BLOG 12/12/17. DE-MYTHOLOGIZING NATIVITY SCENES
A necessary discipline for anyone serious about engaging his/her cultural context, it to learn to do what is designated as: exegeting the culture. But this is also most essential when one reads scripture. The scriptural accounts were written in specific cultures in time and space. That means that we need to step outside of our present western understanding of the culture in which we live, and to enter into the culture of the Middle East of those millennia ago. One person who has helped so many of us to grasp this is New Testament scholar, and Middle Eastern inhabitant for most of his long life, Kenneth Bailey. He has written on Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes, and it is his insights that provoke this blog.
This came to mind yesterday driving across town and observing all the tacky (though well-meaning) nativity scenes in church yards and neighborhood houses. All of these, have essentially read the nativity accounts in the gospels through their western experience, and failed to grasp fascinating pieces of the story.
Let’s begin with Bethlehem and Joseph. The Roman government had mandated a census, and everyone was required to register in the town/city of his family heritage. So, Bethlehem was the city of David, and Joseph was “of the house and lineage of David.” That has become an almost insignificant piece of information to us, … but what that meant was the Joseph was actually of royal blood. He was an heir of the Davidic line. He would have been an honored person in the homes of Bethlehem.
Next, Kenneth Bailey reminds us of how prominent in Middle-Eastern culture was the practice of hospitality. Yes, there was an inn in Bethlehem, but when it was full, where did one turn? Middle-Easterners were (and are) hospitable people. Homes were open to receive guests in a way that is difficult for us westerners to grasp. But every home in Bethlehem would have been open to one of royal blood, such as Joseph. And the home-owners who received Joseph and Mary didn’t consign Joseph and the pregnant Mary to a cowshed out in the back yard. Rather they would have been honored guests in the home.
Third, Kenneth Bailey describes for us the normal home, which was quite small but very functional. It would have consisted of, basically, a larger multi-purpose room and a smaller room perhaps for sleeping or other purposes. But then, in something like an attached garage in our culture, there was the place where the family animals were kept, such as the family cow, etc. These animals were a necessary part of the daily provision for the family food supply—but also they provided some of the heat in the winter. The animal shelter would have been divided from the larger room by only a divider, where there would also have been a rack/manger for the storing of food for the animals (but also would become a convenient place to lay the infant Jesus). It was all very functional and economical in space since towns were compact.
It would, also, not have been considered an imposition for Mary and Joseph to have resided there for some weeks (or until Herod ordered the slaughter of all the infants under two years of age, and the angel warned Mary and Joseph to flee). I wonder who the family was who took Mary and Joseph into their home? Could they have had the remotest notion of the eternal consequences of their warm hospitality? But then there is the word given to us: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:1-2). Yes, in a culture where there are so many strangers, those of different nationalities and religions, it is worth looking at the stewardship of our places of residence and notice how much hospitality is to be a gift of the Spirit, and to be practiced by God’s people, and especially by its leaders, and to ponder that those strangers whom we befriend, may be angels unaware? Stay tuned …