For many, Christmas is a time of tension amidst family members who don’t see each other often. In fact, this “tradition” begins with Mary and Joseph visiting Joseph’s family in Bethlehem.
The Traditional Story is Unrealistically Silly
The traditional story has Joseph traveling to Bethlehem alone with a very pregnant wife, who goes into labor as they enter town. They frantically try to find a place where she can give birth, but no one helps and the inn is full. So they find a stable or a cave where the animals feed, and she gives birth there. It’s a beautiful example of the humble nature of Jesus’ birth.
Except it’s pure fantasy! It was conceived of by Medieval-Era Europeans, applying their context (and assumptions about Jews) onto the biblical text. In fact, it’s deeply offensive to the community of Bethlehem. There isn’t a community on the planet that wouldn’t allow a woman in labor to come inside to give birth. I mean, come on!
In fact, it’s highly unlikely Joseph would have so mis-timed his journey so that they’d arrive in the nick of time. The dude was smarter than that.
What Goes Unsaid in the Bible
Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth doesn’t declare any of these things. Much is unsaid, but Luke assumes we understand what is going on.
The government order meant all of David’s living descendants had to return to Bethlehem for registration. The distance from Joseph’s home to Bethlehem was about 80 miles, although they likely did not go in a straight line: a week’s journey by foot in a highly populated area.
Joseph and Mary no doubt traveled in a large caravan well ahead of her expected time to give birth. Joseph, being a skilled laborer, would set up shop right away and stay in town until the work dried up. Bethlehem was a suburb of the largest cities in the region and King Herod had begun many large building projects. So there may have been plenty of work to be had there.
When they arrive, Joseph and Mary would immediately move in with family who were already living there. This was in accordance with the government’s order to return to the family city-of-origin.
Our English translations say there was no room in the “inn”, but the original Greek doesn’t suggest this at all. The word translated as “inn” means “guest room” or “upper room.” (Most modern English translations still opt for a traditional reading, instead of going for accuracy.) And English translators render this word correctly in the New Testament the other times this word appears.
What goes unsaid but was understood by everyone reading it in the First Century was simply this: everyone kept animals in their homes. The most important animals like goats, which produced nutritious milk on a daily basis and provided families with a wonderful source of protein, lived on the first floor. Thus the manger was on the first floor in the family’s house. Above this level (away from the animal smells) were the upper rooms where the family slept, including the guest rooms.
And it makes sense there wouldn’t be room in the guest room: lots of family were in town to register with the government!
And besides, it was the Jewish New Year, so there were lots of things to do in nearby Jerusalem, so no doubt many stayed around for the festivities.
No Room in the Guest Room.
Why wouldn’t Joseph’s family let Mary into the guest room? Here’s the ultimate insult: they rejected her. They knew she was pregnant out of wedlock. The family shamed them.
The family rejected this unwed pregnant woman, relegating her to the level of the animals.
Jesus’ birth was one of shame and rejection by his own family… a prophetic picture of his death…
This Christmas, if you experience familial tension and stress, remember how Joseph must have felt; remember Mary’s rejection, and a baby born in shame.
What a shock it must have been when the shepherds showed up to worship the newborn King! And the shepherds spread through the community to make sure everyone heard the good news.
Feel Rejection by your Family?
If you feel rejection this Christmas by your family, get thee to a church, a community to welcome you and celebrate together the birth of the King!