The house where Jesus was born
We know the story inside and out: In order to participate in a census Joseph and Mary, who are pregnant, travel from Nazareth to the city of David, Bethlehem, because Joseph is a descendant of the house and family of David. While there the time comes for Mary to deliver her child, and she gives birth to her firstborn, a son, whom she wraps in swaddling clothes and lays in a manager, because there is …
God knows how long this scene has been consigned to “no room,” “a stable-place,” “a lowly cattle shed,” according to some current hymns. And we’ve seen it re-enacted, year after year, with individuals dressed in bathrobes knocking on the door of the “inn” only to hear the “innkeeper” tell the tired and weary travelers, “Sorry, there are no more vacancies.” At this point the “innkeeper’s wife” usually appears, as either an antagonistic fish-wife (one skit describes her as “a tough, rough-talking ‘broad’”) or a hard-working, compassionate midwife. After a brief squabble between the innkeeper and his wife, they agree to let the visibly pregnant and desperate couple stay out in the “barn.” At least they’ll have a roof over their heads, lots of straw for the birthing, and a manger—an animal feeding trough—for a crib. Just like the Bible says, right?!
The Greek word in the second chapter of Luke that is traditionally translated as “inn” in most of our English-language Bibles is kataluma which means, literally, “to put down,” as in “to unyoke” beasts of burden, “to rest” on a journey, or “to put up” for the night. Kataluma is also in the twenty-second chapter of Luke, when Jesus instructs the disciples to make arrangements for his final meal with them: They are to go to a certain house and say to the owner that their teacher asks, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” The house owner will then show them a big upper room where they are to get things ready. Thus kataluma refers to guest space in a home, not an “inn” (Greek pando) like that in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34), much less a “hotel” in the modern sense of rented accommodations.
What does this mean for the birth of Jesus, then, if Mary lays her child in a manger, because there is no more room in theguest room?
It means Jesus is born in a traditional Middle Eastern village home that is overflowing with so many guests they all cannot be lodged upstairs. Far from being rejected by strangers, Joseph and Mary are welcomed most certainly by kinfolk and join other relatives who have journeyed to their hometown for the occasion.
Like every other poor Palestinian child, Jesus is born in the lower level of a single-room dwelling that shelters livestock as well as several generations of a lively family. One raised end is reserved for the elder members, while younger members and children spread out from there and utilize the roof space—open or enclosed. The lower end is where the animals are housed overnight and fed from mangers. The house is cleaned daily from top to bottom, from the human living quarters down to the lowly animal quarters. The birth of babies—humans as well as animals—takes place in the area of the house reserved for such bodily functions, where there is clean straw and water, where a feeding crib doubles as a sleeping crib, and with plenty of female relatives to assist with the birth.
A warm welcome home portrays a very different nativity scene than the cold lonely place out back. The former more accurately reflects the Code of Hospitality proclaimed throughout scripture, while the latter is a myth built on a mistranslation. And there is no “stable” in either story of Jesus’ birth.
Is this myth simply a mistake? Or do we need to read rejection into the birth of Christ? Like some of us in the USA need our presidents to be from humble beginnings and born in a log cabin?
After visiting parts of Europe—from which my ancestors fled in order to escape religious persecution, poverty, famine, military inscription, servitude, imprisonment—and after tracing parts of the Oregon Trail—along which my ancestors dirtied the water, finished off the wild game, scared away the herds, and brought small pox, guns, and territorial instincts—I have to admit that I am an Adult Child of People Who Left. People who kept on moving, leaving behind whatever made them unhappy or unfulfilled. I come from a tribe who need to feel rejected in order to believe they’ve picked themselves up by their bootstraps, started their lives from scratch and made something of themselves, staked their claim—on land that wasn’t for claiming in the first place.
What does this mean for me, then, to lay down my ancestral myth of rejection and to own up to the truth of God’s hospitality?