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.

Did E’er Such Love and Sorrow Meet?

Gwendolyn, Christmas 2006

People are asking very legitimate questions about suffering during these days after the Newtown shootings. Below is part of our family’s Christmas newsletter in 2005, the year we got Gwendolyn’s diagnosis and watched her suffer through seizures almost every day. 

Christmas is a time of contrasts. So many people generously give to others in need. But there seems to be so much need. Families put up lights and decorations while darkness clouds their relationships. We shop and spend and wrap gifts and cook and party to the point of fatigue, and then we complain that there isn’t enough time or money to enjoy these days. We mumble, “Happy Holidays” and wonder why we have lost the spirit of the season.

Some might say that Christmas is escapism. For a short time we try to forget about the troubles in the world. Tsunamis, wars, and hurricanes have challenged our compassion and understanding. Can there really be a God who cares and who can do anything about it?

We have wrestled with this question even more personally this year [in 2005]. Can we trust God when Gwendolyn’s seizures don’t seem to stop? If He can heal her, why doesn’t He?

God is not silent about suffering. One of oldest books in the Old Testament, Job, is a story about suffering. Job was a righteous man. God blessed him with many children and possessions. But one day, that all changed. His livestock was stolen. His servants were killed. And even his children died in a storm. Then he lost his health, suffering painful boils all over his body.

How did Job respond? He did not curse God; he did not sin. He kept trusting God. Job’s friends were convinced that Job (or his children) had sinned and deserved God’s punishment. They debated with Job and begged him to repent. Job fought back and asked God for a fair hearing. Surely God would correct this injustice.

Finally, God appeared. “Instruct me,” He asked. “Tell me where you were when I laid the foundations of the world? Where were you when I created the stars?” Job finally understood. His circumstances were not determined solely by his behavior. God had a larger plan. And He didn’t explain it all to Job.

We don’t always get what we deserve. And thank God for that! Usually we deserve much worse than we get. Why do we struggle so much when adversity comes? Because pain hurts, and we don’t like it. But the truth is that God has never left us, never forsaken us, and never stopped loving us.

Jesus didn’t initially get what He deserved either. The King of Kings was born in poverty and then cruelly executed. But His perfect life and death and subsequent resurrection made a way for us. Now, He is exalted in His rightful place. And we can have eternal Life and a home with Him forever. Jesus is the answer for suffering.