JOSEPH swung another load onto the donkey’s back. Picture him looking around at the darkened village of Bethlehem and patting the flank of the sturdy little beast of burden. He was surely thinking of the long trip ahead. Egypt! A foreign people, a foreign tongue, foreign customs—how would his little family adapt to so much change?
It was not easy to tell the bad news to his beloved wife, Mary, but Joseph braced himself and did it. He told her of the dream in which an angel delivered this message from God: The king, Herod, wanted their little son dead! They had to move right away. (Matthew 2:13, 14) Mary was deeply concerned. How could anyone want to kill her innocent, harmless child? Neither Mary nor Joseph could fathom it. But they trusted in Jehovah, so they readied themselves.
Unaware of the unfolding drama, Bethlehem slept as Joseph, Mary, and Jesus slipped out of the village in the darkness. Heading southward, with the sky beginning to lighten in the east, Joseph likely wondered about what lay ahead. How could a lowly carpenter protect his family against forces so powerful? Would he always be able to provide for his own? Would he manage to persevere in carrying out this heavy assignment that Jehovah God had given him, to care for and raise this unique child? Joseph faced daunting challenges. As we consider how he rose to meet each one, we will see why fathers today—and all of us—need to imitate the faith of Joseph.
Joseph Protected His Family
Months earlier, in his hometown of Nazareth, Joseph’s life changed forever after his engagement to the daughter of Heli. Joseph knew Mary as an innocent, faithful young woman. But then he learned that she was pregnant! He intended to divorce her secretly to protect her from scandal.* However, an angel spoke to him in a dream, explaining that Mary was pregnant by means of Jehovah’s holy spirit. The angel added that the son she bore would “save his people from their sins.” He further reassured Joseph: “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife home.”—Matthew 1:18-21.
Joseph, a righteous and obedient man, did just that. He took on the weightiest of assignments: raising and caring for a son who was not his own but who was most precious to God. Later, in obedience to an imperial decree, Joseph took his pregnant wife to Bethlehem to register. It was there that the child was born.*
Joseph did not take the family back to Nazareth. Instead, they settled in Bethlehem, just a few miles from Jerusalem. They were poor, but Joseph did all he could to protect Mary and Jesus from want or suffering. In a short time, they took up living in a humble home. Then, when Jesus was no longer a baby but a small child—perhaps over a year old—their lives suddenly changed again.
A group of men arrived, astrologers from the East, likely from faraway Babylon. They had followed a star to the home of Joseph and Mary and were looking for a child who was to become king of the Jews. The men were deeply respectful.
Whether they knew it or not, the astrologers had put little Jesus in great peril. The star they had seen led them first, not to Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem. There they told wicked King Herod that they were looking for a child who was to become king of the Jews. This inflamed the man with jealous rage.—See the article “Our Readers Ask . . . Who Sent the ‘Star’?” on page 29.
Happily, though, there were forces greater than Herod at work. How so? Well, the visitors brought out gifts, asking for nothing in return. How strange it must have been for Joseph and Mary to find themselves suddenly in possession of “gold and frankincense and myrrh”—valuable commodities! The astrologers intended to tell King Herod just where they had found the child they sought. However, Jehovah intervened. By means of a dream, he instructed the astrologers to return home by another route.—Matthew 2:1-12.
Shortly after the astrologers left, Joseph received this warning from Jehovah’s angel: “Get up, take the young child and its mother and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I give you word; for Herod is about to search for the young child to destroy it.” (Matthew 2:13) So, as we noted at the outset, Joseph obeyed swiftly. He put his child’s safety above all else and took his family to Egypt. Because those pagan astrologers gave the family such costly gifts, they now had assets that might help them in the sojourn ahead.
Apocryphal myths and legends later romanticized the journey to Egypt, claiming that little Jesus miraculously shortened the trip, rendered bandits harmless, and even made date palms bend down to his mother to yield their fruit.* In truth, it was simply a long, arduous trek into the unknown.
Parents can learn a lot from Joseph. He readily interrupted his work and sacrificed his own comfort in order to protect his family from danger. Clearly, he viewed his family as a sacred trust from Jehovah. Parents today raise their children in a perilous world, a world full of forces that would endanger, corrupt, or even destroy young ones. How admirable are those mothers and fathers who act decisively as Joseph did, working hard to protect their children from such influences!
Joseph Provided for His Family
It seems that the family did not stay long in Egypt, for soon the angel informed Joseph that Herod was dead. Joseph led his family back to their homeland. An ancient prophecy had foretold that Jehovah would call his son “out of Egypt.” (Matthew 2:15) Joseph helped to fulfill it, but where would he lead his family now?
Joseph was cautious. He wisely feared Herod’s successor, Archelaus, who was likewise vicious and murderous. Divine guidance led Joseph to take his family up north, away from Jerusalem and all its intrigues, back to his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee. There he and Mary raised their family.—Matthew 2:19-23.
They led a simple life—but not an easy one. The Bible refers to Joseph as the carpenter, using a word that embraces many ways of working with wood, such as cutting down timber, hauling it, and seasoning it for use in building houses, boats, small bridges, carts, wheels, yokes, and all kinds of farm implements. (Matthew 13:55) It was hard physical work. The carpenter in Bible times often worked near the doorway of his simple house or in a shop adjacent to it.
Joseph used a wide range of tools, some likely handed down from his father. He may have used a square, a plummet, a chalk line, a hatchet, a saw, an adze, a hammer, a mallet, chisels, a drill that he worked by pulling a bow back and forth, various glues, and perhaps some nails, though they were costly.
Imagine Jesus as a small boy watching his adoptive father at work. His eyes wide and intent on Joseph’s every movement, he no doubt admired the strength in those broad shoulders and sinewy arms, the skill of the hands, the intelligence in the eyes. Perhaps Joseph began showing his young son how to perform such simple tasks as smoothing rough spots on wood with dried fish skin. He likely taught Jesus the differences between the varieties of wood that he used—the sycamore fig, oak, or olive, for example.
Jesus learned, too, that those strong hands that felled trees, hewed beams, and pounded joints together were also gentle hands that caressed and comforted him, his mother, and his siblings. Yes, Joseph and Mary had a growing family that eventually included at least six children in addition to Jesus. (Matthew 13:55, 56) Joseph had to work ever harder to care for and feed them all.
Joseph, however, understood that caring for his family’s spiritual needs was paramount. So he spent time teaching his children about Jehovah God and His laws. He and Mary regularly took them to the local synagogue, where the Law was read aloud and explained. Perhaps Jesus was full of questions afterward and Joseph tried hard to satisfy the boy’s spiritual hunger. Joseph also took his family to religious festivals in Jerusalem. For the annual Passover, Joseph may have needed two weeks to make the journey of about 70 miles (112.65 km), observe the occasion, and then return.
Christian family heads today follow a similar pattern. They give of themselves for their children, putting spiritual training above every other concern, including material comforts. They go to great lengths to take their children to Christian meetings both large and small. Like Joseph, they know that there is no better investment they can make for the sake of their children.
“In Mental Distress”
When Jesus was 12 years old, Joseph took the family to Jerusalem as usual. It was Passover, a festive time, and large families traveled together in long caravans through the lush spring countryside. As they approached the starker landscapes near lofty Jerusalem, many would sing the famous psalms of ascent. (Psalms 120-134) The city may have teemed with hundreds of thousands of people. Afterward, the families and their caravans began to head homeward. Joseph and Mary, perhaps with much to do, assumed that Jesus was traveling with others, maybe family members. Only after Jerusalem lay a full day behind them did they realize a terrifying truth—Jesus was missing!—Luke 2:41-44.
Frantically, they traced their steps all the way back to Jerusalem. Imagine how empty and strange the city seemed to them now as they paced the streets, calling out their son’s name. Where could the boy be? By the third day of searching, did Joseph begin to wonder if he had failed terribly in this sacred trust from Jehovah? Finally, they went to the temple. There they searched until they came upon a chamber where many learned men, versed in the Law, were gathered—with young Jesus sitting among them! Imagine the relief Joseph and Mary felt!—Luke 2:45, 46.
Jesus was listening to the learned men and eagerly asking questions. The men were amazed at the child’s understanding and his answers. Mary and Joseph, though, were astounded. In the record, Joseph is silent. But Mary’s words speak eloquently for both of them: “Child, why did you treat us this way? Here your father and I in mental distress have been looking for you.”—Luke 2:47, 48.
Thus in a few deft strokes, God’s Word paints a realistic picture of parenthood. It can be stressful—even when the child is perfect! Parenting in today’s dangerous world can bring untold “mental distress,” but fathers and mothers can take comfort in knowing that the Bible acknowledges the challenge they face.
Happily, Jesus had stayed in the one place in the world where he felt the closest to his heavenly Father, Jehovah, eagerly soaking up anything he could learn. Thus, he answered his parents in simple sincerity: “Why did you have to go looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in the house of my Father?”—Luke 2:49.
Joseph surely thought those words over many times. Perhaps he came to beam with pride over them. After all, he had worked diligently to teach his adopted son to feel that way about Jehovah God. By that time in his life as a boy, Jesus already had warm feelings about the word “father”—feelings shaped largely by his exposure to Joseph.
If you are a father, do you realize what a privilege you have to help your children to form a concept of what a loving, protective father is? Likewise, if you have stepchildren or adopted children, remember Joseph’s example and treat each one as unique and precious. Help them to draw closer to their heavenly Father, Jehovah God.
Joseph Persevered Faithfully
The Bible discloses only a few more traces of Joseph’s life, but they are worth considering closely. We read that Jesus “continued subject to them”—his parents. We find also that “Jesus went on progressing in wisdom and in physical growth and in favor with God and men.” (Luke 2:51, 52) What do those words reveal about Joseph? Several things. We learn that Joseph continued taking the lead in his household, for his perfect son respected his father’s authority and remained in subjection to it.
We also learn that Jesus continued to grow in wisdom. Joseph surely had much to do with his son’s progress in that regard. In those days, there was a time-honored proverb among the Jews. It asserted that only men of leisure could become truly wise, whereas tradesmen such as carpenters, farmers, and blacksmiths “cannot declare justice and judgment; and they shall not be found where parables are spoken.” Later, Jesus exposed the emptiness of that proverb. As a boy, how often he had heard his adoptive father, humble carpenter though he was, teach effectively about Jehovah’s “justice and judgment”! No doubt, on countless occasions.
We may also see evidence of Joseph’s influence in Jesus’ physical growth. A well-cared-for boy, Jesus grew into a strong, healthy man. Further, Joseph trained his son to be skilled at his physical work. Jesus was known not only as the carpenter’s son but also as “the carpenter.” (Mark 6:3) So Joseph’s training was successful. Family heads wisely imitate Joseph, caring for the practical well-being of their children and ensuring that they can support themselves.
Once we reach the point in the Bible record where Jesus is baptized at the age of 30, we find that Joseph is no longer part of the story. The evidence suggests that Mary was a widow by the time Jesus began his ministry. (See the box “When Did Joseph Die?” on page 27.) Yet, Joseph left a clear mark—a sterling example of a father who protected his family, provided for them, and persevered faithfully to the end. Any father, any family head, or any other Christian would do well to imitate the faith of Joseph.
In those days, engagement was viewed in almost the same light as marriage.
See the article “Imitate Their Faith—She Drew ‘Conclusions in Her Heart’” in the October 1, 2008, issue of The Watchtower.
The Bible clearly shows that Jesus’ first miracle did not occur until after his baptism. (John 2:1-11) To learn more about apocryphal gospel accounts, see the article “Apocryphal Gospels—Hidden Truths About Jesus?” on page 18.
[Box on page 27]
When Did Joseph Die?
We know that Joseph was alive when Jesus was 12 years old. At that age many Jewish youths began to learn their father’s trade and became apprentices at 15. Joseph evidently lived long enough to teach Jesus to be a carpenter. Was Joseph still living when Jesus began his ministry at about 30 years of age? It seems very doubtful. Jesus’ mother, brothers, and sisters are all mentioned as living at that time but not Joseph. Jesus was once even called “the son of Mary,” not the son of Joseph. (Mark 6:3) Mary is spoken of as acting and taking initiatives on her own, without consulting a husband. (John 2:1-5) That would have been unusual in Bible times unless she was a widow. Finally, as he was dying, Jesus entrusted the care of his mother to the apostle John. (John 19:26, 27) There would have been no need to do so if Joseph were still living. Evidently, then, Joseph died when Jesus was still a relatively young man. As the eldest son, Jesus undoubtedly took over the carpentry business and cared for the family until his baptism.
[Picture on page 24]
Joseph acted decisively and selflessly to protect his child
[Picture on page 25]
Joseph worked hard to provide for his family
[Picture on page 26]
Joseph regularly took his family to worship at the temple in Jerusalem
[Picture on page 28]
Joseph trained his son to become a carpenter