First, the birth place: Bethlehem. Back in the first century, this was not a booming town. Even when the prophecy was given by Micah (Mi 5:2), it was not a booming town. It is only about six miles south of Jerusalem, and was not a city where many people traveled since it wasn’t on a major Roman road of the day. Besides, even if someone was on such a road, would they stay in Bethlehem when Jerusalem was so close? In addition, the custom of the day was for family to stay with family—not in an inn or other places of abode. Inns were more common in large cities, like Jerusalem, and perhaps on major thoroughfares, as travelers would not have close relatives nearby, because they had not arrived at their final destination where family likely were located. In addition, the word used here was more typically used for a spare room (Lk 22:11) rather than a separate lodging (Lk 11:22) which uses a different word for such. Also, Bethlehem was a shepherding community and not one where travelers would frequently travel through. For someone to go to a place like Bethlehem, they had to be wanting to go there—not passing through. Therefore, the need for an inn was very low, and the number of visitors an innkeeper would get would likely be too low to make it profitable. The fields around Bethlehem was where the flocks for temple worship were kept and raised. This is a critical point for us to consider later.
When did Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem? Most movies and plays about this story have them arriving while Mary is delivering, and Joseph is desperate to find a place—any place—anywhere. But is that what scripture is really telling us? Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem and “while they were there” she had her baby (Lk 2:6). This doesn’t sound like this was an immediate need or crisis. So, where were they? Well, since Joseph was of the lineage of David, he had to travel to his ancestor David’s birth place, i.e., Bethlehem. Therefore, he would have relatives there. As we just pointed out, relatives stayed with relatives. Let’s not put our social mores on this concept. Often, we would gladly stay in an inn than with relatives, but this was not the case in this culture. It was a privilege and honor, as well as a duty, to take care of visiting relatives, no matter the occasion. So, if they were with relatives, where did the stable, animals, shepherds, etc. come into the story? Let’s consider that.
Because of the need for so many people to come to Bethlehem because of the tax registration, Bethlehem became crowded—very crowded. Joseph and Mary were only one couple among hundreds to thousands who had to return. People’s homes were very crowded and filled to capacity. Mary and Joseph were very welcome to stay until she was ready to deliver. It may sound cold to us today, but Mary would not have been welcome to have her baby in a house filled with so many people. This is for two major reasons. One, there was no privacy. Second, she would be considered unclean for up to a week (Lv 15:19-23). But it is even more complicated as this passage tells us. Everything she touches, everyone she touches, becomes unclean. That is a problem in a house filled with so many people. The logistics to have Mary there as she gives birth and for the week after becomes untenable. Joseph has to find a solution. Where could Joseph take Mary where she could be taken care of in such a crowded place where there wasn’t an inn? Think about it, even if there was an inn, would an innkeeper want a delivery in his inn where his room, of which he would likely have few, would become unclean? It would be a big burden to get everything clean again. Certain things would have to be washed, some scrubbed, and some destroyed (Lv 15:12). So, as you can see, this was quite the dilemma for Joseph and Mary due to the customs and social mores of their day.
So, where could Joseph find a secluded place that would not be a burden to others, yet would be comfortable for Mary to have her child? Migdal Eder. You see, God knew this all those years ago and had Micah prophesy of this (Mi 4:8). Joseph likely didn’t even know he was fulfilling prophecy. He was just looking for a logical, viable, and satisfactory solution to their need. You see, because Bethlehem was not only a shepherding community, it was a special shepherding community. The shepherds here were not regular shepherds, but were trained for how to raise sheep for the purpose of them being used as a sacrifice at the temple. Not just any animal could become a sacrifice. It had to be without blemish. Do you realize how hard it is to have an unblemished animal in the wild? All sorts of things could happen to the animal. These shepherds had to ensure nothing happened to these animals. It wasn’t just taking care of them, mending their injuries, and making them acceptable for human use. No, it was raised to another whole level. If the animal was injured, they were no longer acceptable for sacrifice, even if the animal recovered. It was now considered blemished. So, in order to ensure things went well with the sheep birthing process, a special place was made for the sheep to have their lambs. This was at Midal Eder, the watchtower of the flock (Mi 4:8; Gn 35:21). They built a place here. Maybe it was a cave or some type of shelter for both the shepherds, their supplies, and likely other animals they would need to take supplies from Bethlehem or from Jerusalem to this shelter for them to use as they watched after the sheep. When the lambs were being prepared for sacrifice, they would swaddle them to prevent the lambs from hurting themselves. They would then place them in the manger there made especially for this purpose to calm the animal so it could more easily be inspected for any blemishes. Because of these lambs’ special religious nature, nothing was taken for chance. All was a very methodical process to ensure each and every animal was without blemish (Ex 12:5). They tried to remove all obstacles that would cause or induce injury.
Are you starting to see the symbolism here? Do you now see why swaddling was a significant sign? All babies were wrapped in swaddling clothes—that was their custom. Yet, only one was wrapped in swaddling cloth normally used for lambs born to become a sacrifice. And only one was wrapped in swaddling cloth, lying in the manger at Midgal Eder. The angel’s announcement was very specific and not vague at all. This was a significant sign, and one I am sure was not lost on these shepherds. This also explains why angels appeared to these shepherds—because they were not ordinary shepherds, but the ones taking care of sheep for sacrifice. The angels were basically stating that their jobs were now complete. The lamb they were waiting for had come. He was in their shelter, their stable, their manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes for special lambs born at Midgal Eder. This lamb was not just for a special sacrifice for someone’s sin debt, but for payment for the sins of the entire world.
I hope this helps you see that Biblical prophecy is there for a reason and while the Christmas story may seem bizarre to us today, it was a very specific sign to the people of their day. It was prophesied and fulfilled exactly as prophesied. Nothing is an accident with our God!
Next time, we’ll look at some other aspects of the Christmas story.
Why Did Angels Appear to Shepherds?
No Room in the Inn?
Have We Missed the Signs?