I have been invited once again to speak in Iran later this year – and I am really looking forward to it. I have done a lot of work in the Middle East over the years, and enjoy Persian culture the most. The hospitality of the Persians is the stuff of legend. In fact, some guidebooks even warn you to be careful about complimenting your hosts furnishing too much, as they are quite likely to give you the object as a gift – and that could be embarrassing.
One of the reasons I am fascinating by Middle Eastern culture is that this is the modern representation of the culture that forms the backdrop of the Bible. Obviously, much has changed over the centuries, but in many parts of the Middle East you can still find people living very similarly to the type of world Jesus would have encountered. Some scholars have dedicated their lives to helping us understand the impact that the prevailing culture should have on our interpretation of the Bible. My favourite is Kenneth Bailey (buy his “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” at Amazon or Kalahari.net).
An understanding of the underlying culture can dramatically change the reading of a story (see, for example, a recent sermon I preached on the Prodigal Son).
But my issue today is that if a new insight is so big that it changes everything we were ever taught, would we be prepared to change everything? I mean, everything from the stories we tell our children, to how we view specific characters? The correct answer, of course, is that we MUST make such changes if we realise that we have misunderstood (or even misrepresented) the Bible. God’s Word must stand supreme over all.
There is such an issue… and it relates to one of the greatest of all Bible stories. And we have it all wrong. You probably won’t hear this at church this week, but you should.
Our telling of the Christmas story shows the innkeeper in a bad light. “No room in my inn” he says, and slams the door shut on Mary and Joseph – directing them to a stable around the back of the house. This picture has much more to do with middle ages peasant villages in Europe than what actually happened. There are at least three reasons why we can be sure that this traditional picture of Jesus being born in a stable is wrong.
In the ancient Middle East, animals were not kept in stables. They were either kept out in the fields (that is, in fact, where the shepherds were, with the flocks that night), or, for poorer families or those with just a few animals, they were actually kept in the house with the family.
The houses were built (as many still are in rural areas of the Middle East) as a single large room, with a split level floor. The family slept on the upper floor. The lower floor area was used for cooking and eating during the day, and the family’s domestic animals were brought into the safety of the house to sleep at night. (Note that the “manger” is a generic term for animal feeding trough – no specific animals are mentioned in the Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus.)
But, most significantly, it is inconceivable that the hospitality instincts of those in the Middle East would have let anyone sleep in a stable, let alone a pregnant woman. I have personal experience of Middle Eastern hospitality, and cannot believe that Mary and Joseph were left to fend for themselves. Are there any cultures in the world where the women of a community would leave a young (Mary was likely only 13 or 14 years old at the time), heavily pregnant woman to give birth on her own? And even if that is how the evening had started, when her labour started and Joseph went to the nearest neighbours to ask for help, would they have refused, or left her in a barn somewhere? That is just impossible to imagine.
The most likely scenario is that the innkeeper, with a full guest list, invited Joseph and Mary into his own home (or at least made sure they were made welcome at someone’s home). Mary gave birth with the help of the community’s older women, and then put Jesus down to sleep in the softest thing available in the house – the manger filled with straw, hay and dry animal feed. Some unnamed family became the first host of the King of Kings. I assume they have received adequte reward in heaven!
There is nothing in the Bible that would indicate anything other than this scenario. It is our (mainly British/European) view of a homestead with a barn or stable out the back that has shaped our mental image of what happened that first Christ-mas night. It is not what happened at all.
But now the big question… Will we change how we read the Bible?
If I am right about this view, are we prepared to go on a crusade to change every nativity play that will be performed later this year? Will we send letters to the Christmas card designers and ensure they sort out the images of the innkeeper and the stable? Will we correct the stories we tell our children? Will we either correct or abandon the carols that are wrong? Will we redeem the innkeeper and the Bethlehem community?
By the way, there is a wonderful theological image we have also missed here. In Exodus 12, the families were told to take a faultless lamb and keep it in their homes for five days. This lamb would then be killed and eaten as part of the Passover ceremony. That lamb would obviously have eaten from the very manger that Jesus was laid in. Jesus is our Passover Lamb, and the striking image of him being given shelter in a home that he would later redeem through his death, is lost if we think of his birth happening in some outside stable area.
I have two thoughts in mind for how we choose to react to this information. The first is that we update conscientiously our picture of the Christ-mas night. But the second is to confront us with an example of changing our ingrained views of what the Bible actually tells us. We need to be open to doing this when we find that what we thought the Bible said is not in fact what it intended to say. Think about it. This is important.