Luke2:7

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Translation

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.

Paraphrase

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.

Footnotes

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.

What Was That Place We Usually Call an “Inn”?

The Greek word used here is not the word for “house,” but neither is it the typical word for a public inn, or a “caravansary,” the stopping place of caravans and other travelers. The word used here means “to break up,” as in a place to stop for the night and break up a journey, but it was employed so as to indicate a “guest room” in the private home of a relative, friend or stranger. Luke used this word three other times in his Gospel, and the NET Bible translates it as follows: once for “lodging” in general (Lk 9:12), once for the person who was “a guest” (Lk 19:7), and once for the “guest room, or upper room” where Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples for the last time (Lk 22:11). We may conclude then, that, although the word meant “to break up,” its usage indicates that such a stop was made in the home of some hospitable person rather than a public inn.

The long-standing tradition was that of hospitality to all without price. The expectation was that the guest of a hospitable family would leave them a small token of appreciation (which could be anything useful) as a way of saying “thank you.” But such a payment was not required and it was given according to the financial capabilities of the guest. We look at that and think that a family that lived beside a busy road would often be taken advantage of, but that was seldom the case and there were benefits as well. Such a family would see traveling merchants from faraway places and hear the news from distant lands before others did. They became the hub for information and news. They would get first chance at buying things like spices or garments or other merchandise brought from afar. While some could give them very little, others rewarded them with more than just the gift they offered, so things probably balanced out in the end.

On the other hand there were indeed inns that were money-making establishments at the time of Jesus. This was a business opportunity that had opened up and become common in the time of the Roman Empire. However, the innkeepers of the money-making establishments were universally known as a dishonest and ill-tempered lot, a fact that is attested to in numerous ways in ancient literature, including Roman law. Because of the abuses of public innkeepers, the ancient custom among the Israelites (and probably other people too) of being hospitable to all who came along increased in popularity during the Roman occupation of Israel. Thus the Jews stayed away from the public inns and preferred to seek lodging with any fellow-countryman who would give them shelter (W.M. Christie).

[1] (This is from W.M. Christie who has the best explanation of these matters that I have seen. Found on www.Biblestudytools.com; originally from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.)

Where Did Mary and Joseph End Up?

We are not told, however the following points can be made with a modicum of confidence:

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

2) Mary went with Joseph because she did not want to be left alone and it was possible she would have the baby during that time, although I think it was still quite early. They had suffered much rejection and she preferred to stay close to Joseph, the only one who understood her situation. This makes me think that even her parents did not believe her. Getting away from the horrible rumors swirling in Nazareth would be a welcome respite. The other option is that they heard about the census and decided to use the opportunity of this trip to relocate to somewhere in Judea. He would not be near the land he would inherit, but making a living in Nazareth was going to be tough. See below for more about this option.

3) If they were travelling just for the census, 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. It is possible that they could not travel as fast as the others because of Mary’s “condition,” but one would think that if they started out travelling together, they had the same destination, which would have been the house of some relative in Bethlehem.

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.

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. The fact that the text clearly states there was no room for them in the guest room seems to bear this out.

This could have come about for at least a couple reasons: a. They went to relatives and the relatives were unwilling to give them special treatment due to the illegitimacy of her pregnancy, but they showed them a small mercy by letting them stay in the stable. b. They were rejected completely by their relatives so they went to find hospitality among strangers only to find that the primary guest chamber was taken by someone who could not easily be dislodged (e.g. an elder of the family in poor health) so they were shown mercy by being allowed to stay in the stable.

6) Mary probably appreciated being in the stable for at least one reason—it was quiet compared to the main house. This was not a perfectly quiet place, but it was much more calm than the noisy house where over-crowded conditions and talk of politics, i.e. hatred of Rome, dominated both the day and the night.

7) We can be sure that, with lots of visitors at each house, every stable was full. The presence of so many animals would mean lots of manure mixed with urine, i.e. lots of stench. If he had time, Joseph did what he could to provide Mary with a clean place to lay, but it is not very likely that there was a stash of clean straw there waiting to be put down. It is more likely that all resources were stretched to the limit during this time of so many additional people in Bethlehem and its vicinity. Therefore, it is my opinion that Mary had no option but to lie on the filthy floor and deliver the baby there. Leaving the baby on the floor was not acceptable because of the filth and the possibility of being stepped on or laid on by animals, so the manger was the only true option when Jesus was not in arms. The manger was possibly a stone receptacle to hold feed for animals. It could have been made of wood, but equine have a tendency to chew on wood, so a stone structure would last longer. This would have gotten the baby up off the floor and out of the manure and urine. With the baby in the feeding trough all Joseph had to do was keep animals from nibbling at the straw he had placed underneath Him.

Mary was probably exhausted, and it is quite possible that the trip itself brought on the labor pains. This may mean that Jesus was born a bit early, but we will never know. 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!” Joseph accepted the arrangement most likely because he felt he had to. If Mary was already in labor, there was no time to find something better. This aspect of the imagery that is seared into our minds is usually correct; it is powerful in its humility and simplicity.

8) Was there a midwife? Like most Christians, I assume there was not. There may not have been time to find one; usually a couple sought a midwife they knew and contacted her ahead of time to tell her to be ready; if I am right about the two of them experiencing complete rejection by their respective families, the midwives that their relatives had used at other times would been “unavailable.” It seems a safe assumption that Mary had this baby on her own. Joseph was probably zero help. I envision her sending him outside to fret out there alone. She was young and she had never experienced childbirth before. But she knew enough, and the baby was delivered OK. However, it was not what she had envisioned. I imagine she and Joseph felt some disappointment that the long-awaited Messiah had to be born in these circumstances. Obviously, God knew what He was doing, and now we see the beauty of it; but for them it was odd, it was frustrating, it was sad.

9) It is indeed likely that Jesus was born in a stable. The biblical text does not use the word stable, but we have inferred that from the use of the word “manger.” It is a safe assumption. It is also likely that Jesus was teased and mocked when He was a child, first of all for being born “illegitimately,” and secondly for being born in a stable, assuming the undesirable details of the story made their way from relatives in Bethlehem to relatives in Nazareth.

10) What about the “tower of the flock?” Could Jesus have been born in such a tower? This theory is based on Micah 4:8 which says, “And you, tower of the flock, stronghold of the daughter of Zion, to you it shall come, shall come the dominion, even the former kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.”

I doubt Jesus was born in the Tower of the flock for the following reasons.

A.  The context points to Jerusalem being the intended meaning, not Bethlehem. The first part of the Micah chapter 4 is about the mountain of the Lord (the kingdom of the Messiah), then in verse six it starts talking about the restoration of Israel after the captivity in Babylon, however, there are Messianic overtones there too. Micah 4:8 is simply saying that the rule and authority of the Davidic line will be restored to Jerusalem. While there was such a tower near Bethlehem, and it was both ancient and well known, because of the context we need to see if there is a way in which this can refer to Jerusalem, and I see three ways in which it can do so without difficulty. I believe that one has to take this clause out of its context in order to interpret the tower of the flock as the birthplace of Jesus. The phrase “tower of the flock” is used in Micah 4:8 either because Jerusalem was seen as the protection of Israel, or because David was the Shepherd of Israel, or because there was once a tower on the Southeast corner of the city which was used at first to watch over flocks of sheep, then used by guards to watch for various threats to the city.

B. What shall come? His dominion, His authority, His rule.

C. If Jesus had been born in the tower of the flock, the shepherds would not have gone looking for the baby in Bethlehem (see Lk 2:15). They would have known right where to find him.

D. This theory suffers from the same problem of other options, though not as severely. While they would not have suffered rejection from the shepherds, there would have been the same set of questions, and Joseph wanted to avoid those questions.

E. If someone wanted to sleep there, the shepherds would have told them, “Our tower is not for that purpose; go to your relatives or to the Khan.”

F. If Jesus were born in a shepherd’s watch tower, it is highly unlikely that a tradition would have arisen among the early church fathers saying Jesus was born in a cave. We must remember that the early church fathers were much, much closer to the situation than we are, so we cannot easily discount their words. The mention of a cave is prevalent and persistent among the early church fathers, but no early mention of a tower.

11) There are many caves in that part of the world. People used caves for various purposes, including as stables. 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. Several early church fathers, including Justin Martyr, stated that the wise men visited Jesus in the cave, which contradicts the account of Matthew who says the visit occurred in a house.

What gives? Both sides can’t be right at the same time, can they? Or can they? Yes, there is one way for both of them to be right. See my speculative reconstruction of where Jesus was born below.

Why Are Some Details of the Story Left Out?

Every time the Bible gives us a piece of information it is because that information is important. Likewise, every time the Bible leaves out information, it does so on purpose. In the nativity narrative it behooves us to take note of both the things that are mentioned, and those that are not.

Notice that the narrative does not include any grandparents for the baby; only strangers came to admire the newborn child. In fact, the Gospels never mention any grandparents interacting with Jesus. This seems to bolster the idea that Mary and Joseph were rejected by both their families.

There are other things that are left out of the text. We are not told whether Mary rode on a donkey or in a cart; we are not told how long it took for them to get there; we are not told how long they were in Bethlehem before Jesus was born; we are not told if she had a midwife or not, we are not told if Jesus was born early or if the pregnancy went full term. None of these things are mentioned because they are not important, and they would not add anything of value to the story.

Therefore, when we are told that there was no room for them in the guest room, and that Jesus was laid in a manger, those things are mentioned for a purpose. They are important parts of the story.

It is from this collection of strange details mentioned in the text, and what we know about their culture, that we draw the conclusions we do about the birth of our Savior. Everything about this story points to a situation in which all the relatives, except Zachariah and Elizabeth, wanted nothing to do with what they thought of as a dishonest, undisciplined couple and their illegitimate child.

What Is Meant by "No 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 (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.