Question: After St. Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he did not want to expose her to the Law. He decided instead to quietly divorce her. What was this law? What would have happened to her and her child if she were subject to it? What would happen after he divorced her?
— Name withheld, Suffolk, Virginia
Answer: Since Joseph was an righteous man (i.e. an observer of the Law), he felt he had to observe the Law, which said, “When a man, after marrying a woman, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent, … [then] he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house (Dt 24:1). Hence he thought to divorce her quietly and not expose her to the full force of the Law, which prescribed stoning for a maiden found to be without the tokens of virginity (cf. Dt 22:-20-21).
A woman who was divorced under these circumstances would return to her family of origin if they would have her. But frequently they would not, and so-called “honor-killings” did happen. Alternately, women who were not stoned were left to become beggars and join the ranks of the poorest of the poor: widows and orphans. It was a pitiable state. We can only hope that Mary’s family would not have acted so callously. But happily, we did not have to find out, since Joseph followed the instruction of the angel, and the rest is history.