One of my favorite words that I have ever learned is gemütlichkeit. Gemütlichkeit is a German word pronounced Ge-moot-lik-kite. Other than being really fun to pronounce, it has incredible meaning. If you do a Google search, you get a boring definition of “geniality; friendliness.” This woefully falls short. My German professor said gemütlichkeit is that atmosphere and attitude of warm, friendly hospitality, and cheerfulness when you are surrounded by family and friends, a warm fire, and warm food.
Gemütlichkeit is a good word to describe the idealistic Christmas gathering. I think it is also a possibility to describe the first Christmas. Have you ever thought that it was possible that Jesus was born in a warm house, filled with the smells of cooking and surrounded by loved ones who cheerfully celebrate the birth of a new baby in the family?
I had never considered that possibility. I was taught that Jesus was born in a drafty stable because some meanie of an innkeeper told a pregnant woman there was no room in his hotel and that he ‘mercifully’ let Mary have the baby in the barn. I had also hear that perhaps he was born in a cave. It wasn’t until I was given Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes that my children’s program view of Christmas was challenged. In his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth Bailey encourages Christians to stick to the Scripture as we think about what the first Christmas may have been like. If we do, we will notice some issues with traditional stories of Jesus’ birth.
First, Joseph was not going to some unknown place when he took Mary to Bethlehem. He was going to his hometown. So was the rest of his family. The census required that people return to their hometown so Bethlehem, usually a small, quiet town, would have been bustling with people. Joseph and Mary would have been very close to their family. It isn’t hard to think that it would have had a family reunion atmosphere, although, that is speculation.
Second, Joseph wasn’t from some unknown family, he was a royal. Min Matthew 1, we see clearly that he belonged to the line of David. There is not a family more prominent in Israel than David’s family because of God’s promise to establish David’s Kingdom in 2 Samuel 7.
Third, Mary had family nearby. Elizabeth, her cousin, lived in the hill country of Judea. Bethlehem was in the center of Judea and having traveled from Nazareth, it would have been possible to travel to Elizabeth’s place had they been unable to find accommodations.
Fourth, Luke 2:6 states, “while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” These words do not convey an urgency, as if Jesus had been born the day they arrived in Bethlehem.
The fifth point Bailey makes is not from scripture but is a cultural norm for all cultures, especially from the time and geography of the birth narrative. Women about to give birth are always given special attention. Bailey asks, “Are we to imagine that Bethlehem was an exception? Was there no sense of honor in Bethlehem? Surely the community would have sensed its responsibility to help Joseph find adequate shelter for Mary and provide the care she needed. To turn away a descendant of David in the ‘City of David’ would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village.”
This leads to another really important point of interest, in 1st century Judea, the most common home plan was not the rambler or the ranch, it was a one room home with a guest room. The guest room was often attached to the back of the house or sometimes was a 2nd floor “prophet’s room.” This is the layout mentioned as early as 2 Kings 4:10. The main room would have been where the family worked, cooked, and ate together. When guests were present, this is where they would sleep. Connected and down a couple steps, it was common to have a stable so you could bring your animals into the house at night. This provided security from thieves and warmth in the house from their body heat. Mangers would either be portable or built right into the main floor which was right at head level for a cow.
This makes sense if you read the tragic account of Jephthah’s return home after battling the Ammonites Judges 11:29-40. Jephthah had made a vow to sacrifice as a burnt offering of whatever first came out of the doors of his house to meet him when he returned. Why on earth would he make such a vow if he even remotely thought that his daughter would come forth before the animals?
Here are two pictures depicting what a typical Jewish house would have looked like. Both pictures are from Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.
Also, worth pointing out is the utter lack of an innkeeper. Luke 2:7 says “there was no room for them in the inn.” But the word for room likely indicates that the was no place, not “a room” as if there were many rooms. And the word “inn” in Greek doesn’t mean hotel, it means guest room or lodging place. We see this word is used three times in the New Testament. The other two places are in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11 where Jesus asks for a “guest room” so he can celebrate the Passover.
I can go on, but I’ll cut to the point. Scripture doesn’t say Jesus was born in a stable. Scripture doesn’t say he was born in a cave. It says he was born in Bethlehem. There was no room in the guest room of the home they would have likely been staying in because it was already bursting at the seams with family who were in town for the census. So their host family provided what they could, sleeping in their own space, and a manger from the stable in which to lay the baby, which was probably a part of the main room of the house.
So to recap, what was Christmas really like? It is possible and very probable that Jesus was born in a warm, cozy, single room Jewish home, surrounded by members of the royal family and because there were so many people in the guest room, the host family allowed Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to sleep in the main room, surrounded by the smells of cooking.
The point of this is not to wreck children’s programs across the country, although, we should always evaluate what we do in light of scripture, but to encourage you to really dig into God’s Word afresh this church year. I encourage you to check out some of the devotions mentioned on a previous post you can reach through this link.
In the meantime, Happy Advent. Keep your eyes open; Jesus is coming.
If you are interested in reading more from Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, below is the full citation.
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008.