mary laid the baby in a manger “because there was no place for them in the inn.” Now, there are three clarifications to make about that one short statement.

First of all, a manger doesn’t refer to the whole stable. A manger is a feeding trough cut out of stone (not wood with crisscrossed legs like we always see).

Secondly, the “stable” was probably more like a crude stone room that would be attached to the house, or perhaps simply the downstairs of the house itself, which would have troughs available because they would bring in the animals during winter.

Thirdly, the “inn” was not a hotel or a tavern. They didn’t have those in towns. The closest thing to what we think of as an inn would’ve been in the middle of nowhere beside a highway for travelers—but that’s a different word. When you went into a town, you stayed with family. If you had no family in that town, the responsibility of hospitality was so great that someone would have you stay with them. The community is honor bound to extend hospitality to visitors. Joseph was from Bethlehem, so he almost certainly had family there.

The word for inn is usually translated “lodging place,” or “upper room.” And that’s what it was; it was the guest room on the top level of the house. It’s the same word for the upper room where Jesus and his disciples ate the Last Supper. It was the guest room, and it was the place of honor.

Now, another way to read the sentence, that gets the sense across a little clearer to our ears, is to read it, “she laid the baby in a manger, because the upper room was no place for them.” The idea is basically this: that the pall of shame and scandal was still heavy over them, such that for Joseph’s relatives (no matter how distant) to welcome them into their house and place them in the honorable guest room would have brought Joseph and Mary’s shame onto that household as well.

So I think we ought to understand Joseph’s relatives as quietly saying to him, “Joseph, we love you… we love Mary. We’ll love this child when he comes. But we can’t endorse what’s happened by welcoming you into the place of honor. We can move some stuff around downstairs, though, and we’ll put some straw and blankets down, and you can stay there if you’d like.”

When the angels announce his birth to the shepherds, the sign they give of how the shepherds will know they’ve found the king is that he would be lying in a manger. Why? Because a feeding trough is no place for the newborn king! Everything about Christ’s arrival was humble, and unfitting for the one who was the fulfillment of every prophecy of the coming king.

The point is this: from his conception, to his birth, to his rejection and execution, the first advent of Christ was marked by humble obscurity, humiliation, and shame—completely unfitting for the birth of a king. But he took our shame on himself, so that he could one day clothe us with his honor.

His first advent was characterized by humble obscurity, lowliness, shame, and rejection. But his second advent will not be the same. His second advent—when he comes again to establish his reign over all nations—will be inescapable, Christ will be honored by all, and he will be victorious over every enemy. He first came as the Lamb of God to take away our sins. But he’s coming back, as the Lion of Judah, to destroy all those who refused to accept his sacrifice, and to give eternal life to all who have placed their faith in him. Jesus’ first advent was characterized by shame, obscurity, and rejection, but his second advent will be marked by honor, vindication, and victory.

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On Joseph and Mary’s Betrothal

Matthew 1 and Luke 2 describe the birth narrative of Christ, and give some fascinating details that point to just how shocking, how inappropriate, how unfitting an arrival this was for the long-awaited king of Israel.

The nativity involved a surprising amount of humiliation and shame. Read the account of Matthew 1:18–25 below, and then ponder with me a few surprising elements of the birth narrative over the next couple of days.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

Joseph and Mary were betrothed, as we see in verse eighteen. Some translations use the word “engaged,” and that’s a little misleading. Engagement in modern times just means you’re planning to get married. But what does it take to get out of an engagement? Just break up, right? With betrothal, in the ancient world, you were legally man and wife. And to end a betrothal, you had to get a divorce.

The process of Jewish marriages involved (1) the betrothal, and (2) the wedding feast. When you became betrothed, you were legally married, but you were not to come together to have relations until after the wedding feast. So there was a betrothal period, during which time the bride readied herself for the groom to come get her, and the groom went and built and prepared their house. When the groom was done with all of his preparations, he would come and fetch his bride, and there would be dancing and singing as they paraded to the wedding feast (which would usually last for seven days).

Okay, what’s the point?

During that betrothal period, although they were legally man and wife, they were not to come together physically—it was not an option. So, for Mary to be found pregnant during the betrothal, before the wedding feast, would have been one of the most shameful, humiliating things for her to go through. It’s hard for us to grasp the level of shame that would have been present here—we don’t really work in categories of public honor and shame anymore—but this would have been utterly devastating. It would have shamed not only Mary, but also her family, her husband, and the child.

As far as anyone knew, there was no explanation for Jesus’ birth other than impurity (and, in Joseph’s mind, unfaithfulness) on the part of Mary. So, Matthew 1:19 says, “her husband Joseph, being a just man, and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” What’s being said here is probably that although he was just man (and therefore of right ought to divorce her before the wedding feast), but also unwilling to put her to further public shame (which he would be fully within his rights to do), he decided to divorce her quietly—in other words not to make a public spectacle of it.

But, verse 20 says, as he was considering these things, an angel appeared to him and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife.” Now, the Greek doesn’t say, “don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” which we read as meaning, “don’t be afraid to marry her.” Remember, she already was his wife, as we see in verses 19 and 24. What it says is, “don’t be afraid to take your wife.” In other words, “Go fetch your bride. Don’t divorce her; she’s remained pure; this is of God. So bring her to your house, finish the wedding process. There’s not going to be any celebrating. There will be no parade of dancing and singing. But don’t be afraid, don’t divorce her, don’t delay anymore—go get your bride.”

Right from the start of his life, Jesus’ first advent is characterized by hushed tones, shame, and scandal. This continues in the birth narrative itself, which we’ll look at next time.

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Why the Virgin Birth Matters

A couple of fragmentary thoughts on why Jesus needed to be born of a virgin.

Why was it important that the Messiah be born of a virgin? Well, I think there are three basic reasons.

First, it’s the most unique and powerful sign possible, to mark out the anointed one of God. Isaiah 7:14 gives the sign that the Messiah would be born of a virgin (we’ll talk about the nature of that prophecy another time). Virgins didn’t get pregnant back then any more often than they do now, so this was an unmistakable, inescapable miracle, clearly demonstrating that this child is conceived by God to be the promised king.

The second reason the virgin birth is significant is, of course, that by the virgin birth, Jesus could be born without inheriting a fallen human nature. The transmission of the sin nature is through the father, because the man is the representative head. When Adam sinned, as the head of the human race, the entire human race fell. And that fallen nature is inherited through the father. So in order to be a man who could also live a sinless, perfect life, Jesus had to be born without an earthly father.

I think it was also important for a third reason—the curse on Joseph’s ancestor, Jeconiah. According to Matthew 1:12, Jesus is a descendant of Jeconiah. Jeconiah, though, was cursed in Jeremiah 22:24ff, such that none of his descendants would ever sit on the throne of Israel. Now there are three possible solutions to this problem: 1) Some say the curse was reversed; 2) Some say the curse only referred to “in his lifetime;” 3) Some say the virgin birth allows Jesus to avoid the curse.

Now, if you take view #3, as I do, it doesn’t diminish the reality that the virgin birth also allows Christ to be born without a fallen nature. In fact, it gives an illustration of that salvific reason the virgin birth was important. By the virgin birth, Jesus avoided the curse of Jeconiah that he would have inherited through Joseph, which would have precluded Him from being the king of Israel. And by the virgin birth, Jesus avoided the curse of Adam that he would have inherited through Joseph, which would have precluded Him from qualifying to be the sinless, perfect sacrifice, to take on Himself the penalty for sin that we deserved.

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” —Isaiah 7:14

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Who is the Scoffer?

The Bible talks quite a bit about scoffers. It warns against being a scoffer, taking advice from a scoffer, befriending a scoffer, and giving honor to a scoffer. But what does it mean to be a scoffer?

A scoffer is someone who, even though he himself may not laugh that much, nevertheless believes that pretty much everything is laughable. It’s someone who doesn’t take life seriously, and, in fact, thinks that it’s silly to do so.

The book of Proverbs explains that the scoffer doesn’t listen to rebuke (Pr. 13:1), doesn’t seek wise counsel (Pr. 15:12), doesn’t take justice seriously (Pr. 19:28), doesn’t take repentance seriously (Pr. 14:9), and brings conflict and insults (Pr. 22:10). Despite their irreverent and mocking attitude, God in fact scoffs at the scoffers—in other words, he sees the scoffer as someone not to take seriously (Pr. 3:34). And despite the scoffer’s flippant pride, God will eventually bring him to nothing (Isa. 29:20).

The scoffer acts with disrespectful, impudent, insolent presumption. He is someone who is dismissive, flippant, and derisive.

This recently quoted passage from Lewis’ Screwtape Letters is apropos:

“But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.”

If you find yourself thinking that everyone around you takes life too seriously, or that everyone but you is too easily offended, or that others are consistently uncomfortable with how casually, cavalierly, or carelessly you approach life, you may need to examine your heart and ask God whether you may be in danger of the warnings directed toward the scoffer.

Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. — Proverbs 28:13

Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm. — Proverbs 13:20

The “Barbaric” Bride-Price, and Saul’s Sinister Motives

In 1 Samuel 18:17, Saul offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to David. Now, remember that Saul had promised this for the man who killed Goliath, so he’s really just getting around to something he has already promised. He offers his oldest daughter, Merab, to David, asking in return for David to continue to fight his battles, because Saul thought to himself, “Let not my hand be against him, but let the hand of the Philistines be against him.”

Saul is still focusing on how he can get rid of David.

But David declines the hand of Merab, and she’s given to another man.

Verse 20 explains that Saul’s younger daughter, Michal, loved David. And when Saul found out, it pleased him—not because his daughter might then be happy… not because he could then reward David the way he had promised… but because he assumed she would then be a distraction to David, and perhaps at last the Philistines would prevail against David. Saul sends his servants to suggest this marriage to David, and David replies, in verse 23, that he has no way of paying the bride-price.

Now, I would say the concept of the bride-price is salt in the wound of our sensitive, politically correct, romance-is-everything society. Daughters being rewarded to warriors and arranged marriages are barbaric enough. But then the groom has to pay the father-of-the-bride money as compensation? This is basically purchasing yourself a wife like she’s a piece of property, right? Well, no, it’s not that simple—or that barbaric.

We have to understand that the family, for most of history, was an economic unit of society. Your household was your livelihood. And children were a blessing not just because they’re a delight to have around, but because they contributed to the household economy—and with numbers come stability and security. Well, when you had a daughter, she was loved by the family, and she participated in the household enterprise, but it was understood that she was at some point going to leave and become a part of someone else’s household; and she was then going to be contributing and benefiting their family, and their clan. So, as a gesture of gratitude and good faith, the groom would give a sum of money to the father of the bride as a recognition that as he gave his daughter to be married, his household was also losing a valuable contributor to their welfare. That’s the point of the bride price—that’s most of it. The other side of it was that it proved that the groom was, as they say, all in. It was a way of showing that he had skin in the game. He showed he was serious. He really was going to take care of his bride.

David is saying that he can’t give a gift of the amount that would be appropriate for the king’s daughter. That’s what he means when he says, “does it seem to you a small thing to become the king’s son-in-law?” He’s saying: it’s not. To marry Michal, propriety would demand a gift to Saul that David could never afford. So, Saul replies that he’s perfectly fine with receiving no money from David if David is able to deliver to him the foreskins of a hundred Philistines. Now, that seems bizarre, and it is… but collecting a body part of the men you’ve killed was a fairly common practice in order to count the dead, or sometimes as a temporary trophy; and collecting foreskins was the way to ensure that it was actually Philistines he killed, and not fellow Hebrews. Yes, it’s gross. The point, though, is that Saul is simply trying (still) to get David killed. This is stated explicitly in verse 25: “Now Saul thought to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines.” So this whole time, Saul is just trying different things to get David killed. After he couldn’t do it himself, he’s now tried several ways to get David killed by the Philistines. But David always finds success and victory. In this case, David takes his men and kills twice the number of Philistines Saul required.

Now that’s a way to get a wife!

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And David His Ten Thousands

After David defeated Goliath, spoke with Saul, and made a covenant of loyalty with Jonathan, Saul made David commander of his armies, and he was successful wherever Saul sent him out. As David and the army were returning home from a campaign, the women of the cities were coming out and singing to one another as they celebrated, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” (1 Samuel 18:6–7)

It is a common feature of Hebrew poetry for one or more terms in the first half of a phrase to be increased or intensified in the second half. This rhetorical feature is called numeric progression. An example of numeric progression is, “six things the Lord hates, yea seven are an abomination to him.” This doesn’t mean that the Lord only hates 6 or 7 things, nor that the prophet forgot about the seventh item and then added it. It’s a poetic feature. It’s a form of parallelism. This particular variation of this progression in 1 Samuel 18—1,000 to 10,000—is used elsewhere in Scripture as well. In Deuteronomy 32:30, in the song of Moses, Moses uses two layers of numeric progression in the parallelism in verse 30. He says “How could one have chased a thousand, and two have put ten thousand to flight?” Notice the progression from one to two, and from one thousand to ten thousand? In Psalm 91, David has the same progression in verse 7: “a thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand.” David again, in Psalm 144, says, “may our sheep bring forth thousands and ten thousands in our fields.” And Micah similarly uses the plural in Micah 6:7, “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?”

So, when the women are singing praises about Saul and David. The fact that they go from “thousands” to “ten-thousands,” is not necessarily a direct jab at Saul. It’s a common and expected rhetorical progression. The women singing likely did not intend to anger the king by implying David’s superiority. But, nevertheless, they ascribed to Saul the thousands, and to David the ten thousands, and Saul is quite perturbed by that choice of wording. He takes offense at their placement of David in the intensified half of the parallelism, so he becomes suspicious of David and keeps his eye on him from that point forward. And (in a somewhat ironically prophetic manner) he says, “what more can he have but the kingdom?” (1 Samuel 18:8)

Now, that could be taken as a bit of an overreaction on Saul’s part. David hasn’t given Saul any reason to think that he wants to be king; and, as far as we know, Saul is still unaware that David actually was anointed to be king. But, in reality, Saul’s point is that if David has been given honor above the king himself, it is a great threat to the king. Remember, we have very little capacity to understand the significance of public honor and shame in that culture. And for Saul to recognize (rightly or not) that David is being honored above him—the king himself—then, for all intents and purposes, David has become the leader of Israel even though he has no crown. This is extremely significant; and the words of Samuel from chapter 15 may be ringing in Saul’s ears—that Yahweh would give Saul’s kingdom to another man, a neighbor who is better than Saul. Saul thus gives in to jealousy, anger, and fear, and, as we know from the following narrative, this leads to disastrous results.

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