Lessons on Fatherhood from the Story of Joseph

We can learn so much about parenting and faith from the biblical father, who raised God’s only Son. 

Posted in , Oct 3, 2021


By the time Christmas comes this year, both of my sons will have had their first child and I will be a granddad. Maybe that’s why I find myself thinking of that biblical father who appears in the crèche, often cast in the background, bearded, holding a staff. Joseph, who was given the challenge—and gift—of raising God’s only Son.

What do we know of Joseph?

He was a carpenter—Jesus being rather scornfully referred to as “the carpenter’s son.” Not the poorest of the poor, but definitely toward the bottom of the social scale. That Joseph didn’t have a lot of money is apparent from Scripture. When he and Mary take their newborn to the temple in Jerusalem for dedication, they offer as a sacrifice “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (the provenance of those “two turtledoves” we encounter as we sing “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”).

A person of means would have offered a lamb, as prescribed by law. Turtledoves were a second choice. But it is also clear that Joseph is faithful and observant. More than that, he listens to God, even in extreme circumstances.

Much is made of the angel who appeared to Mary and told her of this miraculous birth, a perennial scene in the Christmas pageant. But what of the four dreams that come to Joseph? They too involve an angel.

Joseph has his first dream just after he learns that Mary, his betrothed, is with child. He plans to quietly break things off with her. Until an angel appears to him in a dream and lets him know whose child this is, what the child should be named and the role the child will play in fulfilling God’s promise to all of us.

Can you imagine having a dream like that? Mind-boggling. It would be tempting enough to question the dream’s validity, if not dismiss it altogether. Joseph didn’t do either. He followed the angel’s instructions, taking Mary as his wife and refraining from any marital relations until Jesus was born. (Note how frank the Bible is about these seemingly private matters.)

The second dream alerts Joseph to Herod’s wrath. This newborn babe will be slaughtered unless Joseph acts decisively. He does, fleeing with his wife and child to Egypt. There they wait in safety until Joseph has a third dream: Herod is dead and the coast is clear. In one final dream, Joseph is warned that Herod’s son, almost as bad as the father, is now king. To avoid him, the holy family heads to Nazareth, in Galilee.

The last glimpse we get of Joseph in Scripture—a sidelong view—is when Jesus is 12 years old, accompanying his parents on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover. On this visit, their adolescent son goes missing among the throngs of Jews who have journeyed to the temple for this pilgrimage holiday. While searching for his son, Joseph might have recalled the prophecies both Simeon and Anna had given here at the infant’s dedication, prophecies that echoed what Joseph knew from his own dreams.

After three days, his parents find Jesus listening, learning, amazing all the teachers at the temple. Mary chides her son: “Your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus replied. I imagine Joseph the earthly father would have felt only love for that truth.

What are the lessons I take from all this? Things I learned from being a father myself. That you give your children all that you have and know. That guidance in raising them will come from places you might never expect—earthly angels as well as heavenly ones. That who they become will continue to surprise and delight you. And at some point, you will have to let them go, as they follow the path God has set out for them.

I have no doubt my sons will be great dads. And if they kindly claim they learned something of this loving role from me, I have to insist I had help—big help—along the way. Much like Joseph did.

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