Sometimes, I can be a slow learner…
It’s possible to “know” something without the truth of it really sinking in. I’ve had part of the Christmas story wrong all these years. My imagination was so captive to the traditional tale that it wasn’t until this year, preparing for a sermon, that I finally got it.
In Luke, we read that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census:
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 guest room available for them. (Luke 2:6-7, NIV)
Wait. Isn’t that last line supposed to say, “because there was no room for them in the inn“? It used to, in the older version of the NIV, and that wording goes all the way back to the King James. But newer versions translate the text differently. What’s going on?
The Greek word translated here as “guest room” is the same one Luke uses in 22:11, when Jesus tells the disciples to inquire about the room where they will have their Passover meal together. But in Luke 10:34, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, when Jesus is clearly referring to a commercial inn, Luke uses an entirely different word. Thus, the word Luke uses in the Christmas story is the same one he uses elsewhere to talk about a room in a house, and different from the word he uses elsewhere for an inn.
If we’re going to be consistent, we have to say that when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they didn’t go to an inn.
It makes a difference.
Here’s the story to which most of us have grown accustomed. Joseph and Mary live in Nazareth. Because of the census, they have to travel a long way by donkey to get to Bethlehem, his ancestral home. Mary is ready to deliver her baby at any moment.
They finally arrive in Bethlehem, but they don’t have an advance reservation at the inn, which is completely booked. The innkeeper looks at the obviously pregnant Mary and says gruffly, “Look, if you want to sleep in the stable out back, that’s all I’ve got.” Joseph reluctantly agrees. And there in the cold of night, surrounded by smelly old farm animals, the Messiah is born, with nothing for a bed other than a feeding trough.
Is that what happened? Look at what Luke actually says. First of all, “while they were there” suggests that Mary didn’t deliver that very evening. She wasn’t having labor pains when they arrived in Bethlehem. And they didn’t go to an inn. Bethlehem was probably too small of a town to merit one, and as we’ve seen, a better translation of Luke’s word would be “guest room.”
But wasn’t there a stable, or barn, or cave, or something? Isn’t that what laying Jesus in a manger implies? Not necessarily. In that time and culture, animals often shared living space with humans. They could be left to graze outdoors during the day, but at night would be taken inside, where they would feed from a manger.
So here’s the revised story. Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. Others of his line would have had to make the same journey, which means the relatives are in town. And in that culture, family members take care of their own. It would bring lasting shame to the family if a son of David and his wife had to bear their firstborn in a barn or stable! In all likelihood, therefore, some relatives of Joseph’s took them into their home, as they already had with other relatives; hence, the guestroom was already full.
So, yes, Jesus was probably born in the presence of animals, and yes, his bed was a manger. But he wasn’t born in a stable, and Mary and Joseph weren’t alone in the dark and cold. They were in a house (see also Matt 2:11), surrounded by family.
I admit, that way of telling the story makes Mary and Joseph seem less heroic and more…well, normal. But that’s the point. Before, I imagined a story constructed around the birth of Jesus in the lowliness of a stable. But what if I imagine instead a God comes in the lowliness of my own home? That Jesus Immanuel–God with us–comes in a quiet and ordinary way into the midst of a family, looking to stay for a while in the guest room?
Somehow, it makes a difference to me. Does it make a difference to you?