David Searcy is my stepbrother who with his family has been a missionary in Indonesia for many years. He sent me the following e-mail that sheds a different light on the Christmas story. It illustrates how our culture has a major impact on how we view a particular situation, including the story of the birth of Jesus. It teaches us that our interpretation of the Bible is colored by our preconceived ideas and is not always correct.
I do not believe Jesus was born in a stable. Because this is the season we think about these things and see pictures of stables all around, let me explain. The following thoughts are not entirely original with me, but after living in the Orient for almost 40 years they do make a whole lot of sense to me. I do believe Jesus was born and laid in a manger – a feed trough for a donkey or cow. This fact is repeated three times in Luke’s account chapter 2 verses 7, 12 and 16.
In the Orient there is huge tradition of hospitality, particularly for anyone with family connections. Whenever we go visiting to another village, the first question is: “Who are we related to in this village?” Then we will go stay with those relations. People figure “relations” much further back than we do in the western world. They generally go back 4-5 generations. Then there are all the adopted relatives so it does get complicated. One of the first activities of a visit is to get all the relational connections straight.
I just went on a week’s trip through villages this last September and I saw this happen every time we stopped. So when Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, they did not go to a commercial inn. That would be insulting to the family. They went to a family connection; they were the decedents of David and they went to the city of David, a city full of their blood relations – on both sides. They of course were in a house with relatives – not in a stable. The question would be to which side did they go, his or hers? We do not know.
There is evidence that houses in that time were laid out a bit differently than we think of them now. Think of a house in a long rectangle. On one end of the house were the sleeping rooms. One of these rooms was called the “inn”. This room was a special guest room for all the visiting family members. Hospitality was so important they had a special room. Then the middle part of the rectangle was a combination kitchen, dining room, work room, family room etc. This was the room where the main activities of the household took place. This was a busy place with kids, mom and dad, aunts and uncles, grandparents and various animals all together in one household. There was an open fireplace with smoke, soot, firewood, water jars and lots of other litter from – food prep, wood working, basket weaving, cloth weaving etc. It is most likely some of the family members actually also slept in this room. In Dayak households, many times a single grandparent or the older generation sleeps in the kitchen – with the dogs and sometimes a pig.
It is most likely this “kitchen” area was open on one end and opened into a stable. The family donkey, cow, chickens and other animals were brought in at night for safe keeping. Between the kitchen and stable there would be most likely a barrier but not always a solid wall, and it is logical to think of that barrier as also being the manager, feed box for the donkey. Remember that our European ancestors also did something similar – cows downstairs and people on the second story for heat and economy of work.
So Mary and Joseph arrive in a Bethlehem crowded with tired disgruntled people forced to come sign up for the tax rolls. Every household was full of relatives near and distant. Mary and Joseph were of the younger generation so did not get the better accommodations – the “inn”. It was full of older more deserving relatives. They were billeted in the “kitchen” with all the younger cousins and other less prestigious crowd. It was a full house and everybody was enjoying catching up on the family gossip. Younger folks were playing and flirting, older folks complaining about the Romans and high taxes. A very pregnant and very tired Mary was quietly resting in a corner – content to finally be still and dry and in the bosom of “family”.
Then it happened. Mary’s eyes grew large; she caught her breath and clutched her swollen abdomen, then poked a distracted Joseph deep in political debate. “It’s happening sweetheart!” Joseph jumped and alerted the women of the house. Nothing but nothing gets women’s attention like a baby coming. A couple of nephews were sent scurrying through the dark to get the local mid wife – most likely also related to Mary. This was exciting; nothing like having a baby when everybody was there to keep them company. (Remember: no TV, no DVD, no books, so a baby’s arrival was a big social event) The house was full of people. Mary birthed the baby in the kitchen area, attended by umpteen chattering women. The men and kids were shooed out to some other place, probably the front street, to sit and continue games and the discussion regarding the latest atrocity of the Roman legions against the Jewish people – we see later it was a clear night. The baby finally arrived, and what to do with it? The house was full, the room was full. But lo, here was this empty feed box with only a sleepy donkey’s nose and a hen and her brood. An aunt swatted Jake the family donkey who backed into the cow. The hen with her brood of chicks was evicted to the back of the stable. So there was some cheeping, mooing and shuffling around in the dark stable. Jake was insulted, he thought he was part of the family. Some fresh hay was found in the dark and the “aunts” laid the baby in this bed of hay. A curious arrangement that the ladies in Bethlehem would laugh about for years to come.
I think the picture we have of Mary and Joseph alone in a stable is not culturally correct. They were in a house full of Oriental people with a strong sense of family and hospitality. The manger was one of necessity because the house was so full. It was indeed a lowly circumstance but I would not think lonely.