December 19, 2014

The True Nativity Story: Swaddling Clothes


When we think of swaddling clothes, as mentioned in the story of Luke 2, we generally think of white blankets wrapped around the infant baby Jesus. We see these simple bands of cloth as a sign of humility and poverty. However, it is probable that our image of these strips of cloth is actually very wrong.

First, it will be helpful to understand what we do know from the scriptures about swaddling. In Ezekiel 16:4 we learn of the practice of swaddling when the Lord compares Israel to an illegitimate child who has not been properly cared for or swaddled because they had rejected the Lord. It reads, “And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to supple thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all.” From this we learn that washing, salting and swaddling was actually a sign of being properly cared for.

We can safely assume that Jesus at his birth would also have been washed and salted. In ancient Jewish culture, salt was a sign of a covenant and was used during sacrifices at the temple. Being salted at birth was a sign or symbol that Jesus was not only part of the covenant, but was literally the reason for the covenant.

From other ancient traditions about swaddling we also learn that swaddling was done with specific bands that were embroidered by the bride during the year between betrothal and the marriage feast. The cloth would have been around five to six yards long and four to five inches wide and would be embroidered with signs of the family tribe. Because Joseph was of the tribe of David through Judah, the swaddling bands of Jesus may have included depictions of the lion of Judah or of the stem of Jesse.

Swaddling bands with a lion of Judah
According to some scholars these bands were then used during the marriage feast, being wrapped around the hands of the bride and groom symbolizing the tying together, or unification of the two through the swaddling bands. These same bands would then be used to wrap their child at birth, perhaps symbolizing that the child is wrapped and in essence protected by the very same covenants that wrapped the newlywed couple on their wedding night.

Swaddling bands wrapped around the hands for the marriage ceremony
The fact that Jesus was wrapped, more than anything, was a sign that he was not an illegitimate child of God, but instead had not only been claimed by God the Father, but by Joseph, who in essence was adopting Jesus into his royal lineage of David.

How profound is the fact that Jesus, the very creator and giver of the Gospel covenant, was washed, salted, and wrapped to symbolize the very covenant He, as Jehovah, had given to the ancient prophets of old.

Other resources:
Swaddling Bands from Savior of the World Production notes
Why did Mary swaddle her baby by Hearken Institute
Little Lamb painting by Jenedy Page

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for your post! I had read the article that you listed on the Hearken Institute blog when it was published, and I requested some sources for the historical context in the comments. I never received a reply, so I was not confident in sharing what had been written. I have a lot of confidence in your blog, and the fact that you have stated the same is very reassuring. Since reading your article, I have also read the Little Lamb posting (BEAUTIFUL work!) and I was able to see some of her sources for her work. Are there any other sources that you used as a reference to interpret Ezekiel 16:4, or to the tradition of swaddling? I would love to learn more! THANK YOU.

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  2. I actually spoke with Sherrie Johnson (the Hearken Institute) before publishing this article. I am a good friend of hers and knew she was doing research on this subject (so I thought she could give me more details). I have asked her for more sources, but as she is in the processes of publishing a new book, I am sure it got put on the back burner. I will ask her again (as she has done more research on it than me).

    She did tell me that several of her sources are early (like talmud time period) and that she was very confident with what she has found. The problem (as you probably know) is that we have very few historical sources that date earlier than around 200 AD. This means we have to make a lot of assumptions about what might have been correct. I don't think there is any question on whether infants were swaddled. It is mentioned twice in the Old Testament (Lamentations 2:22 and Ezekiel 16:4) and of course at the birth of Christ. The question comes in to the connection between the swaddling bands and the marriage vows.

    I hope to do more research, and find better sources, but it may be a few months, I have a couple of projects that I am hoping to finish first. I will also be making a video about this (the pictures are screenshots from the video) so I should have more on this subject in future blog posts and videos.

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  3. Brother Simon, I did find one article that may be of interest (see below). It mentions the swaddling bands as part of the wedding, but notes that it is impossible to know if this was the practice at the time of Christ. The references are basically the same sources I used, so no new source. I will keep digging, but thought you at least would want another opinion.

    http://www.byunewtestamentcommentary.com/what-on-earth-are-swaddling-clothes/

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