Tonight at RCIA some interesting details emerged. We were discussing the Blessed Virgin Mary, and I pointed out that the word ‘overshadowed’ in the story of the annunciation was a linguistic reference to the story of Ruth and Boaz in the Old Testament. You may remember that the young widow Ruth presented herself for marriage to her husband’s kinsman, Boaz, and that he evidenced his betrothal to Ruth by wrapping his cloak around her. The word for cloak is the same word used in Hebrew for angels’ wings, and the transliteration of the word in the New Testament is ‘overshadowed’. The clear reference is that the Blessed Virgin is being ‘betrothed’ to God through the ministry of the angel who ‘overshadows’ her as the Hebrew bridegroom does to express his intentions to his bride.
In the audience are some members of the local Maronite community and one of them says, “Father, this is still the custom in the Middle East. The Bedouin and other tribes have an ancient betrothal ceremony in which the bridegroom wraps his cloak around the young girl to signal his intentions to her.” This ancient custom is observed, and when they are asked why they do this they answer, “Because it is the way of our ancestors back to the time of Abraham.” Bewdiful.
That’s not all. He also said that it is still the custom in some of these tribes for an older man to be betrothed to a young girl around the age of thirteen or fourteen. She enters his extended family, but they do not consummate the marriage until a few years later. In the meantime, she remains as a betrothed virgin. This has practical advantages as the young daughters are given a sense of security, but they live within the secure confines of the extended family, with the older women, learning about the ways of the family life until it is time for them to enter fully into marriage and childbearing.
The idea that the older St Joseph would not have relations with his young bride seems so alien to our culture, but within the Semitic culture of the Middle East–even today–the idea that an older man would have a virgin fiancee, and that she would remain a virgin for some time does not seem so unusual. Therefore for Mary and Joseph to have remained celibate is not such a stretch. In apologetics conversations with those who deny the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin, all of these are good points to bring up.