December 21, 2016

What was the birth of Jesus like?



Ask almost anyone about the setting of the birth of Christ, and you will likely be told about a stable, a wooden manger filled with hay, animals surrounding the baby Jesus, and snow falling outside as the shepherds enter the stable to worship the king of Kings. The problem is that this depiction, though we've heard it many times, is likely far from what actually took place on this night of nights.

To better understand the more probable setting of the Nativity, it's first helpful to understand a little about the natural landscape of Israel, and in particular Bethlehem. The land of Israel is covered with stones, hills and caves. In fact there is so much stone that most ancient homes would have been built almost exclusively of stonework, only using lumber for building aspects like the roof, ceilings, and doors. Trees were a limited, valuable resource, so they choose to build from the more abundant supply of stones. Caves were also commonly used, and it is probable that the "stable" which is not even mentioned in scripture, was located in one of the caves surrounding the hills of Bethlehem. These caves were a perfect place to keep animals, as it was cool during the hot days, and warmer during the cooler nights. [1] It also was a naturally built fortification, so little work would be required to build it, except for adding a fence and gate at the entrance.

Also, that wooden manger filled with hay, well, it actually would be made of stone as well. Many ancient stone mangers have been found in Israel of different sizes, shorter ones for animals like sheep and goats, and taller mangers for animals like horses and donkeys. The mangers were generally block-like in shape, and were only about six to eight inches deep. In addition, mangers were not used for hay, but instead for watering animals, as cutting and storing grass for feed was not necessary because of the warmer climate. Because Israel really only has a rainy season and a dry season, with little to no snow, grass is available all throughout the year. [2]

Stone manger found in Tel Megiddo in Israel
So why do we so often see a wooden stable and a manger filled with hay? Well, because most early Christian artists who depicted the Nativity, lived in Europe, where trees were readily accessible, winters were cold so that you had to store hay, and mangers were made of wood, and used to feed the animals.

Oh, and what about all those animals, especially the sheep, donkey and the ox that are in virtually every Nativity scene? Well, once again, the birth accounts of Jesus never mentions other animals being present, it only mentions that there was a manger, implying that there would be animals. So where do the animals come from? The sheep are there, most likely because of the shepherds. The ox and donkey however, come from, interestingly enough, a prophecy of Isaiah. The verse states: "The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand" (Isaiah 1:3). In other words, an ox and a donkey can recognize who feeds and waters them, but Israel could not recognize God's hand in their lives. Because this verse refers to a manger, or a crib as translated in the King James Bible, later Christians decided to incorporate an ox and a donkey into the story. [3]

Understanding the setting of the birth of Jesus, not only gives us a more realistic picture of this significant event, but also it seems to foreshadow the mission and death of Christ. At his birth, Jesus was likely born in a stone cave because there was no room in the inn, wrapped in linen swaddling bands, and laid in a stone manger. At his death, Jesus was buried in a borrowed stone tomb, wrapped in white linen, and laid on a slab of limestone. In addition, how appropriate that the great Messiah, the one who provides eternal living water (see John 4:14), was laid as an infant in a watering trough. It seems that even from the very beginning, the events of the life of Christ, were meant to point to and foreshadow the most important part of His life, that of His atonement, death and resurrection.


[1] Stone Manger, by Jeffrey R. Chadwick - location 788 of 2025
[2] Stone Manger, location 189 of 2025
[2] The Origins of Christmas, by Joseph F. Kelly, page 36-37

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