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