Wednesday, December 21, 2011
A New Look at the Christmas Story
Sometimes we don't realize how easily we filter what we see or hear through the grid of what is familiar to us or according to the cultural defines of our world.
I believe we do this more often than we know with the bible stories or teaching that we have heard all our lives.
I recently read a very interesting book by Kenneth Bailey called "Jesus, through Middle Eastern Eyes". Kenneth is a university professor who spent sixty years living in the Middle East observing first hand the ways and customs of the village people -- so little changed over the last 2000 years.
What he reveals changes some of the details of the Christmas Story that are taken for granted in the telling and retelling of the events as they are understood from our own cultural perspective. We are unaware that the details may well be different than we have been given to understand them.
Let's examine the story from the Middle Eastern culture in which the events of the beloved story took place.
1> The Census-
"So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city." Luke 2:3
When the census degree was issued everyone had to present himself in the city of his birth.
Immediately, we imagine people going back to the city of their birth - a city that has changed and grown. Joseph and Mary would be entering a city crowded with travellers all looking for accommodations .. and just like we have experienced .. the inns, the hotels all have 'No Vacancy' signs hung in the window.
Not so .... in ancient Bethlehem !
Joseph was not travelling to a foreign city. He was going home! Home where many family members still lived. Not only was he going 'home' but he was considered 'royal'. Bethlehem boasted of so many descendants of King David that they affectionately referred to it as The City of David. Joseph was "of the house and lineage of David" meaning that most every house in Bethlehem would be open to him.
To refuse hospitality to a descendent of King David would reflect negatively on the whole community. It wouldn't happen!
So if we accept that Joseph and Mary would not have come to Bethlehem with no where to stay .. how do we deal with the other details of the story as we have understood it?
2> The Inn
But the scriptures specifically say "for there was no room in the inn" , don't they?
Yes.. but ... what is meant by 'the inn' ?
There is a specific Greek word for what we would call a hotel or public inn. That word is used in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But the Greek word used here in the Christmas story is a word that is used only one other time and that is when Jesus sent His disciples to go to a certain house and ask to use the upper room or guest chamber.
We need to understand something about the homes of the Middle East villagers... homes that remained unchanged into the middle of the 20th century.
The homes consisted of two rooms. One of those rooms - either build onto the side of the house or on top of the roof (as in the upper room or as was built for Elijah by the Shunamite woman) was set aside for a specific purpose. Hospitality being of such importance in the eastern culture every home had a 'guest room' where they could put their guests. It was used for no other purpose.
So now we know... the home where Joseph and Mary went to find lodging already had its 'guest room' occupied. Because of that, the babe was laid in a manger. So we have to answer the question of the 'manger'.
3> The Manger.
Again we need to examine the home of the common people of that time. Beside the 'guest room' there was one other room in the house. A long room that was divided by either timber laid across the width of it or a dropped floor.
This division was needed because on one side the family cooked/ate/slept/lived. On the dropped side the animals spent the night. They were brought in at dark and tied.
There were two reasons the animals were brought into the house. One was that the animals kept the house warm and the other was that it kept the animals safe.
At the divide between the animal side and the family's side were one or two mangers filled with straw. If the animals became hungry at night they could eat of the straw provided.
In the morning the animals were taken back out, the area thoroughly cleaned and fresh straw laid in the manger. Many a village babe was laid in this manger for the day. it was perfect !
It was here that baby Jesus was laid - His first bed.
Another misconception we have is that Mary suffered and birthed her babe alone. That would never happened in middle eastern culture. The women would have sent the men out of the house and they would have attended and cared for Mary when her time came. For the family or even villagers to have left her uncared for would have been an unspeakable travesty of hospitality or the blatant neglect of their own.
4> The Shepherds
When the angels appeared to the shepherds that night they gave them a 'sign' saying "and you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger".
What was the meaning of the sign? Why was it important for the shepherd to know this ?
Shepherds were considered the poor of the poor -- the lowest on the social ladder. If the angels had come and told them that a King had been born, the shepherds would never have dared to go look for him. They knew they would never be admitted to a palace or even into the home of a wealthy citizen of Bethlehem. But the angel told them "swaddling clothes, in a manger". That told the shepherds that this baby was born into a common village home. Swaddling clothes they understood -- their own children had been so wrapped.. and they all had a manger in their homes. The angels' message to them was that the babe was 'one of them'.
5> The Wise Men
Not only was the babe born for the poor, but also for the rich. The wise men were eager to find the new king - the babe the star directed them to.
We read that they came to the 'house' where Mary and Joseph were -- not a stable, not a cave but a house!
Some have tried to make this fact fit by saying that Mary and Joseph had moved back to Nazareth at this time but that is easily seen to be false just by reading the scripture. After the wise men had come, the Lord warned Joseph in a dream to take his little family to Egypt. This he did and it was after he came out of Egypt that they moved to Nazareth.
I know these details do not change the important message of the story - that Jesus was born a baby... in humble circumstances - that He came to live among us fully man and fully God.
We can still rejoice in the great 'gift' of salvation that He brought with His life and His death.
Jesus - the evidence of God's love toward us and God's desire to live among us.
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on Him shall not perish but have everlasting life." John 3:16