Who is Jesus? The little village of Bethlehem must have wondered.
“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, 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 guest room available for them” (Luke 2: 4-7).
Our western, individualistic perspective has missed key elements of the story of the birth of Jesus and who he is.
Our church and school pageants have begun with Joseph and Mary, travelers alone and lonely, on the road. We usually have not stopped to ask: If Joseph was the devout and loving man that Scripture suggests, why would he take Mary on a difficult, weeklong journey just to complete a Roman census? Couldn’t that have been accomplished after the birth? Was it required on a specific date, or is there more to the story? Would a loving husband and father to be put his wife and unborn son in a dangerous and isolated situation?
Then the pageant moves to the arrival in Bethlehem. Of course, it is the dark of an eerie night, a grumpy innkeeper is awakened, and the lonely couple is hurried away to some forsaken barn. Seldom is there a hint in the pageant that there were other residents in the village.
Applying a little logic and common sense, anyone who has walked the Bethlehem area has experienced the rough and uneven terrain. Geography shows us Bethlehem sits at the edge of the wilderness and the roads through the wilderness were difficult. History tells us that bandits lurked along the isolated roads. The climate informs us that the desert nights turned cold, and the Christmas story most likely occurred in the fall of the year when days were shorter and the nights colder.
Therefore, most travelers chose to be in groups. Travelers were easy prey to thugs. They chose to travel during the day and hunker down at night.
We also know from historical records that Bethlehem was a small village with a few hundred residents. Small villages had no Holiday Inns. Instead, we need to understand Middle Eastern hospitality. Homes had storerooms that also served as sleeping quarters for guests. Joseph’s lineage was from David, Bethlehem was David’s city, and therefore Joseph had cousins or relatives there who would welcome him and Mary.
The most likely picture, then, is that when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, other Jewish travelers and pilgrims were there, too, and the extra rooms in the family homes were already occupied. Perhaps Bethlehem was overflowing due to the census. But more likely it was filled with pilgrims to nearby Jerusalem; heading there for the fall feast of Sukkot.
Joseph’s Bethlehem relatives would have been embarrassed. Hospitality was a big deal. And a pregnant relative had come to town. Their town’s guestrooms were filled. The next best option was to offer sleeping space in the cave, located either under the house or nearby, where the family flock bedded down.
We also have assumed the couple was desperately rushing to Bethlehem due to the onset of Mary’s labor, quickly being hurried into the cave, and the isolated couple delivering the baby the same night. When we read Luke 2, however, it says, “While they were there,” suggesting the birth was not imminent upon arrival, but likely occurred within a few hours or days of their arrival.
It is also likely that very soon after they arrived in town, word spread that a pregnant relative had arrived in town. The women of the community would have attended to her, whether in a cave or a house.
Consider this, too: if the relatives in Bethlehem were inhospitable, Joseph and Mary would have left the place as soon as possible. Instead, they eventually moved into a home for a time. Matthew 2 tells us so in the story of the visit by the magi. Later Herod would order the execution of baby boys who were two years and younger, suggesting that they settled in Bethlehem for a while.
Who is Jesus for the people of Bethlehem? God chose for his people to be community. He chose for his people to be a hospitable community that loves God above all and our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Joseph and Mary traveled from their community in Nazareth. In all likelihood traveled with some from their community for their collective safety and mutual care. Joseph and Mary were taken into the Jewish community of Bethlehem, stayed there for a time, and were welcomed among the chosen people there.
Our western perspective has painted the very first stories of Jesus as individualistic, isolated, and alone. To the easterner, the setting of the Christmas story was a community. The community welcomed a stranger, cared for a new mother and baby, provided a place for the young family to stay, and likely offered opportunities for Joseph to work and provide.
Scripture does not say that God loved the individual so much that he sent his Son, even though that is certainly true! Scripture says that God love the world so much that he sent his Son. God called us to be a people in community. Without community, it is difficult to remain faithful.
Receive the story, not as a picture of lonely isolation and individualism, but as a picture of God’s Son coming into the world for a community of broken people, whose only hope is in the newborn Savior. We are a community of believers; a community called by God to serve and to lead as we love God above all else and our neighbors as ourselves.
Devotionals are written by Jeff Blamer, Vice President of Member Services