Bashing Bethlehem?

The mythical innkeeper turning away a couple in need.

Christian recording artist Casting Crowns performs a Christmas song called “While You Were Sleeping.” In an attempt to highlight society’s unwillingness to recognize Jesus as God and Savior, songwriter John Mark Hall starts with the example of Bethlehem:

Oh Bethlehem, you will go down in history
As a city with no room for its King

This is based on the very familiar passage from Luke 2:7 – “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (KJV) We have played this up in our Christmas pageants, too, adding an innkeeper who shoos the laboring Mary and a frantic Joseph away. (I have been the innkeeper in such a production.) Or, perhaps, the innkeeper does the best he can, offering up his stable. But we have gotten this all wrong!

Kenneth E. Bailey, in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, explains both the cultural misunderstanding and the poor translation that have caused our confusion. We do not understand first century housing and hospitality. We also do not think about the details that the Scriptures DO give us. Joseph, a member of David’s royal line, would have had family in Bethlehem who would have received him and his pregnant, betrothed wife. Despite some modern (and ancient) depictions, this was not a case of a last minute journey and labor gone wrong. In fact, Luke says, “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” (2:6) There was plenty of time to find a place to stay and people to help with the birth. The culture of hospitality demanded it.

Where Was the Manger?
In western thought, we equate “manger” with a feeding trough in a stable or barn. However, in a typical middle eastern home of the time, animals stayed in the house, not in a separate structure (or cave as the eastern tradition says). They stayed in a lower section of the home and mangers were stone structures on a higher level – right at feeding height. Thus, the mangers were in the main living quarters used by the family. Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus were guests in a house, not outcasts in a stable.

Shameful Shepherds?
Shepherds were not the pillars of ancient middle eastern society. In fact, by the first century, they had an unsavory reputation. Yet, the Luke 2 shepherds were visited by angels and given the good news of Jesus’ birth. They rushed to see Him and went away praising God and telling everyone what they had seen. However, even shepherds would not risk the reputation of their village by refusing hospitality. If this couple and their newborn Child (whom they heard is Messiah!) were stuck in a stable, surely one of the shepherds would have offered his home for them. They certainly would not have walked around town telling everyone about it and rejoicing at the family’s meager shelter. The only reasonable explanation is that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had accommodations as good as or better than what they could offer. This also suggests that they were guests in a normal household.

What About the Inn?
This is where the poor translation comes in. The word translated “inn” is kataluma. It is not the word for a commercial inn. That word, which Luke uses later in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is pandocheion. Kataluma was a guest room built on above the main family room (see diagram below). In fact, this same word is used for the “upper room” that Jesus and His disciples used for the Passover on the night before His crucifixion. In the home where Jesus was born, there were other guests in the guest room. So, they stayed with the family in the main living quarters.

1st century Palestinian home

1st century Palestinian home

No Room?
John Mark Hall is correct when he accuses America of having no room for a Savior at Christmas. We are distracted with everything but Jesus – shopping, Elf on a Shelf, a secularized Saint Nicolas, celebrations of winter, and more. However, it is not accurate to bash Bethlehem for the same neglect. Jesus was born and sheltered by a modest family (probably related to Joseph) who demonstrated the expected hospitality of their culture. While that is less dramatic, it should help us focus on the real excitement: “Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.” May your family invite Him into your home this Christmas.

Horror Movies and a Little Theology of Fear

I posted this last Halloween and think it is still appropriate to consider.

Durt on the Bible

Today is Halloween, an observance when much of our society celebrates fear, evil, darkness, and the paranormal/supernatural. While children dress up to rake in candy, many teens and adults search for the next scare. Hollywood obliges this year with these movies and themes: “Silent Hill: Revelation 3D” (demonic world), “Paranormal Activity 4” (demonic possession), “Sinister” (supernatural killer), “VHS” (gore, abandoned house), “#holdyourbreath” (serial killer and possession), and “Smiley” (serial killer). How lovely!

The Theology of Horror

When “The Blair Witch Project” came out (1999), I went to see what all the hype was about. The movie did a great job of creating an overwhelming sense of dread and fear. You never really saw or understood what was happening. All you saw were the fearful reactions of the victims as they eventually succumbed to an unseen evil. It was spooky and effective. It was the first time after a movie that…

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Remade By Fire

The Remade Ring

Battered by the blows of life

The stone falls out of the ring of many promises

Scratched and dulled, it isn’t the gem we thought

Just man-made, weak, and without much value

The ring, once radiant and beautiful, is empty

Prongs reach for what used to be

What of the promise it once held?

 

In the hands of the master jeweler, there is hope

Strengthened with new gold,

Intricately woven designs

Showcase the glittering diamond

Remade by fire, a new ring is forged

Purer, stronger, uniquely designed,

Declaring its promise to all

 

Battered by the blows of life

The marriage falls from its many promises

Scratched and dulled, it isn’t the journey we expected

If only man-directed, it remains weak and without much value

The marriage, once radiant and joyful, is painful

Hearts reach for what used to be

What of the promises they each held?

 

In the hands of the Master Designer, there is hope

Strengthened with new purpose,

Intricately woven plans

Showcase the glittering of endurance

Remade by fire, a greater marriage is forged

Purer, stronger, uniquely designed, 

Declaring our promises restored in Him

 

With this ring, I thee wed

To have and to hold

Cherishing in joy or sorrow, want or plenty

Faithful to each other and to Him

Until death is allowed to part

 

Whom God has joined, let none separate

A poem for my wife on our 19th anniversary.

Not So Fast, My Mito-Replacing Friend

IVF

A year ago, I wrote about a controversial three-parent IVF technique intended to avoid mitochondrial disease. I argued that it is both medically unsound and an affront to God, the Author of Life. Many folks disagree with both positions. Some scientists, however, are coming around to my position – at least on the medical side.

Three biologists published an opinion piece in a recent edition of the journal Science (summarized here). They argue that government agencies (especially in the UK) should not be rushing to clinical trials of mitochondrial replacement. The macque monkeys in the original trial have not yet reached adulthood. They suggest at least waiting to see if any problems develop. Their concern? Just as I mentioned last year, the interaction between mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA is not fully understood. Mitochondrial replacement may actually cause unanticipated issues.

Now, these scientists do not agree with my theological position. Of course, their identification as evolutionary biologists reveals that we have many differences in our views of this world. While I think MR should be abandoned, they still find the technique promising and important. It just is not ready for a “leap of faith.”  I suggest that these scientists have taken their own leap of faith in accepting evolution as the cause for the beautiful complexity of life. They should reconsider the reasonable evidence for an intentional and artistic Creator.

New Bible Translation (Humor)

God made the one-armed man

Lincoln (my two year old) made this craft at church tonight. He was so excited to give it to me. In the course of catching him as he ran toward me, the man’s arm fell off. That’s when I decided this illustration could be used for the New Amputated Version of the  Bible.

If you groaned too much, I apologize.

Hidden Gem: Finding Wisdom at the Impasse

Job en zijn vrienden

Have you reached a point where you don’t know what to do? Does God’s will seem misty? Are there competing voices on all sides of an issue? Do your circumstances seem to indicate that God might be asleep on the job?

By chapter 27 in the book of Job, we are at an impasse. Job has lost his children, his wealth, and his health in a series of devastating blows. He curses the day of his birth (ch 3), but pleads for God’s explanation. Job’s friends, after three rounds of debate, have concluded that he must be a wretched sinner because of these troubles. Eliphaz, who gave Job the benefit of doubt in his first speech is convinced by the time of his third and final one: “Is not your wickedness great and your iniquities without end?” (Job 22:5) Bildad, the last to speak, (Zophar has apparently exhausted his explanations and doesn’t even offer a third rebuke) generalizes and leaves all of us in the dust:
“If even the moon has no brightness
and the stars are not pure in His sight,
How much less man, that maggot,
and the son of man, that worm.”  Job 25:5-6 (Note the contrast with Psalm 8!)

Job, totally disgusted with his comfortless friends, maintains his innocence, but blames God:
“As God lives, who has taken away my right,
and the Almighty, who has embittered my soul…
far be it from me that I should declare you [his friends] right;
till I die I will not put my integrity from me.
I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go.
My heart does not reproach any of my days.”  Job 27:2, 5-6

The arguments of men cannot resolve the dilemma. Is Job innocent and abandoned by God or has he earned his fate? Into the impasse comes the serene poem about wisdom in chapter 28. Some translations punctuate this as a continuation of Job’s discourse in chapter 27. However, it has changed from a first person rant into a third person hymn. Job’s first person speech continues in chapter 29. Therefore, some commentators have decided that this is an unwelcome and later interruption of the text. A more careful analysis, though, shows that this is actually a masterful insertion by the author. Instead of an intrusion, it is the narrator’s reminder. It is a chorus that concludes the cycle of speeches and prepares us for the revelations yet to come. This hidden gem of Scripture asks and answers a question of great importance for us today.In fact, the poem is divided into sections by this key query: “Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding?” (v12, repeated in 20)

Man’s ingenuity and risk cannot unearth wisdom (v1-11)

The author marvels at the risks and effort that were expended by the miners of his time. For the sake of wealth or power, they would brave the dark and depths of the earth to bring out its treasures. Listen to this marvelous line: “They hang and swing to and fro far from men” (v4). at great personal risk, humans will hew channels through rocks and dam up streams to uncover hidden wealth. We will search where no one has seen anything until we find something. The implication, though, is that not even that kind of effort can reveal wisdom.

Man’s wealth cannot purchase wisdom (v13-19)

No matter what treasures man has unearthed or collected, none can purchase wisdom. Its value exceeds them all. Wisdom, therefore, should be pursued above any earthly valuable: “And the acquisition of wisdom is above that of pearls” (v18). But how can it be obtained?

Only God can reveal wisdom (v21-28)

Death and destruction have heard of wisdom, but cannot reveal it. However, God is the Creator of all from the beginning. He has both established wisdom and searched it out. And He reveals it now to us: “And to man He said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” (v28). (The author is surely indicating the end of this long first section by echoing his description of the upright Job from 1:1 – “fearing God and turning away from evil”)

The difficulties in our world and in our own lives leave us grasping for help. The wisdom of the world leaves us at the mercy of “friends” who do not comprehend. If we are polite, we might just agree to disagree. Then we stay undecided and divided, with no conviction to move forward. Or, if we are more insistent, we shout louder to drown out those who disagree. This can even escalate to violent disagreement.

If we would seek God’s revelation of wisdom, then we could see clearly.  We have to acknowledge that God knows better than we do (fearing God). Then we have to act on what He has revealed (turning). With this hymn to wisdom, our author has prepared us for the further revelations to come in Job (keep reading!).

In another posting we can explore how to pursue this revealed wisdom from God. However, let me suggest three things briefly:

Scripture. The Scriptures reveal the character and plan of God. Wisdom can be found here.

Spirit. The Holy Spirit also guides us to true wisdom. This can be a personal revelation of truth for our specific need.

Community. The Spirit also speaks through His community, the church. Gifted teachers, pastors, friends, and counselors can be His voice.

In what areas of life do you need wisdom? How has God revealed His wisdom to you?