Archive for December 2nd, 2008

A palestinian woman with one of her sheepIn Part I of this series, we examined the need to view the entire Christmas story arc, and in Part II we discussed the probability of Jesus’ birthday on Sukkot (mid-September to early-October), and in Part III, we took a closer look at Mary and Joseph and their outcast status.

Today, we will be viewing the stage upon which much of the Christmas story is set – the “stable”.

The Word

First, let us examine the actual scriptural references (all from Luke 2) to the place where Jesus was born:

While they were [in Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. [...]

The angel said to [the shepherds], “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” [...]

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.

This is it – no mention of a ’stable’, just a child, wrapped in cloths, in a manger.

The Manger

What, exactly, is a “manger”, in the context of this passage? If we look at the dictionary definition, we will find:

A trough or an open box in which feed for livestock is placed.

We should realize, though, that the English translation of the word phatne as ‘manger’ is more in line with the first part of that definition (the trough/open box) and the entire place in which the ‘manger’ exists (which we refer to as a ’stable’). In Israel, you did not pen animals and feed them, as we tend to do in European farming (as it existed during the time the Bible was translated to English) and modern farming. Rather than this, a ‘manger’ was used for water, not food, and was typically a trough in the ground or a stone used to put water for the animals.

So, contrary to the image we get in “Away in a Manger” of Jesus comfortably asleep in a raised wooden rack-manger full of straw, what we should see is a trough in the ground with just some bits of cloth wrapping him.

The Animals

Bethlehem sits right on the edge of where the land of milk (sheep and goats) meets the land of honey (fruit and grain), and nowhere near the Jezreel Valley or coastal plain of Israel. In Bethlehem during the first century, as well as now, there would be no cattle present, no camels, no horses and few donkeys. The animals you would find in Bethlehem would all be sheep and goats, with the possibility of a few oxen (though most likely not).

The principal livestock in Bethlehem was sheep. In fact, during the first century, from Josephus we know that only sheep raised in Bethlehem could be used for Passover sacrifice in the Temple (basically as part of a corrupt racket run by the Sadducee party). So, contrary to “Away in a Manger”, there would be no cattle ‘lowing’, and contrary to most Nativity scenes, the plethora of animal species would not have been present. Just sheep and (maybe) goats.

We’re also clued in to this by the use of phatne, as well, because the only places you will find a ‘manger’ in Bethlehem would be in shepherd’s caves, of which the area around Bethlehem is full. Which brings us to…

Livestock pen in Mt. ArbelThe “Stable”

In our Nativity scenes, we are greeted with the image of a free-standing shack/barn.  In all truth, you would be hard-pressed to find enough wood with which to build a single “stable” of this sort in Bethlehem. Everything was built of stones.  Or in the case of housing livestock, shepherds kept their sheep in penned-in caves (which is still practiced in the Galilee region today – see the picture (left) of livestock caves in Mt. Arbel).

So, rather than a wooden stable, an accurate Nativity Scene would be set in a shepherd’s cave.

Most of these types of caves have the same general layout:

1) A large common area where the sheep are kept, with a floor which might be 6 inches to several feet thick with centuries’-worth of sheep waste.

2) A small area near the front of the cave blocked off with rocks, where the shepherds can sleep and where they can keep their few belongings without fear of them being trampled by the sheep, and where they could attend sick or wounded sheep.

3) A slightly raised area – typically mad of stone – with a trough (manger) in which to put water for the sheep, between the shepherds and the sheep.

Such a cave would have smelled awful, but it would have been a safe place to stay, out of the elements, but close to Bethlehem.

From Luke, we already know that it was the time of year in which the shepherds were in the fields with the sheep at night (see Part II for more significance of this), which would have left their caves mostly unused during this time of year. Additionally, we are told that Jesus was in the phatne because there was no room in an inn. Additionally, the angels told the shepherds that Jesus would be found in a manger, and the shepherds seem to have known where to look for him from just those directions.

Painting the Scene

So, if we are to look at the Nativity within the context of the scripture and the culture in which it happened and was written, we get a much different and more powerful picture.

The Lamb of God, who existed in the beginning and was with God and was God, lowered himself to the very bottom of those at the bottom. The Lamb of God was born in a cave used for sheep, the son of young, poor, ostracized parents whose only cradle was a water trough in that cave.

The Lamb of God, who would later be sacrificed for the sins of the whole world, was born – literally – in the midst of the flocks of Bethlehem, the only sheep which were fit for sacrifice in the Temple, according to the rules of the day.

When we gloss over Jesus’ humble beginnings and sanitize them, we miss the image of the power and the humility expressed by God who came to walk among men.

Let us not forget or sanitize him and everything he was – 100% human and 100% God.

One of us…

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