I’ve often said that I am amazed at how the Bible continues to speak to me, and reveal new things to me, no matter how many times I have read, studied, or preached a passage. And so it does.
I’m sure that, to many of my erudite friends (who know what erudite even means), the following will be thoughts they’ve already thought. Long ago, even. Well, that just shows that I am still a babe in the woods when it comes to biblical scholarship. No one ever claimed otherwise. The bright side is that I find questions like these immensely fun and rewarding.
For example, Luke 2:4-5 says,
Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
How many times have I read, studied, and preached that? But yesterday I was taken aback by the realization that here, approximately nine months after the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary (and also to Joseph), she was not yet “his wife,” but “his betrothed.” This probably indicates that, despite the unexpected (and, to all the world, scandalous) pregnancy, they apparently followed the customary twelve months of betrothal before the bridegroom claimed his bride from her father’s house. Maybe moving the wedding feast to an earlier date would have been more scandalous than the pregnancy and the baby’s arrival before a wedding feast. Or, maybe there was no point to moving faster, if the pregnancy affected Joseph’s plans (or his family’s) to cancel or downgrade the wedding feast. Maybe it shows a godly disregard for the pressures of society and the opinions of gossips. Or maybe none of the above.
A second thought occurred to me about that scenario. Joseph was traveling with Mary, “his betrothed.” But according to first century Jewish custom, Mary’s place was at home with her mother and father until the bridegroom came to claim her and carry her away at the start of the wedding feast. But there she is, in Luke 2, traveling a hundred miles from home with her betrothed. While the betrothed parties were considered husband and wife after the betrothal took place, and only divorce or death could then separate them, they did not live together as husband and wife until after the wedding feast. But they apparently traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem as husband and wife, and when they found lodging, they lodged together, rather than Mary with her parents. Unless, of course, Mary and Joseph were part of a larger traveling party that included her parents—maybe her parents likewise counted Bethlehem their ancestral home and were simply unmentioned members of the traveling party. Maybe they even stayed in the nativity cave with Joseph and Mary–though all the above conjecture seems pretty unlikely. So maybe there was some special dispensation for Joseph and Mary’s peculiar situation.
Another thought. Verses six and seven say:
And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
So familiar. We all have read and heard those words bajillions of times. I’ve preached on that text, of course, numerous times. We may infer that all their relatives’ homes (and it’s reasonable to believe that Joseph had many relatives in Bethlehem) were booked solid. But even so, for family to turn them away would probably have been unthinkable in that culture, even if there was no room. Right? So, why an “inn,” or khan? Was the “innkeeper” family? Or was the inn simply on the route into Bethlehem…when labor hit, and they had to find lodgings immediately? Admittedly, the wording of the phrase, “While she was there, the time came” seems to indicate that she was NOT in labor when they arrived at the inn, but settled into their digs for the night and then labor began. But if that’s the case, it is still curious that they found no lodging with extended family. Even strangers, in that culture, would have considered it shameful to turn away someone in need of shelter. So it all still makes me wonder—or at least think it possible—that Jesus may have been born in a cave and laid in a manger because labor came on before the family quite arrived at their intended destination. That scenario suggests many new wrinkles to the story, to me, at least.
And, finally, when the angel told the shepherds (in verse 12), “this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger,” why was that all the directions given to those shepherds? Couldn’t the angel have added, “in the khan, on Route 27?” Or something like that? But the angel said only to look for a baby in a manger. Were there more and better directions given that just aren’t recorded in Luke’s account? Or was the purpose of the scant directions to create a “buzz,” as the shepherds asked around and looked everywhere (the preacher pointed out yesterday that the wording of verse 16 in the original Greek indicates a thorough search)? Or perhaps to require some effort on the shepherds’ part?
Intriguing questions, and of course they can’t be answered with anything approaching certainty. I’m sure I’ll learn more as I study more. But as I said before, I’m amazed at the depth and reward the Bible offers, time and time again, to the inquisitive seeker.