“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
When Mary gave her song of praise, “The Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55), she was overjoyed and inspired that God had chosen her to bear the Christ Child. But when Caesar Augustus ordered all the world to be taxed (Luke 2:1), and she was required to relocate temporarily, perhaps she, nine-months pregnant, was singing in a minor key. Bad time to be having a baby!
Because of the census, Mary and Joseph had to leave Nazareth, in Galilee, and travel by foot or donkey to Bethlehem, of Judea: a distance of about a hundred miles—about six miles south of Jerusalem. Galileans knew the worn route. Because three times a year (Exodus 23:17; 34:22, 23), all Jewish males, usually accompanied by family, came to Jerusalem for three annual feasts (Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of First Fruits, and Feast of Tabernacles).
This year was unlike any other: Mary was “great with child” (Luke 2:5). She was not required to go with Joseph to the feasts (cf 1 Samuel 1:21, 22), but she had to go for the census. Had Providence designed the census to bring her to Bethlehem, prophesied birthplace of the Christ Child (Micah 5:2)? Traveling in her condition would have been uncomfortable in a Cadillac, but being on the road, under these strenuous circumstances, must have been most unpleasant.
No doubt, the journey took time. How long would it take you to walk a hundred miles? At night, the couple, with other travelers, no doubt, camped by the side of the road. But by the time they reached Bethlehem, Mary was having labor pains, and it was necessary to find shelter.
That there was “no room in the inn” is probably not as bad as we have been led to believe. After all, the world (4 BC) did not have Sleep Inn, Country Inn, or Holiday Inn, much less the Marriott, Hilton, or Ritz-Carlton.
Do you know what inns were like in those days? Probably nothing more than a camp site, where travelers found a place to set up camp. Maybe a fort or courtyard. There may have a lean-to or a corral for livestock, a place to get fresh water, perhaps food for guests and fodder for animals, but it is doubtful there would have been shelter as we know it. Only a place to build a fire and bed down, using one’s own blanket or wrap.
Even if there had been a room, beds in first-century Palestine were nothing more than pallets on the floor. At best, hammocks, cots, or cement banquettes. Even as late as Colonial America (AD 1700), inns would have had only cornhusk mattresses, thrown over rope beds, subject to bed bugs and communicable diseases; travelers who used them reported that Colonial inns and taverns were notoriously dirty. It is doubtful that a room in the little town of Bethlehem, if quarters did exist, would have provided Mary and Joseph a decent night’s rest.
Do you think God would have taken care of everything else—the Annunciation, Joseph’s dream, the Magi, the shepherds—and then have abandoned them to the whim of an innkeeper? O Friend, then you do not know Him! That the couple was granted access to a cave was better. Think of it as an upgrade. A cave meant shelter. Animals in the stalls meant a uniform indoor temperature. Probably 70°-80°F. A soft bed of hay was much preferable to a bed on the cold, hard ground. A manger meant somewhere to lay the baby. A makeshift crib. Something Mary would not have had in the out of doors. Everything about the alternate accommodations say “God … provided some better thing” (Hebrews 11:40).
V Raymond Edman, in Out of My Life, tells of a time in World War II when he was bivouaced on the cold ground, faint, feverish, and hardly able to move. Ordered to break up camp and march with the troops, he tried to beg off, but his commanding officer insisted. He felt so bad. Why didn’t God answer his prayer to stay?
The troops marched all day, and by night found themselves in a German village. A kindly German frau came out of her house, brought Edman indoors and upstairs where it was warm, put him in a big clean bed, and spoonfed him a hot meal. He couldn’t believe what had transpired. Only that morning he’d been complaining to high heaven because someone had muscled him out of a snowy bivouac while all the time God had commandeered warm soup, a mother’s care, and a soft feather bed!
If only we could learn that “God always gives His best to those who leave the choice with Him” (Jim Elliot).
Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown,
When Thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room
For Thy holy nativity.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.
Heaven’s arches rang when the angels sang,
Proclaiming Thy royal degree;
But of lowly birth didst Thou come to earth,
And in great humility.
Thou camest, O Lord, with the living Word,
That should set Thy people free;
But with mocking scorn and with crown of thorn,
They bore Thee to Calvary.
When the heav’ns shall ring, and her choirs shall sing,
At Thy coming to victory,
Let Thy voice call me home, saying “Yet there is room,
There is room at My side for thee.”
My heart shall rejoice, Lord Jesus,
When Thou comest and callest for me. ~Emily E Elliott (1864)
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee