The Nativity - No room at the Inn?
In the first part of this article, we learned that a familiarity with Middle Eastern culture is essential if we are to avoid misinterpreting the narrative of the Nativity.
In the second part, we will look further at this familiar story, and find out what really happened.
Born in a stable?
There is probably not a culture in the world where a pregnant woman about to give birth would not receive immediate attention from any community. But somehow a story has grown up that this is exactly what happened in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth. That Joseph and Mary were turned away from safety and support in a time of great need and forced to find shelter with animals in a 'stable'.
Are we to think that Bethlehem is a rare exception to the rest of humanity and without honour whatsoever? That they turned away a descendant of David (Joseph) in the ‘City of David’ and brought shame on the entire village?
But even if Bethlehem had rejected Joseph and his wife in this manner, we are told in Luke 2:4 that Joseph had plenty of time to make adequate arrangements for Mary. She had relatives in the hill country of Judea, which geographically would have been no more than a few miles away. This trip certainly would have been possible in their time frame.
No Room at the Inn?
So what is really happening? Why was there ‘no place for them in the inn?’
In Western 20th Century culture this hackneyed phrase brings up the image of a multi-roomed facility with a ‘no vacancy’ sign outside. Also, for us, a manger or feeding trough would belong in a stable. It therefore seems apparent to us that Bethlehem by no means attempted to offer Joseph and Mary their best.
The problem arises over the translation of the word ‘inn’. Luke uses this word in 10:25-37 in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The ‘inn’ there designates a multi-roomed commercial place to stay. The word in Luke 2:7 however is better understood to be a ‘guest room’. Indeed, this is the very translation the word is given in Luke 22:10-12.
Most 1st century Middle Eastern houses only had two rooms. A family room and a stable. But sometimes, there was an additional ‘guest room’. However, it was incredibly common for animals to be held in the family room for warmth during the winter, and mangers were dug out of the ground or made from wood to accommodate the animals’ feeding.
If the ‘guest room’ was already full, then it was at the sacrifice of the hosts to accommodate Joseph and Mary in the family room. So the community of Bethlehem actually offered the best they had in response to the need of Joseph and Mary. They forfeited their own sleeping space to accommodate the needs of Mary’s birth of her son.
The true story
The translation should read more like ‘She laid him in the manger because there was no space in the guest room.’
So this beautiful story does not witness to an inhospitable community who were only willing to offer their worst to accommodate the birth of their saviour. It witnesses to how even amongst the peasant village of Bethlehem, hospitality was far extended to the needs of both Mary and Joseph. This village did not have much, but what they did have, they gave, and it was enough.
How does this article make you feel about Bible translation and interpretation?
How does it make you feel about your faith?