Troublesome Topic: Where Did Joseph and Mary End Up?

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.


1) Women did not need to go to register. This is agreed upon by a majority of commentators.

2) Usually a woman in her condition would have stayed at home. Mary made this long trip with Joseph because they had suffered much rejection and she preferred to stay close to Joseph, the only one who understood her situation. It appears that even her parents did not believe her.

3) Joseph and Mary should have been travelling with either his father, her father, or some other male relatives. But it appears they were travelling alone. This also demonstrated rejection.

4) If they were both from the house of David, and we are told in clear language that they were, they should have been able to find lodging in Bethlehem with relatives, but no such lodging was offered.

5) One would expect that a pregnant woman, about to have a baby, would be given priority in the main house, but that was not the case.

6) She should have had a midwife. Like most Christians, I assume there was none present. Due to the complete rejection by their respective families, the midwives that their relatives had used at other times were “unavailable.” It seems a safe assumption that Mary had this baby alone, without any help.

7) The fact that he was laid in a manger is the detail that shouts the loudest that “Something is wrong with this picture!” How many other babies do you know of in human history who were placed in a feeding trough after being born? This simple fact demonstrated in a multitude of ways that this young couple did not have the support that was so common in that culture. It is obvious that they were utterly rejected by everyone around them, except a few pack animals.

What Were Their Options for Lodging?

The first option for most Jews was the house of a relative. But Joseph knew they could not go to the house of any relative in “The House of Bread” for he had been told in no uncertain terms that they would not be accepted. The only relatives that seemed to understand them were the old priest Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth. But they lived in the hill country at a distance from “The House of Bread” that was too great to make it useful for Joseph to present himself for the census.

The second choice of most travelling Jews was to stop at the house of a fellow Jew that lived along the road. But in “The House of Bread” such houses were owned by distant relatives as well, since almost everyone in that town was related in some way to “The One Who Is Loved.”

The third choice for a traveling Jew was a public resting place for caravans and other travelers called a Khan or a caravanserai. These were walled courtyards with some roofed areas along the wall, and a well in the center of the courtyard. They also had a place for the animals, either in sheds built for that purpose, or in caves dug into a hill behind the caravanserai. There was no charge for staying in these places, but one had to bring food for himself and his animals, his own firewood, cookware, etc.

Joseph did not want his young wife to start labor while surrounded by people who would be sure to ask her questions. “Where are your close relatives?” “Why don’t you have a midwife?” “Why are you here instead of with your family?” “Why did you come on this journey instead of staying home with your mom and aunts and friends who could help you deliver this baby?” “Is your husband the only support you’ve got? Oy!” People would have seen several things that were “wrong with this picture” and jumped to the conclusion that something was wrong with this couple. In a culture in which everything revolved around key relationships, this young couple was conspicuous because they lacked those relationships.

While this option was indeed a possibility, and they could have made it work, he wanted to protect her from such questions. So he rejected that idea as well.

He could take her to the Khan’s stable, for he would much rather be surrounded by pack animals than by angry and curious people. But this would likewise have precipitated the same type of questions.

The fourth option was a public inn where the host charged money for staying there. The young couple had very little money, and he refused to go there because the Jews considered them unsafe, even the Roman’s considered their proprietors unscrupulous.

As a final option there were caves in the area that were used to shelter pack animals, (donkeys, mules, and horses). These caves were used when the town was overflowing with people who stayed in it while attending one of the Jewish feasts in Jerusalem six miles away. Each family had a place in mind, either on their own land just outside of town or that of a relative, where they would shelter the animals of relatives that stayed with them, once the small stable attached to their house was full to capacity. Caves were well suited for sheltering animals and had been adapted hundreds of years ago for that purpose. The family would send some of their own boys along with their visiting cousins to camp out in the cave in order to protect the pack animals from thieves or wild animals. But here the problem for the young couple was still one of being rejected by their relatives. The fact that these caves were a small distance from the house did not matter; they were owned by relatives and guarded by relatives and this couple was simply not welcomed on their land.

Yet Justin Martyr stated around AD 150 that Jesus was born in a cave, and Origen said the same thing about 100 years later. Other early church fathers did so as well. The biblical text does not use the word stable, but we have inferred that from the use of the word “manger.” When we put together the Biblical account and the witness of the early church fathers we can surmise that Jesus was born in a cave that was used as a stable.

Solving the Problem

One speculative way to get around the problem of not being allowed to stay on land owned by relatives is this: Joseph remembered a place that he and his cousins used to explore. It was an abandoned cave in which parts of the roof had collapsed. The land the cave was on belonged to a distant relative who didn’t care about family politics. He was a strange old man who didn’t care what others thought and never took care of anything. He did not take care of himself, his animals, or his house. Therefore, when erosion on the hill above the cave started causing leaks in this cave, he did nothing, even though it created a pool of stagnant water on the cave floor. Eventually the erosion had gotten worse and large chunks of the cave’s ceiling started falling into the cave. Then it was no longer a true cave, and it was a last option for keeping animals. Parts of it were still cave-like in nature, but parts of it were not.

Several things were clear in Joseph’s mind. The old man was not likely to make his way to the cave so he would not even know they were there. He knew that families would have to get desperate for space before they started using this strange old man’s crumbling cave without his permission, in which case they would have no room for accusations. What’s more, if he and his wife got there before there were any animals present, it would give him a small advantage.  He knew that the animals would not care that Mary had gotten pregnant without a proper husband. Finally he was convinced that having a number of pack animals to deal with was better than trying to deal with a bunch of condemning people.

It was definitely an abnormal place to deliver a baby and was obviously a “last resort.” Think of it this way: in a culture in which everything revolved around key relationships, this baby was born in the presence of pack animals! That fact shouts, “Something is wrong with this picture!”


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.