With all of our four children in school, my wife and I have sat through quite a few school nativity plays over the last couple of weeks and so been reminded of some of the many misconceptions that have grown up around the account of the birth of Jesus. Having recently read Kenneth Bailey’s very insightful and thought-provoking book ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’, I thought this might be the place and time to pass on a brief digest of his treatment of the Bethlehem stable.
He begins by reminding us that it is very improbable that Joseph could have turned up with a heavily pregnant Mary and found nowhere in Bethlehem to stay. As a ‘royal’ in Bethlehem from the line of David, Joseph would have been welcome in any home. It would have been an unthinkable breach of hospitality to turn him away from the door, never mind a pregnant woman.
To our Western minds, the word manger makes us think of stables or barns, but this was not the case in traditional Middle Eastern villages. Simple village homes often had just two rooms. One was kept for guests, attached to the end of the house or on the roof (1 Kings 17.19). The main room was a ‘family room’ where the family cooked, ate, slept and lived. The end of the room next to the door was either a few feet lower than the rest of the floor or was blocked off with heavy timbers. This was where the family cow, donkey and sheep would be kept each night. This served the dual purpose of keeping the animals safe and providing heat to the house in winter. Such homes still exist today in Bethlehem. This explains, for example, why Jephthah vowed to sacrifice whatever came out of his house first on his return from victory in battle (Judges 11.29-40); he expected an animal to come rushing out from the ‘stable’ end of the house.
The word translated ‘inn’ (Luke 2.7) in many English versions is not the usual word for a commercial inn (pandocheion) but the word katalyma, which simply means ‘a place to stay’. It can refer to an inn, but is also used of a house and a guest room (as in Luke 22.10-12). Bailey argues that Luke is telling us that Jesus was placed in a manger (at the end of the family room) because the guest room in that house was already occupied.
‘And His shelter was a stable / And His cradle was a stall’… ‘but that manger was in a warm and friendly home, not in a cold and lonely stable. Looking at the story in this light strips away layers of interpretive mythology that have built up around it. Jesus was born in a simple two-room village home such as the Middle East has known for at least three thousand years.’ (Bailey)
Does it really matter? It does matter, because it’s all too easy for us to let our understanding of Scripture be informed by myths, legends and sentiment rather than striving always to know God’s word as accurately as we possibly can. We are susceptible to these kinds of misconceptions because they come in ways that seem so innocent. It would be interesting to know how much our adult understanding of the Bible has been unconsciously influenced by the pictures in children’s Bible story books – think, for example, of Noah’s ark as a dangerously unsafe bathtub-like vessel with giraffes necks sticking out of windows (windows?). No wonder people grow up with inbuilt cynicism about the biblical account – what they are cynical about is a distortion of the truth, not the truth itself.
The story of our Lord’s birth is a glorious one, and the last thing we want is to have it buried under ‘layers of interpretive mythology.’