Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Where was the manger?

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Image by Hucklebarry from Pixabay

There are many supposed and real hints in the Bible of just how things will play out when our Lord returns. For centuries eminent scholars have scrutinized these hints and endeavoured to put together a coherent time line of that event. They have written many stories based on those searches; they all sound wonderful, but they don’t agree.

Maybe we shouldn’t worry. God has it all in hand; someday we’ll see and it will surprise us. There were just as many conflicting prophecies about the coming of the Messiah: he would be of the lineage of David, born in Bethlehem; Rachel would weep for her children, because they were not; he would come from Egypt; he would be a Nazarite, etc. It seemed impossible that it could all be true. Then, events occurred in a very short time period that checked every one of those boxes.

Here is the account from the first seven verses of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. Let’s ignore the legends, myths, folklore and tomfoolery that have become attached to this account and try to understand what happened.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)   And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

The Bible Background Commentary states; “pottery samples suggest a recent migration of people from the Bethlehem area to Nazareth around this time.” In retrospect this looks like poor planning on Joseph’s part, because he was now in the wrong place for the baby to be born. But perhaps he would never have met Mary if he had remained in Bethlehem. No matter, a decree from the Roman Emperor got them back where they needed to be, and just in time, too.

Now, if Joseph had to return to Bethlehem to be taxed, that must mean that he owned something there that was taxable, perhaps just a small plot of land. How did he get his very pregnant wife from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a distance of 150km? Folklore says she rode a donkey. That is possible, but the Bible says nothing on the subject so its best not to be too categoric.

No doubt they came to the home of relatives in Bethlehem who welcomed them into their home. To refuse hospitality to someone would have been a disgrace in their culture.

But what about that famous “no room in the inn?” The word translated “inn ”is kataluma, which means guest chamber and is so translated in the two other places we find it in the New Testament (Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11). Homes in a rural community like Bethlehem were mostly single room affairs, with the family animals occupying the ground level and the family living on the upper level. Sometimes there was a guest room built on the roof. The animals would have been few, and the space kept scrupulously clean, because it was part of the home.

The “no room” part probably means that because of the number of people in the home there was no private place for a mother to bring a baby into the world. What woman would want to have that happen in the middle of a crowded room? So their host made a spot for them in the space below, clean, discreet and away from curious eyes. Surely they called the midwife, and she probably assigned Joseph some tasks to ease his nervousness and keep him at least partly out of the way.

So the baby was born in Bethlehem, according to prophecy. Some time later a group of Magi appeared in Jerusalem looking for the newborn King of the Jews. King Herod took drastic action to eliminate this rival, having all boys under the age of two murdered. And Rachel (all the mothers of Bethlehem) wept. An angel warned Joseph to take his wife and child and flee to Egypt. This was a trip of around 590km and may well have involved a donkey, though once again the Bible is silent. When Herod died, an angel informed Joseph it was safe to return (the Messiah called out of Egypt) and the family settled once again in Nazareth. Nazarite and Nazarene don’t sound as different in Greek as they do in our language and the Bible says this fulfilled the prophecy that Messiah would be called a Nazarite.

It’s a simple story. The wonder is how God used Emperors and Kings to work out His plan. They had no idea the events caused by their decrees fulfilled every detail of prophecies made hundreds of years earlier.

Hail the King of glory

 

Gentle Mary laid her child lowly in a manger;
There He lay, the undefiled, to the world a stranger:
Such a babe in such a place, can He be the Saviour?
Ask the saved of all the race who have found His favour.

Angels sang about His birth; wise men sought and found Him;
Heaven’s star shone brightly forth, glory all around Him:
Shepherds saw the wondrous sight, heard the angels singing;
All the plains were lit that night, all the hills were ringing.

Gentle Mary laid her child lowly in a manger;
He is still the undefiled, but no more a stranger:
Son of God, of humble birth, beautiful the story;
Praise His name in all the earth, hail the King of glory!

-Joseph Cook, 1859-1933

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