Rethinking an old story

By Bill Taylor

It seems to me that these days there’s a lot of “trial by accusation or suspicion,” “ assumption of guilt without proof” and “everybody knows” going on in this country. We see examples almost every day where someone is accused or suspected of having committed some trespass of law or social behavior and immediately there’s a hue and cry that the individual must be condemned. Oh, this is nothing new, I can think of one case that’s been around for a couple of thousand years – and just recently has been getting a possible “rethink.”

To set the scene we must go back about two thousand years when, according to the Christmas story in Luke, Chapter 2, Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem to enroll in the census. “She was pregnant and while they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to have her baby. She gave birth to her first son and laid hin in a manger – there was no room for them in the inn.” (Good News Bible) That last sentence is the one of interest here for a couple of reasons.

A “manger”, in case you didn’t know or forgot , is a box or trough to hold hay or other fodder for horses or cattle to eat. The birth was in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn. That indicates they had tried to stay at the inn but were turned away, however, the innkeeper permitted them to use the stable. Big deal, huh? A young woman about to give birth was forced to stay with the animals in some kind of outbuilding. What kind of mean-hearted innkeeper couldn’t squeeze the young couple in somewhere? Insensitive at best; callous and uncaring for sure, right? That’s the way the innkeeper has been characterized through history, but we have changed our opinion – a “rethinking” of the story.

Some years ago before age and infirmity slowed us down we took a tour to the holy land. We visited the usual tourist venues such as the Jordan river, the Sea of Galilee, Jericho, and, of course, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. One stop, however, was unusual and unexpected. It was into a natural cave in the vicinity of Bethlehem. It was maybe 30 by 40 feet with a 12 – 14 foot ceiling and was clean and dry – no water seeping or dripping from its stone walls or ceiling. Our guide explained that caves like this were typically used as shelters for livestock during biblical times and so Mary might well have given birth in a similar setting.

He further explained that inns back then were rather crude, rough establishments providing only minimal accommodations for travelers who were almost exclusively men. No private rooms with bath, buffet style breakfasts, and such. Nope, beds were usually rude pallets, often on the floor in a common area where occupants simply rolled up in their traveling cloaks to sleep. Hardly a place for a young woman about to give birth.

So what did the innkeeper do? He provided them a safe, clean, dry area out of the weather that provided not only shelter, but privacy for the expectant mother.

Fresh hay would have been available for beds – and for lining the manger which served as a makeshift crib. Animals such as cattle sharing the stable would have provided warmth. You know, the innkeeper may well have done what he could to assist the young couple. So instead of being uncaring and mean-hearted he likely did Mary and Joseph a huge favor by providing the best accommodations available under the circumstances – a truly kind act. How about them apples.

Today’s society frequently judges actions or attitudes of the past by what are considered today’s standards or expectations – without taking into consideration the background or context in which the behavior occurred. Not long ago we were in a gathering where the topic of “The War” (World War II) came up and, since we had lived through it, we were asked about what it was like. Talk eventually got around to using atomic bombs to end the war – which was roundly denounced by our much younger audience as “inexcusable”. We tried to explain how using these bombs actually shortened the war and saved millions of casualties

if the allies had to invade the Japanese homeland, but to no avail. You see, today “everyone knows” using nuclear weapons could not have been justified under any circumstances. So much for understanding history – but I digress.

Okay, back to the story of the innkeeper. I kinda like the explanation that he truly tried to help Mary and Joseph by providing them a place to stay even if it was only in a stable. That version somehow fits in well with the spirit of Christmas. At least that’s how it seems to me.

By Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at [email protected]

Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at [email protected]