Away in a manger,
no crib for a bed.
The little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky look down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
The tune is haunting and lyrical as we picture the poor young mama and her baby, alone with no one to help. Joseph is by her side, but completely clueless. Yet somehow, the little family manages and songs come down through the ages perpetuating what is probably a completely wrong picture.
I’ve read many lovely Christmas pieces — how alone Mary and Joseph were during their night-time trip to Bethlehem, her heavy with child and all; how there was no room, and so they were put in the stable; how the cows came and licked the face of Jesus (like any new mom would let that happen….) These pieces are written in beautiful prose and I find myself tearing up a bit.
Cold, alone, dirty stables, animal excrement, mooing, neighing, hay — it’s all there, and for the person who is an artist with their words it is perfect material.
But the thing is, we’ve got the stable and the manger thing a bit distorted. It’s the limitations of language and translation coupled with our own misconceptions about life in Bethlehem at the time.
I don’t wish to be a cynic or spoiler – those who have written pieces have done a beautiful job in capturing our emotions. But when did we begin to re-write Biblical stories, church traditions through a western pen?
When did the familiar story become so familiar that it became incorrect?
Living in Pakistan and the Middle East helped me to view the scriptures in a different way, to think about the Bible beyond western thought and tradition.
And that is why I appreciate Ken Bailey and his scholarship around Middle Eastern life during the time of Jesus so much. Bailey lived for over 60 years in various countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, and Cyprus. He is an expert in New Testament scholarship.
He wants to set the record straight on the dirty, cold stable and in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, he challenges our western assumptions and guides us to a more complete understanding. He does this so that the stories can, “like a diamond, be restored to their original brilliance.”
So let’s see what a more complete picture looks like:
First off – there was no inn in the sense that the west knows it. There was no commercial space with a fireplace and breakfast in the morning for a price. Instead the word in Greek refers to a guest space, an ‘upper room’ commonly used for hosting guests, relatives of the family. Likely the relatives had others staying with them as the census was being taken “throughout the known world.” Joseph was from a royal line and as such there would have been a space for them to stay. Early Christians when hearing the narrative of the birth of Christ would not have assumed a public inn where there was no space, rather they would assume there was no room in the upper room where guests usually stayed. Instead they were put in more of a ‘family’ room. At one end of this room would be an area a few feet lower where animals were brought inside during the night and led outside first thing in the morning. The family room would also have mangers dug into the ground where animals could feed during the night should they be hungry.
Second – giving birth was a big deal, a community event that took place with female members of the family, one of whom would have been a midwife. There is no way Mary gave birth alone and Joseph cut the cord and delivered the placenta. No.Way. That is 21st century thinking right there. Although probably not with her mom, she would have been with Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem. There would have been a clean space, water heated, and women to help. Stop for a moment and imagine you were the midwife at the birth. Can you picture the miracle moment, that moment that happens after every successful delivery, when you realized this one was different? When a chill went up your spine and a ‘Glory to God’ was spontaneously shouted from your soul? For it wasn’t an emergency birth, rather it was a common birth of an uncommon child.
Third – He was worshiped by shepherds, the lowest of all in the social strata. And their sign, says Bailey, is indeed the manger. Because they would find him in a manger, they knew he would be in a home of a peasant and the family would not dismiss them as unworthy and unclean, not allowing them to come and offer their worship. The gospel of Luke says that “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” Bailey goes on to say that the word ‘all’ refers to the “quality of hospitality”.
“If they had found a young mother with her first child in the middle of a filthy stable, scared to death with no older women around to help her, the shepherds would have said, ‘This is outrageous! Come home with us! Our women will take care of you!’” Bailey, Open Hearts in Bethlehem
Ken Bailey summarizes it this way:
“To summarize … the holy family traveled to Bethlehem, where
they were received into a private home. The child was born,
wrapped and … ‘put to bed’ … in the living room in the manger
that was either built into the floor or made of wood and moved
into the family living space. … The guest room was already
occupied by other guests. The host family graciously accepted
Mary and Joseph into the family room of their house. … The
village midwife and other women would have assisted at the birth.
After the child was born and wrapped, Mary put her newborn to
bed in a manger filled with fresh straw and covered him with a
blanket.” Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 34–35.
He goes on to say that understanding the context and the real story makes the story better, richer, and more filled with meaning.
Because the truth about the birth of Christ is this:
That this Jesus laid aside all that was rightfully his, putting aside his glory to become Incarnate. This is the beauty of Advent, the mystery of the Incarnation. He, a King, was born in a peasant’s home. He, the Lord of all, was reduced to a newborn baby with an umbilical cord that needed to be cut. He, the Saviour, needed breast milk and human warmth to survive.
And if we could wrap our heads around that, we would have no need to make the way he was born harder than it was.
21 thoughts on “This Advent Season, A Look at the Real Setting”
Of course, the fourth word in my previous comment should have been “Sometimes,” What will your readers think of me :)
This was fascinating! Somethings I think we (ahem… I) spend too much time trying to understand how today’s issues would be perceived or dealt with 2000 years ago and not enough time finding out what everyday life was like for the people our Scriptures were written for/to. Thank you for sharing this — I’m glad I stumbled on it a year late!
Thank you for bringing out the truth of the Christmas story so beautifully and clearly.
Thank you so much for reading and commenting Mandy! Your words are generous.
Wow . . . I had always assumed the birth was unassisted. I never even thought about people — whether family or strangers — being there to help with the birth.
I think you and Jonathan would really like Bailey’s book that I quote here. He is a scholar and stories like the Prodigal son become so much more full of depth and meaning from better understanding the cultural context behind the story.
I’m sure we would really like that book — we love learning about cultural backgrounds! May need to look into it. . .
Thank you for this most excellent post! And Kenneth Bailey’s writings always add so much.
Jason – thank you! This comment made my day!
I will look for this book since it appears to put events in a proper cultural perspective. Thanks for this post …
I think you would love it Petra! It’s a bit academic at points but I use it more as a reference guide. The stuff on the Prodigal son is wonderful.
What a beautiful re-visioning of the Christmas narrative, Marilyn! We’ve sanitized the nativity scene for too long, and too often through our western eyes. It makes for pretty pageants, but distances us from pondering the down to earth reality. I was (very) pregnant three times during the Christmas season. The image of Mary riding a donkey all those miles took on new meaning for me. Ouch! ;-)
How can I even express how much I LOVE that you wrote this, that you read that book, that you see it this way?! It is hard being in MN at this season and hearing and seeing things here about Christmas. This, and that book, need to be required reading this season.
Just read your mom’s comment and like her, after living in Pakistan and visiting a number of Middle Eastern countries I’ve changed some of my concepts of what life must have been like at the time of Jesus’ birth. When I think of an inn, the image of a caravanserai comes to mind. Mostly open with a roof overhead, tea kettles steaming over an open fire, bread in the tandoori, room for animals and much used rope strung beds provided overnight accommodations. I never thought of a guest room in a private home. The point, however, is that what was rightfully His was replaced with as you so well wrote, “the beauty of Advent and the mystery of the Incarnation.” Whatever Mary, Joseph, and Jesus needed that night, the Heavenly Father provided. Wonderful thoughts!
I LOVED this post!! And I have always assumed that Mary was cared for by a midwife, by other women. Placing the manger scene in cultural context brings it even more to life for me, vivid life. I want to read Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, for those are the eyes through which the infant Jesus gazed at the world . . .
I just read this chapter in Kenneth Bailey’s book recently. After living in Pakistan and becoming familiar with customs there, (although a bit further east) I had always thought there must have been women, a midwife. There’s no way Joseph would have been present for the birth, much less delivering the baby. Thanks for this. Now let’s revise all those Christmas pageants…