The following is a guest post from Dr. Michael LeFebvre, pastor of Christ Church Reformed Presbyterian in Brownsburg, Indiana.
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7, ESV)
This week is the time when society remembers the birth of Jesus, with nativity scenes popping up everywhere. The traditional scene of Mary and Joseph checking motels and finally bunking in a stable, is all based on the interpretation of one word in the above verse—a word which has probably been misunderstood in the motel-and-stable version of the story. The word in Luke 2:7 that is normally translated “inn” actually means “a lodging space.” This word can indeed refer to a public inn (as in Luke 10:34), but it often refers to the lodging room within a common house (as in Luke 22:11). Which does Luke have in mind in this verse: a public inn or the lodging space of a common house? Almost certainly the latter.
The reason Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem was because that was where Joseph's family was from. That means Joseph had lots of relatives in Bethlehem—and lots more relatives traveling back, like he was, for the Roman census. Mary and Joseph were certainly staying at the house of relatives, and were not trying to rent quarters in a hotel. When reading Luke 2:7, "It is better to think," Bible scholar John Nolland (World Bible Commentary, 35a) explains, “of an overcrowded Palestinian peasant home: a single-roomed home with an animal stall under the same roof...”
Rather than having a separate structure (a stable) for the animals, poor households frequently kept their animals in the same lodging structure as the family (cf., Judges 11:31). Building two structures was too expensive. Archaeologists have uncovered ancient houses with a raised floor on one side where the people slept and a lowered floor on the other where the animals were kept. A divider was formed by a low wall between the two halves of the building, often with a manger in that wall for the animals. Luke is probably describing such a setting. When Jesus was born, the room (not the local inn) was overcrowded. Since the floor was so crowded and “there was no place for them [to lay the baby] in the lodging-space,” they leaned over and placed him in a manger. In fact, when the shepherds arrived later that night telling their story of an angel visitation, Luke reports in verse 18 that there were others present in the room with Mary and Joseph listening to the announcement. It does not seem they were alone in a stable as often imagined. The traditional nativity scene is private and serene, but reality would have been much more crowded and uncomfortable.
Jesus was born as the King and Savior of the world, but he was born in shame and squalor. We miss this point when we transform our visions of his nativity into an idyllic setting of soft straw and quietly lowing cows. The reality was probably very different: he was born in the crowded lodging room of a relative’s house, so crowded his mother could only lay him down by setting him in the feeding trough on the animal’s side of the space. From the conditions of his birth, Jesus identified with our poverty—spiritually and physically.