December 22, 2015

Ancient Birth Customs - Nativity Story



Interview with Rebecca Holt Stay, Instructor of Biblical Studies - BYU Continuing Education

There's not a lot of description in antiquity of the details of something as mundane as birth. And so when it gets mentioned, it's usually done in some kind of symbolic context or in telling a story. And probably the most powerful place where a story of birth is told is in Ezekiel 16, which describes the birth of the nation of Israel. It has been born out of the waters of the Red Sea as a young girl. This girl will grow up to be the bride of God that He will marry at Sinai. And at this point, the description is given of that birth of that little girl. "As for thy nativity, in the day that thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast that washed in water to supple thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee" (Ezekiel 16:4-5). So by saying those things didn't happen, the text is saying that's the norm. This is what normally happens. You normally would have a midwife there who is going to show compassion on this child and help the mother.

Each of those steps is important. First, the umbilical cord would be cut, probably tied off. Then the child would be washed in order to get the blood off, and the next step is the salting of the child. Now there are a lot of symbols of what salt means in scripture. In terms of hygiene the reason for the salting is that the salt is an antibiotic, and it's going to kill germs that might be present on the skin of the child. Perhaps a disease it might have contacted from its mother at birth, or to kill anything that has gotten on its skin. So it has a very real healthy meaning, that's why it would be salted. Some of the symbols, some will say that because salt is given with the sacrifices at the temple, that this might be preparing a child as an offering. (see for example Leviticus 2:13). Salt is also a preservative, so it may be done to preserve the life of the child. Of course, that's also the hygienic purpose, is preserving the life of the child.

Then it mentions, you are "not swaddled at all." Now there's only two mentions of swaddling in the Old Testament and this is one of them. And a child being swaddled means wrapped in rags or clothes prepared for the purpose of providing a diaper and a covering for the child. Every child normally would be swaddled. The fact that she isn't swaddled is really unusual. Now because that's such a normal thing to do, it made me wonder, why would swaddling bands be a sign in the book of Luke? Because that's what it says, as the shepherds are being told to go and see the child, they are told: "You will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger" (Luke 2:12). Every child is wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger is unusual. I really love the fact that the King James translators kept that french word, because 'mange' means to eat. And this is the bread of life who has been born (see John 6:51). Christ is the 'bread of life,' and we will ceremonially eat his body, and so that's suggested by that use of 'manger.'

So I decided I would look back into the Old Testament and see how swaddling bands could be a sign of anything? So the only other place that you find it, other than in this description in Ezekiel of swaddling every newborn child, is when you're in the book of Job. And God is responding to Job's questions about why do bad things happen to good people. And he essentially says, "What do you know Job? Where you there when I created the world? Where you there at the foundation of the world when I built the world?" And then he uses this beautiful metaphor for the creation of the world. He describes it as "who do you think shut up the sea with doors, when it then broke forth, as if it [the earth, newborn earth] had issued out of the womb? When I made the clouds the garments thereof, and thick dark clouds a swaddling band for [the earth]" (Job 38:9).

So here you have a newborn planet that has just been created. And it is wrapped in these clouds that are the swaddling bands. I love that, because the cloud is a symbol of someone in the Old Testament. That does relate to one person, and the cloud is the symbol of the presence of Jehovah. There is a pillar of cloud by day over His tabernacle. His chariot is a cloud. And so when he is born into mortality, He is wrapped in His symbol. In clouds, "trailing clouds of glory" does He come, from His Father who is His home, from the Wordsworth poem. [1]


[1] Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth

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