The fable of the stable

Did you know that nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus was born in a stable?  In fact, a stable-birth seems highly improbable when taking into account what the text actually says and  Middle Eastern hospitality.

The text of Luke 2:6-7 reads:

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Mary was pregnant when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, but she did not give birth on arrival.  The beginning of v6 literally says “during those days”.  They spent some time in Bethlehem and Joseph had  time to organize the accommodation.

Hospitality?

In Middle Eastern culture hospitality is very important; not showing generous hospitality brings dishonour and shame to your home and village.  Just think of the shocking account in Genesis 19 of Lot protecting his male guests from the men of the town.  Joseph was also part of the extended royal family.  He was of the line of David and was returning to his ancestral home.  On top of it all Mary was pregnant.  Every culture is especially mindful of pregnant women.  Therefore we conclude that the young couple were probably shown warm hospitality.

Stable?

If that is true, what does v7 mean?

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger/feeding trough…

For a western mind the word manger invokes the words stable or barn.  But in a typical Middle Eastern village there were no stables or barns.  Only people of great wealth would have separate quarters for their animals.  Simple village homes typically  had two rooms.  One room was exclusively for guests (the guest room), and the other was a “family” room where the entire family cooked, ate, slept and lived.  That’s why Jesus said that a single lamp on a stand gives light to everyone in the house.  At the end of the room, near the door, was the designated area for the animals: the family cow, donkey and possibly a few sheep.  Every evening the animals were brought in and every morning they taken out again.  The area was cleaned and fresh hay  put out.

(Remember Jesus’ conversation with religious leaders in Luke 13?  He said, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the manger  and lead it out to give it water?”)

Holiday Inn?

How then are we to understand the end of v7?

….because there was no room for them in the inn.

The word that some translate as “inn” is the same word that Jesus himself used in Luke 22:11.  Jesus said, “say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room (not inn), where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’”

Joseph and Mary were of the line of David; Mary was pregnant; and they came to their ancestral home.  The people of Bethlehem would never have turned them away.  They were welcomed into a home.  Luke tells us that Jesus was born in a humble village home in the main family room and placed in the feeding trough as there was no space in the guest room.  The feeding trough was most likely filled with clean, fresh hay. 

Village people

We should understand that God’s Son, the King of God’s new kingdom, was born in a common village house among working class people.  He wasn’t born in a palace or a mansion or surrounded by servants.   

Yet the staggering account of the common birth of the promised King does not end there.  Remember who were the first people to hear of the royal birth? It wasn’t the rabbi or the emperor or an influential person, but poor, lowly herders – who were stereotyped as “unclean” and petty thieves.  On the list of common people they were right at the bottom.

The shepherds were frightened when the angelic messengers appeared to them, no doubt by the angels themselves, but probably also because they were to find and visit the new born Messiah.  How could shepherds be convinced to expect a welcome?  Surely they would be turned away; surely the new king deserved better visitors.  Note what the angelic messengers said in v12  “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”   They would find the new born king wrapped like other babies, wrapped like all peasants wrapped their babies.  He would be resting in a normal village home in the feeding trough.  In other words, the Christ child was not in the king’s palace or a governor’s mansion or a wealthy merchant’s guest room, but in a simple two-roomed home like theirs.  This was good news.

Reversal

The shepherds find the Christ-child, are welcomed at the manger and learn a great gospel lesson: Outcasts become honoured guests; the unclean are considered clean, even fit for a king; and the lowest of the low, are lifted high.

Have you bowed before the king?

 

(Thanks to Kenneth E.Bailey for the insights in his book “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels“)