A very common view of what happened in Luke 2 goes something like this: Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem precisely as Mary was giving birth. They searched and searched but could not find hospitality anywhere because it was so crowded. Finally, they find a commercial inn where the inn-keeper (somewhat grudgingly!) gave them a smelly stable because it was all he had left. There are a number of misconceptions about this picture that I would like to correct by summarizing the arguments of Kenneth Bailey’s book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes on this passage.
First of all, we have two translation issues at which we need to look. Firstly, the force of verse 6 is important: “While they were there, the time came for her to give birth” (ESV). Other translations are similar. They came to be registered in the census, not for Mary to give birth. It just so happened that while they were there, the pregnancy ended. Presumably this left Joseph plenty of time to search for adequate accomodations.
Secondly, the translation of verse 7 and the “inn.” There is a word for “commercial inn” in Greek. Luke did not use it here. He used a word which Bailey argues convincingly ought to be translated “guest room.” The guest room would be a normal part of a three-room house, which consisted of a guest room, family room, and, connected by a very short stairway (4 steps), a stable. People of that time kept their animals indoors both for warmth and for protection from theft. But no people would ever be housed in the stable. In other words, Joseph and Mary found a normal house in which to stay. However, the guest room of that house was already full, and so the family with which they stayed made them a part of their family by having them stay in the family room. Nowhere does the text say that Jesus was born in a stable. That is a myth created by centuries of tradition and, unfortunately, many otherwise good hymns. the mangers were actually two or three feet (a la the stairs) higher than the stable, and were troughs cut into the floor of the family room. They were cut low so that the sheep or ox (or any other animal kept there) could eat with relative ease in the middle of the night without stepping in the feed or getting manure into the feed.
And now for some cultural considerations: 1. Joseph was of the family and lineage of David, which was held in high honor. Any descendent of David would be much more likely to receive good hospitality than bad. 2. Mary was close to giving birth. Women in labor were top priority in the realm of hospitality. Women took care of other women. The idea that Mary would have to give birth in the smelliest part of the house, or worse yet in a commercial inn’s stable is ludicrous, given the standards and importance of hospitality of the first century. 3. Witness the reaction of the shepherds. If the shepherds had come to see Joseph and Mary in a stable, they would certainly have taken them away, saying something like this, “How dare this town give you such a poor reception! We can do better than that!” If the shepherds returned, rejoicing for all they had seen and heard (vs. 20), that would certainly include the level of hospitality that they had seen given to the family. The fact that they returned without taking Mary and Joseph with them indicates that they could not give any better hospitality to the family than what they were already receiving.
Speaking of the shepherds, Bailey reminds us that they were considered very low-class. This fact gives special emphasis to the sign given to them by the angel. Being wrapped in swaddling clothes (like a peasant!), and being placed in a manger (in other words, in a normal person’s house, not a mansion or palace) would give them hope that they could actually see this child and would not be repulsed as being unclean (which they were most of the time, ceremonially speaking). This was a Savior for them. Is He yours as well?