The Manger as a Symbol of Christmas

Luke 2:7 reports that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

This is commonly understood by people that Jesus was born in a barn because no hotels in Bethlehem would give a room to Joseph and Mary.  But Ken Bailey, who spent much of his life in the Middle East argues against this popular understanding.  In his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Bailey contends, “Joseph was returning to the village of his origin.  In the Middle East, historical memories are long, and the extended family, with its connection to its village of origin, is important.  In such a world a man like Joseph could have appeared in Bethlehem, and told people, ‘I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, the son of Levi’ and most homes in town would be open to him…. In every culture a woman about to give birth is given special attention.  Simple rural communities the world over always assist one of their own women in childbirth regardless of the circumstances.  Are we to imagine that Bethlehem was an exception?…. To turn away a descendent of David in the ‘City of David’ would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village…. Mary had relatives in a nearby village.  A few months prior to the birth of Jesus, Mary had visited her cousin Elizabeth ‘in the hill country of Judea’ and was welcomed by her…. By the time, therefore, that Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem they were but a short distance from the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  If Joseph had failed to find shelter in Bethlehem he would naturally have turned to Zechariah and Elizabeth.” (p. 25-26)

The word generally translated as “inn” in verse 7 is the Greek word katalumati.  It is translated in Luke 22:11 as “guest room.”  In Luke 10:34, Luke uses the word pandoxeion when he wishes to refer to an “inn.”  It is not that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in an inn, but that there was no guest room available for them.  Ken Bailey explains, “Simple village homes in Palestine often had but two rooms.  One was exclusively for guests…. The main room was a ‘family room’ where the entire family cooked, ate, slept and lived.  The end of the room next to the door, was either a few feet lower than the rests of the floor or blocked off with heavy timbers.  Each night into that designated area, the family cow, donkey and a few sheep would be driven.  And every morning those same animals were taken out and tied up in the courtyard of the house.  The animal stall would then be cleaned for the day. Such simple homes can be traced from the time of David up to the middle of the twentieth century.” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 28-29)

A popular misunderstanding of the Christmas story is that coldhearted innkeepers turned Joseph and his very pregnant wife away.  It is more likely that a family in Bethlehem opened up a portion of their home to Mary and to Joseph even though their “guest room” was not available.  Yes, the baby was laid in a manger (a feeding trough), but out of generous hospitality rather than coldly turning them away.  And we are invited to do for Jesus what that Bethlehem family did for Mary and Joseph. Martin Luther expressed this beautifully in a poem:

Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,

Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,

Within my heart, that it may be

A quiet chamber kept for Thee.

My heart for very joy doth leap,

My lips no more can silence keep,

I too must sing, with joyful tongue,

That sweetest ancient cradle song,

“Glory to God in highest Heaven,

Who unto man His Son hath given,”

While angels sing with pious mirth,

“A glad New Year to all the earth.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: