Troublesome Topic: What Was Meant by “No Room”?

Luke 2:7


And she brought forth her son, the firstborn,

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and wrapped him in strips of cloth,

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and laid Him in a manger because there was room for them in the guest room.


And she gave birth to her son, the one with all the privileges and the most responsibility, and she wrapped him in long rags, and laid him in a feeding trough. She did this because there was no room for them in the guest room.

I’ve lived long enough in Central America to know that there is no such thing as “not enough room.” There is always room for one more. Whether the setting is a public bus, or a tiny church building, the public market, or any other place where there are lots of people, there is always room for one more. That is their mental perspective, and it is reflected in the physical realities of people and the space they occupy. When my Dad and I entered a Honduran village for the first time we would count the one-room huts and multiply by 10 to get an estimate of the population of that village (although that number has begun to drop). Part of their secret is that for them, there is no such thing as “personal space.” People will get close to your face to talk to you because that is how they talk to each other. I have seen American backing away while the person of that country keeps pressing closer to them. With their body language the American is saying “You’re too close,” while the Honduran is saying “I’m not close enough.” I have ridden for hours in a small bus the size of a 15-passenger van holding 35 people (6 were on the roof rack) plus chickens, produce and other cargo. I have worshipped with 84 people in a structure that was 14 feet by 14 feet which is 196 square feet (two of us counted the people and calculated the space and we were very close to each other on each calculation). There is literally always room for one more. The popular mental picture of “no room in the inn” is a very American concept, but it should be obvious that ancient Israel was more like Central America today than North America today.

In ancient Israel I think “no room in the guest room” did not mean there was no physical space available; it meant that the people asking for space were not welcomed there. Yes, they were crowded, but are you telling me they could not find a patch of floor for a pregnant woman whom we suppose was already in labor? The fact that there were lots of people already there was only an excuse. They could have made room if they wanted to.


1: “the firstborn”

The author did not have to tell the reader that Jesus was her firstborn child; that is obvious from the fact that she was a virgin. However, it is mentioned to indicate he would have responsibilities and privileges that were not held by all sons. There were societal expectations that he would be a leader, at least in his own family, and possibly beyond that.

2: “strips of cloth”

We are familiar with the term “swaddling clothes,” but what does that mean? It means nothing more than strips of cloth that have been torn from old, unusable garments. It comes from a Greek word that means, among other things, “to tear.” They did not let anything go to waste, so they kept old clothes and reused them as rags in general or for more specific purposes. Mary was prepared; she brought with her what she would need to wrap the baby up after he was born. From what I see in the commentaries, wrapping a newborn baby in strips of cloth was the norm. However, even though it was normal, it had profound significance in the case of Jesus. The use of such strips of cloth was seldom mentioned precisely because it was common. The fact that it was mentioned here called attention to it in a way that tells us there are lessons to be learned from it. 1) The King of the Universe was “clothed” for a time in leftover garments that had been torn into rags. 2) The same type of rags, when they had served their usefulness as rags, were used for one last thing—what the Bible calls “menstrual rags,” fulfilling the role filled in our culture by tampons and feminine pads. 3) What did they do to prepare a dead body for burial? They wrapped it in strips of cloth. Therefore, the statement that he was wrapped in strips of cloth is yet another way the story highlights the realities that the coming of Jesus was characterized by humility, was surrounded by filth and nastiness, and had one purpose—He was born so He could die. Some of these things are characteristic of all human life, but we usually don’t say those things about God. These are additional ways that prove that God fully became human in every way except for one, He did not sin.