Sunday, April 8, 2018


When I think about reading the Bible in context, I usually think of taking a verse out of context – that is, don’t pluck a verse out of a chapter to make it say something the chapter wasn’t talking about. But it’s also important to read the Bible in its historical and cultural context. When we read the story about Jesus’ birth, odds are that we are influenced by the Christmas story we hear every year. All I have to say is “no room at the inn”, or “away in a manger”, and you know the story I’m talking about. But if we look at the historical and cultural context, we see a different story emerge.

If you like this (or not), check out my other articles at the
Between The Ears BLOG INDEX, with titles and summaries.

Modern Bethlehem At Night
Let’s start with examining where Jesus was born – Bethlehem. My first thought when I hear "Bethlehem" is the Christmas song “O Little Town Of Bethlehem”. But if you lived 2000 years ago in Judea, Bethlehem was known as the place the lambs came from. And by that I mean the lambs sacrificed at the Temple. Every day, two lambs were sacrificed, one at morning sacrifice (the third hour when Jesus was nailed to the cross), and one at evening sacrifice (the ninth hour, when He died). Every Passover, tens of thousand of lambs were sacrificed in one day, all in the Temple. They all came from Bethlehem. “Every first born male lamb from the area around Bethlehem was considered holy, set aside for sacrifice in Jerusalem.” - Why Bethlehem [1]. In short “Everyone in Israel recognized Bethlehem as being synonymous with sacrificial lambs” - The Birth Revisited [2].

So it’s no surprise really that the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ our Passover, was also born in Bethlehem. This was already planned out from the foundation of the world. The lambs born near Bethlehem were fulfilling a type of Jesus.

Migdal Eder

Let’s dig deeper into the story. The Old Testament mentions the “Tower of the Flock”, Migdal Eder, which turns out to be a place near Bethlehem - Gen 35:21, Mic 4:8. By New Testament times, this became the station where shepherds brought the lambs destined for sacrifices in the Temple. Here is what happened at the Tower of the Flock.

The shepherds who kept [the flocks] were men who were specifically trained for this royal task. They were educated in what an animal that was to be sacrificed had to be, and it was their job to make sure that none of the animals were hurt, damaged or blemished. During lambing season the sheep were brought to the tower from the fields, as the lower level functioned as the birthing room for sacrificial lambs. Being themselves under special rabbinical care, these priest/shepherds would strictly maintain a ceremonially clean birthing place. Once birthed, the priest/shepherds would routinely place two lambs in the double-hewn depression of a limestone rock known as "the manger" and "wrap the newborn lambs in swaddling clothes," preventing them from thrashing about and harming themselves "until they had calmed down" so they could be inspected for the quality of being "without spot or blemish" - The Birth Revisited [2].

Remind you of anyone? Who else was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger? An angel told the shepherds to look for such a baby, but the angel never told them where to look, he just said “the city of David”. They knew He would be at the Tower of the Flock (Migdal Eder) in Bethlehem*. The SIGN of the manger makes little sense to us in the West raised on the standard Christmas story, but was perfectly understood by the shepherds of the time. Why were these shepherds told of Jesus' birth? Because they certified all the lambs sacrificed at the Temple, Jesus included. And despite what you see in Nativity scenes, they weren’t led by a Star, that comes from blending the birth story with the story of the Magi, months after Jesus’ birth. See BBC(Star of Bethlehem) [3] or GotQuestions(Star of Bethlehem) [4] for more info.

A little more info on swaddling, not a common term today. Again from The Birth Revisited [2].

“Swaddling bands" were used for subduing animals prior to sacrifice. These swaddling bands were strips of gauze-like cloth used to restrain a lamb being prepared for inspection before sacrifice to prevent thrashing that they not blemish themselves. A sacrifice had to be bound in order to be valid. Binding an animal for sacrifice is specifically mentioned in Abraham's binding of Isaac in Genesis 22:9

Notice that Jesus was buried the same way, wrapped in cloth, laid in a tomb cut in a rock - John 19:40.

Migdal Eder?
Let’s take a look at “no room at the inn”, and how that translation hides a wonderful truth. The word “inn” really means guestroom. Mary was pregnant with Jesus when she and Joseph traveled to their family homestead in Bethlehem, a family homestead for a thousand years, who knows, they may have stayed with a relative. Mary could not give birth in the house because it would have made all the occupants ritually unclean. Therefore, women of that day would leave the home and give birth elsewhere, returning home after purification. Many suggest that Mary gave birth to Jesus in the Tower of the Flocks. Not provable, but probable, watch Migdal Eder and the Birth of Messiah [5] for more info. In The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [6], Alfred Edersheim wrote ‘That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction. Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, “the Tower of the Flock.”’

Also note that according to the Stephens text [7], Luke 2:7,12,16 should read "the manger", not "a manger".

Now let’s read Luke 2 with the right context.

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration whena Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And 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, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a [the] manger, because there was no place for them in the inn [guestroom].
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a SIGN for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a [the] manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a [the] manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Behold The Wonder

Sometimes we can miss so much of a Bible story if we don’t understand the historical and cultural context in which it was written. It’s impossible to shed our own culture completely, but this story shows how important it is to understand the life and times of Jesus Christ. The proper context is not visible unless we understand the shepherds' point of view and that society’s views on ritual uncleanness.

Sometimes so much is revealed by examining one word, in this case “Bethlehem”. I read the lyrics for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” - Metrolyrics [8], and they give no hint of what’s really happening in this story. There is a whole layer of understanding behind that one word. There’s more too, Bethlehem means House of Bread or House of War - What's In A Name [9].

King David wrote, “Open my eyes that I may behold wonders in Your law” - Psalm 119:18 I find the truth about Bethlehem to be a wonder in His law. I hope you do too.

It shows that God planned this symbolism from the foundation of the world. In the days before Passover, consider this - God planned Jesus’ sacrifice long ago  “a body He has prepared” - Heb 10:5. There are hints about it throughout the Old Testament. He planned it in great detail. And He brought it to pass. And He packed all this symbolism into it so that we can see His hand in it all. We can trust in the sacrifice He prepared, and not rely on our own efforts.

Each year before the Days Of Unleavened Bread, I obsessively clean a toaster. Hopefully I can remember it is Jesus’ sacrifice that saves me, not my own efforts – I had nothing to do with preparing Jesus’ sacrifice. Yes we should clean out the old leaven, and yes we should examine ourselves, that’s Biblical, but we should also remember that God loves us, He is always with us, He sees and feels our pains, our joys, and our sorrows, He hears our cries, He will act, and indeed has already acted - He prepared this sacrifice long ago. In the words of John The Baptist “behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world”. John 1:29

* In Jesus' time, Bethlehem was a village as small as 300 people - Horrid Herod [10], but today the population is about 25,000 - Wikipedia(Bethlehem) [11]. Conversely, modern Bethlehem is 4 square miles, but may have been a larger area 2000 years ago.




No comments:

Post a Comment