Rethinking the Nativity

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Rethinking the Nativity

I am tired of the Christmas story.

Clarification: I’m tired of the way I keep hearing it and seeing it and reading it. Let’s think about the Christmas story, as seen in thousands of movies, children’s pageants, poems, novels, kid’s books every year:

Joseph is kind of a chump. He gets pushed around by some angels and then makes the totally irresponsible decision to drag a pregnant woman in her late third trimester to a town miles and miles away, on foot or maybe on a donkey. He plans this trip so poorly that they barely make it to Bethlehem on time and while Mary is (silently and peacefully) enduring labor pains, he is knocking on the doors of the local Sheraton and Holiday Inns. Apparently though Joseph is from this town, he no longer has any connections or relationship with people there so not only is he irresponsible, he must have been quite the jerk.

The streets are empty, no one sees this pregnant woman and harried man, no one cares until the hapless innkeeper reluctantly allows the couple to use his filthy, though warm and well-supplied with soft, cuddly hay, stable out back.

Mary gives birth, alone, the umbilical cord is magically cut, the placenta just disappears, though Joseph would have had no idea what to do with it and Mary would have been in no state to direct him. The baby has this funny glowing circle over his head, doesn’t cry at all, is wrapped in a dirty, torn blanket, and perhaps licked by the barn animals.

Some shepherds come and see the baby and the parents living in the filth and stink of an animal barn and leave rejoicing.

This makes for beautiful paintings, poetry, songs, and children’s plays. But does it fit the cultural norms? More importantly, is it what the Bible teaches?

nativity

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How about this instead? (for more on this, read This Advent Season, A Look at the Real Setting)

Joseph, a man of courage and faith, realizes that his fiancee is in serious trouble. She could be stoned any day by the villagers because she is pregnant and not married. He is not required to bring Mary along to be counted in the census because she is a woman but he decides to tie his name to hers, tie his reputation to hers, and saves her life by taking her out of the village until the baby is born and emotions can simmer down. Who knows if they walked or rode donkeys but there is a distinct possibility that they rode in a cart. In any case, they arrived in Bethlehem before the day of Jesus’ birth. The Bible says: While they were there the time came for Mary to give birth. The Bible does not say: the moment they arrived they frantically pounded on doors.

He is wise, planned ahead, and is a hero. Not merely a background character, indistinguishable from shepherds in most nativity scenes.

It is hard to imagine that a working man of integrity and faith would have been rejected by relatives, no matter how extended. Not in this culture. In Djibouti people impose on extended relatives all the time, for long periods of time, cramped into small living spaces shared with livestock. No one would turn away a pregnant relative. No, he had family in Bethlehem and he went to the home of relatives where he and Mary rested from their journey and prepared for the birth of the baby.

The word ‘inn’ doesn’t refer to a Holiday Inn or Sheraton style building where a bed and meal can be purchased. It more likely refers to an upper room in a family home. Quite possibly Joseph’s relatives had other distant family in town for the census so the upper room was occupied. This meant the couple had to sleep downstairs in the open living space where animals were kept at night for safety and where they ate from troughs dug into the earth at one end of the room. They maybe slept on mats or piles of blankets, just as they would have upstairs. The room was warm and sheltered, probably filled with other traveling relatives.

Mary didn’t give birth alone. No place in the Bible is this written or implied. More likely she was surrounded by women. A midwife, Joseph’s relatives, neighbors. Shepherds came and found the child and his mother and left rejoicing because not only had they seen Grace and Mercy in the flesh, but they had seen a woman and child well-cared for and surrounded by caring women. Otherwise, they more likely would have praised God for that Grace and Mercy and then said: What are you doing here alone and cold?! Come with us, our women will care for you! No way would they have left a young mother and infant in that state and left rejoicing.

I don’t want to be too harsh, but maybe in the West, the first version, the version we are so used to, is acceptable because we can relate. A man unable to plan well for his pregnant fiancee. A woman in labor turned away, the needy ignored in the streets. Maybe we feel comfortable imagining that in ‘those’ places people only had dirty torn clothes to wrap around their babies, that in ‘those’ places mothers allow cows to lick their newborns. Maybe this, in some way, frees us from responsibility to act. If our Lord was born this way, it is not lowly or demeaning for other babies to be born alone, into a cold and unwelcoming world.

But in the East, in the culture and time in which Jesus was born, no way. Family, hospitality, food, community, these things are highly valued, no less in Jesus’ lifetime. A pregnant woman was not left in the street, especially when relatives were in town and even if she was pregnant out of wedlock. I could list off names and names of women I know in eastern cultures who have been pregnant outside of marriage and who have been neither stoned nor rejected from their families, but lovingly welcomed and cared for.

We want to make the birth of Jesus as hard as possible, as cold and lonely and desperate and painful as possible. Why? Is it because we can’t grasp the infinite coldness, loneliness, desperation, and pain of what the incarnation truly meant? We wrap it up in dirty clothes and stinking animals, in physical loneliness and fear. Is our feeble attempt at re-imagining the Christmas story our way of trying to understand, to put images and emotions to something so powerfully and deeply beyond our comprehension? To bring the miracle of God-made-flesh into our realm of understanding?

No matter what other pictures we paint to describe his birth nothing can make it harder than it was. Nothing can make it more loving than it was. Nothing can make it more miraculous than it was.

Jesus left heaven and was born a human baby, destined to die a human death.

Saying that Jesus was born into the hands of a skilled midwife or into a house filled with light and laughter and community takes nothing away from the glory of that night. It simply makes it more authentic.

*these thoughts stem from the incredible book: Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey and I highly recommend this book. Highly.

*image credit

47 Comments

  1. Marilyn December 10, 2013 at 1:06 pm - Reply

    Beautifully said! Thank you for linking – although you gave this the substance it deserved. Thank you.

  2. The Bible Is Foreign | Kouyanet December 10, 2013 at 3:58 pm - Reply

    […] in a different culture is that it gives you eyes to see new things in the text of Scripture. Go on, read the whole post; give yourself a […]

    • Tom December 12, 2013 at 4:27 pm - Reply

      What a thought-provoking piece, and a picture of the advent that we need to re-think again and again. Fits nicely with this Sunday’s message! I love the thought that the shepherds would have hauled them back to their camp/women! (Although I have read that shepherds were less likely to be married?). Love the idea that Joseph isn’t some old man who just happened to marry into this, the concept that this was family, the idea that Joseph wasn’t threatening bodily harm to some desk clerk.

      I have not read this particular book by Bailey, who may answer this question. But what if the rags were dirty, the floor covered in filth, the room cold? Not because anyone wanted it to be, but because it was all that was available? What if the room (or cave) was the most private place, and the crowds of relatives and others who showed up for the census simply didn’t have time or resources for a “normal” birth? Certainly the family was not alone, but I do think the scriptures indicate that the situation was not the norm for a new arrival to the clan.

      There is great comfort in this: That even in the midst of the distraction and craziness that life sometimes hurls down on us, God still shows up. If it was in a more normal cultural setting, isn’t that pretty much the point? The Christ arrives in the real world, whatever that setting may be, because he is One with us? It’s not the spectacular nature of the arrival that makes it special, but the common circumstances that make the story special and unique.

      I’ve always been bothered by the images of a woman (usually very white) in a barn-like structure surrounded by straw and animals and strange men and a silent husband. She is always pristine. The baby is clean and sleeping and tearless. There are clean “swaddling” clothes and not a hint of a cow pile anywhere. Just a bright start shining on glowing faces without a trace of dirt. It’s cleaner than any childbirth in a modern hospital ever was.

      Your message is much-needed: We have “sanitized” the story, cleaned it up to be whatever image we want it to be. In reality, it’s amazing enough without us having to clean it up for our own favorite images.

  3. John Hamilton December 10, 2013 at 8:17 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Djibouti Jones, for this thought provoking article.
    I have posted a link to it on my church Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/saintfieldroad
    I hope that’s OK. Couldn’t resist it for two reasons:
    1. it’s a great blog and 2. we have used the same photo to promote our Christmas prayer room.
    God bless, John

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 11, 2013 at 12:13 am - Reply

      Glad you shared it and thanks for letting me know. Isn’t that a gorgeous picture?

  4. mpieh December 10, 2013 at 11:11 pm - Reply

    Rachel, thanks for this. I wonder how, when, and why the modern/Western telling and images of the Christmas story came to be. How is the story told and portrayed in Eastern culture? You are so correct in saying that the details of Christ’s birth (whether we get them right or not) cannot add or take away from the absolute miracle that it was. I cannot tell you how many times simply speaking or singing the name EMMANUEL totally reduces me to tears. Emmanuel…God With Us…in human form…come to SAVE us. That’s it…that’s Christmas. Everything else just fades into trivial detail.

    I can’t believe you’re in Minnesota! So close…and, still, yet so far. Enjoy your family time. Merry Christmas!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 11, 2013 at 12:15 am - Reply

      I forget some of the details, but in that book I mentioned he does write about where the story comes from and I think it was in a novel written a long, long time ago and somehow it caught on and became so wrapped up in our telling of the story that people assume it is scripturally-based. Merry Christmas to you and your family too!

    • AR November 4, 2014 at 5:32 pm - Reply

      In Eastern Orthodox Nativity icons, a midwife or two are traditionally present.

      http://orthodoxyinrolla.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/nativity-icon.jpg

      Note, the scenery in an icon is not realistic, it is highly symbolic. An icon presents whole poetic meanings, not meanings founded in distinctions and dichotomies. Times and places are not distinguished if combining them can get the point across better.

      There are animals and a cave, as well. According to Orthodox wiki, the cave is part of tradition, meaning that it is a story coming from extra-biblical but ancient sources and has been widely believed. However, it clarifies that “…it is known historically that dwellings were built directly over such caves housing livestock–in order to make use of the heat.”

      The cave is also part of the Orthodox poetry of Christmas, in that a cave becomes in a sense Heaven because, like the Virgin’s womb, it contains the uncontainable. The animals worship Jesus because all creation is going to be renewed in his body and the innocent creatures, groaning under the corrupt governance of fallen man, recognize the son of man who is pure and peaceable. This fits well with Orthodox experience, in which our saints often befriend and master wild animals.

  5. Dan McDonald December 11, 2013 at 2:41 am - Reply

    Thank-you for these wonderful thoughts. I think there is so much theological insight in your pointing out that sometimes we try to conjure up so many difficulties in Jesus’ life and setting simply to try to grasp what all he gave up in the incarnation. But that may well end up distancing us from the reality of his incarnation as much as if we sugar coated his human sufferings. I feel that this is nearer the reality of that first Christmas than how we have played it out in our Christmas pageants. The longer I journey in the Christian life the more I think that Jesus needed to become man, simply that I might learn how to become more and more human following him in redemption. Merry Christmas to you as you delight in him among your family, neighbors and friends in Djibouti.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 11, 2013 at 1:55 pm - Reply

      Thanks for this delightful and insightful comment (no rhyme intended). Good to hear your thoughts Dan.

  6. Jack Bradberry December 11, 2013 at 5:10 am - Reply

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the Nativity. But being old fashioned and only having the scriptural account available, I am puzzled as to why one has to conjure up a more detailed theological explanation of our Lord’s Birth that has been given to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What is important here? Maybe it’s not in the Bible because it is more important that a baby was born than to explain exactly how.

    I’m sorry that you are tired of the Christmas Story, or at least, tired of the way you keep hearing it and seeing it and reading it. It certainly didn’t bothered the saints before us. I was just thinking about the Church of the Nativity, the cave where Christ was supposedly born. Perhaps this fits into the category of becoming as little children. Thanks again for an interesting article, but please stick to the Scriptures. .

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 11, 2013 at 1:57 pm - Reply

      Thanks for this comment. I’m not saying this is what happened, I don’t know exactly what happened any more than what we can read in Scripture. But I do think our pageants often add an equal amount of conjecture and I think it is important to present a more culturally accurate picture. I agree though, that the exact details are not the ultimate, most important thing.

    • Marilyn December 11, 2013 at 10:53 pm - Reply

      Respectfully, this is not a more theological explanation – it’s a more true explanation. I lived in the Middle East for years and frankly, Middle Easterners don’t understand where we got our manger scenes. We are interpreting scripture through a western lens and that is not accurate. Translation and language has put us into the place where we now sit and it’s an inaccurate place. The story that many in the west think is scriptural has it’s roots in a novel written about 200 years after the birth of Christ. The novel was like most novels – an imaginative piece of literature. In this account, the author has Mary deliver the baby sort of in the middle of nowhere while Joseph is running off to try and find help. For me it brings up an important point – and that is: through what lens are we reading scripture? Living in the MIddle East made so many Biblical accounts come alive for me – it wasn’t reinterpreting scripture – it was learning more about what was true of the time and not interpreting through my western cultural lens.

  7. Stu Nutt December 11, 2013 at 7:37 am - Reply

    Thanks for that thought-provoking post. I lived for some 20 years in the Middle-East (mostly Saudi Arabia) and learned that the culture in that area is very different to ours in “The West”, and how so many people here don’t understand what it means.

    Although there is much we may not agree with, there is also a lot that we can learn – like the unity of the extended family. Even when a family member goes to work far away, how he will return home on a regular basis, and not just write, phone or email once in a blue moon.

    I have to add that the image many people (especially in USA) have of the Arab peoples is totally distorted by the few who commit atrocities and get themselves in the news. I met many very nice people there and, although Westerners and Arabs don’t usually socialise together much, made several friends among them, including a special friend Ahmed, a Muslim Jordanian, who is such a loving kind man and whose values are very similar to those of a good Christian.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 11, 2013 at 1:59 pm - Reply

      Beautiful to hear this, thanks for sharing about the people you met in the MIddle East. I agree, there is much we can learn and that people are so much more than what the media would have us believe! Warm and kind and family-oriented and caring, with deep convictions and morals.

  8. […] to Eddie Arthur for drawing attention to a thought provoking blog from Djibouti Jones who admits to getting her ideas from Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern […]

  9. Cindy December 11, 2013 at 12:54 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for this post! A new perspective! A refreshing perspective. My husband and I are leaving in a few weeks to move to Dubai. You blog has been a great resource. Our situation is a bit different, our children are all grown an married, we have grandchildren. Love running, and seeing you are running in a culture where covering is important, has helped!

  10. Cindy December 11, 2013 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    I shared the link to this on my Facebook page. Thanks again!

  11. Sarah December 11, 2013 at 3:18 pm - Reply

    I love this! Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to point out the things that we accept as “scriptural” when they are, in fact, NOT. One of the things I think that makes the West enjoy the first telling of the Nativity, is that we are such an individualistic society. We do not value our family and our community, nor our food, the way other cultures do. We want to rough it in the wilderness all by ourselves. We value our independence so fiercely that we put it in places where it does not belong. Like other cultures. Or scripture. Or even our daily lives…

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 11, 2013 at 4:01 pm - Reply

      This is a great connection between how we live our lives and how we understand scripture, thanks for drawing them together like that, I want to think about it some more. How do our values and our culture affect our beliefs? Of course we would like to think it is the other way around but in reality I agree with what you are saying. So interesting, thanks Sarah!

  12. KatherineH December 12, 2013 at 5:14 am - Reply

    Thanks so much for this article Rachel. It has inspired my thinking as I prepare our Christmas Day service another world away in Sydney, Australia. (No winter wonderland snowy Christmas here either…even though we insist on singing about it. Grrr.) Our theme this year would be “Christmas from the Inside Out”, with a few people taking on particular characters (eg. Mary, Joseph, Herod) and telling us the story with the perspective and emotion of that person. So I was delighted to see this piece pop up on your blog at just the right time. After reading it I’ve decided that I will take on the role of the “inn keeper”, but not in a traditional way. I’m going to be ‘the lady of the house’, Joseph’s relative’s wife dealing with all those visitors. I plan on passing your words on to our actors as background reading, so thanks from them too! (Now all I need to do is recruit “them”…)

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 12, 2013 at 3:04 pm - Reply

      That is so cool, what a great idea Katherine and thanks for letting me know. I helped our kids a few years ago put on a pageant a bit more like this and I guess the author of the book has one available, I intend to look into it. I’d love to hear how people respond. When we did our pageant I spent the month before talking with the group of kids about the story and these ideas and it was so much fun to think with them. And then I also printed off a couple of pages from the book for the people watching, so they wouldn’t think we were being heretical! It was a lot of fun and I learned so much. Blessings and merry Christmas!

      • KatherineH December 26, 2013 at 2:32 am - Reply

        Rachel, we had a great time with our Christmas service. Very well received, but I didn’t really expect otherwise as creativity is a bit of a trademark of our church and we always do something different with our Christmas services. I was “Aunty Leah” (“my name means ‘weary’, quite fitting at this time of year don’t you think?”), wife of Joseph’s second cousin (“or is it third cousin once removed, I never can remember?”) chatting with Joseph and Mary who, along with everyone else, were back in Bethlehem for a festival. The setting was the courtyard of “my” house. We were at floor level and behind us on the stage we had an ‘upper room’ with sleeping bags and a couch etc. Over a cup of tea in the courtyard, with a little sectioned off area for animals (a manger, a hobby horse and some sheep slippers!) next to us. M & J reminisced about the time they were here for the census, and the events leading up to that. (At that time Aunty Leah’s house had been pretty crowded, but they found room for M&J in the room downstairs and Jesus was born there.) Cameo appearances from a shepherd and Herod who told things from their perspective. So much fun. The actors all prepared their own parts and it was quite an eye opener for them to see how little detail the Bible has on some points and where it puts the emphasis. So thanks again for providing some of the inspiration!

        • Rachel Pieh Jones
          Rachel Pieh Jones December 29, 2013 at 8:10 pm - Reply

          Thanks for this update, I love seeing this practical step to opening up people’s eyes to another possibility!

  13. Heike December 13, 2013 at 8:44 am - Reply

    Having lived in the Middle East myself for a long time the story makes so much more sense this way! Yea – love it! Thank you for sharing!

  14. Bruce P Greenough December 14, 2013 at 3:38 pm - Reply

    Rachel, I agree whole heartedly that our western nativity scenes leave much disappointment. But I caution you to be just as careful with telling the story only from an eastern context. That is certainly one important context to consider – but it is only. I am very grateful for Bailey’s voice in commentary. I’ve had the privilege of meeting him – a really wonderful man with a deep soul. But there are other contexts – 2nd Temple Judaism for one, and, most important, the Text itself.

    We need to be careful not to add what the Scriptures don’t include. We also need to be careful not to take away or miss what they do. What the Eastern context provides us, set alongside the accounts in Matthew and Luke should, not necessarily lead us to assume that there were midwives and welcoming relatives. What is of note is that Scripture tells us that there was no “place for them in a ketaluma. And while you are correct to note what ketaluma means, it is at least worth noting that in Joseph’s ancestral home no one in the context of eastern hospitality gave that sort of place to this couple in active labor. It’s far more likely that Jesus was born in a cave used as a stable – that’s what Bethlehem is dotted with all along the hillside on which it is built. It is actually what the Church of the Nativity is built over – even though the cave long held to be the place is now covered in marble and tapestries – what Annie Dillard calls ” One of the queerest spots on earth….”). I would think people of Eastern cultures would especially be shocked by the Text saying there was no “place.” Wouldn’t they assume that a woman giving birth would mean we move others out of the guest quarters, get the midwives, give her everything necessary? The text simply, and shockingly says there was no place given. Maybe the question the Text is meant to raise is what place are we giving to this one born Savior as God With Us?
    What is also of note in the Text is the little that is said of Joseph – he is a tekton – an artisan in wood, metal, and wood. In Israel/Palestine, in the time of Herod that means he was most likely a stonecutter. He was a tsidiq – a righteous man. The ancient rabbis had a saying, “If you come to a town and cannot find a rabbi, look for a charash/tekton – a stonecutter.” This speaks to the sort of man Joseph was – noted by his plan and his willingness to believe the word of the Lord in a dream and choose a different course – completely against the time, culture, and Torah expectations. He would have had the right to have Mary stoned and would have been the one to throw the first stone. 2nd Temple period righteous Jews were sure that if they kept Torah well then Messiah would come. What is of note in the Text, then, is the choice Joseph makes to act differently than the culture he lived in, but in ways still in keeping with ancestors – like Moses. Not one single word does Joseph speak in Scripture – he simply acts with a new, God instructed, Scripture affirming righteousness.
    Mary – no idea of her age, girls were ready for marriage at the onset of puberty – 13 or 14. In that time the average age was 18. Men were ready at 18, average at the time was 25.
    What is noteworthy in the text is Mary’s response to an angel. She is troubled, not by the arrival, but by the greeting. It is a greeting by which great figures from Scripture had been called upon to participate in God’s saving grace: Moses for one, and nearly word for word, Gideon. That’s why she asks the question, “How will this be?” She is responding with expectation that if she is being so called it must mean that God will make this happen – not her, on her own – just as she knows her Scripture. Nothing in the greeting assumes that Mary cannot wait until her marriage is consummated and she get pregnant in the normal way. She simply knows to expect from a greeting that God will make this happen – so she asks and gets two signs – just like Moses, just like Gideon (it’s remarkably connected to dew – a sign of salvation and grace since the days of Noah, Manna, and Gideon.)
    It’s certainly correct that Joseph didn’t have to take Mary along for the census. But we need to be careful not to make the journey what the Scriptures don’t – there is no donkey (buying a donkey then cost half the annual salary of a centurion soldier – about like US middle class folk buying a Mercedes) – nor is there a cart. People walked – especially poor people. It’s more than 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem – through difficult terrain, with Roman soldiers and thieves to harass along the way.
    And shepherds – dirty, poor, considered untrustworthy, and yet long associated with the sort of leadership God provides and expects of his People. They are “in the fields” which gives us an idea of the time – farmers only allow sheep and goats into the fields after the harvest and before planting and rainy season (that’s Aug-Oct in Israel). They are terrified by the angel and the host (army) of heaven). But what is most of note is the sign by which they are to find this baby – “wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” Why is that a sign? Because of God’s word through the prophet Ezekiel (ch 16) – that this is the time of God remembering his covenant.
    It is also remarkable – worthy of note – that the angel tells shepherds that “Unto you is born this day (Jesus born during the day?)….” To shepherds is born the Messiah! He truly is Messiah for all the people.
    What’s their response – worthy of noting? They obey and go see – and then they become the world’s first evangelists – making known “the saying concerning this child.”
    So, I am with you on the trouble of our Nativity scenes – that they so often make much of what simply isn’t in the Text – but we must be careful in trying to construct a more “authentic” scene and still miss what I believe the Gospel writers – and God – want us to hear…. the Word for the Word in the coming of the Word born in human flesh to be Savior an Emmanuel for “all the people.”

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 14, 2013 at 8:18 pm - Reply

      Appreciate this thorough and thoughtful comment, thank you Bruce. I don’t intend for the way I’ve presented the story to be any more ‘Biblical’ but just as another possible way to view the story, one that would fit more accurately into the cultural and historical time and place. And yes, there are many other ways of viewing the Biblical narrative. I don’t want to be locked into one culture’s way of seeing things so much so that I can’t look at the meaning and the deeper truths involved. Emmanuel! Amen.

  15. Judy Menser December 14, 2013 at 6:05 pm - Reply

    Interesting insight but there are some inaccuracies. Joseph did not drag Mary to Bethlehem out of whim. It was required by the Jewish law for them to be there for the census. He had no choice. Who knows why they arrived so close to her delivery. Maybe Mary was having difficulty along the way because of her pregnancy. Anyway. Those are my thoughts.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 14, 2013 at 8:16 pm - Reply

      I don’t know that they arrived close to her delivery date. The story says: while they were there, the time came for Mary to give birth. So we don’t know if that means the very night they arrived or some days/weeks/months after traveling.

  16. Mary Sweigart December 15, 2013 at 8:04 pm - Reply

    The Eastern Orthodox nativity icons show the presence of midwives washing the Baby. The whole Biblical narrative is considered to point to his destiny of being born to die, with the cave representing the tomb. The swaddling clothes are depicted as looking like the linens used to wrap a corpse. The manger looks like a miniature stone sarcophagus or coffin, and the Baby placed in the manger, a receptacle for food, was destined to say that unless we eat his Body and drink his Blood, we have no part in Him. The early Greek commentaries on these passages by the Greek fathers speak of these mysteries and many more. They are worthy of consideration because they were thousands of times more culturally and linguistically close to the Biblical authors than we are. Joseph is depicted as having children from a previous marriage tagging along to Egypt. He is also depicted as being tempted at every turn by Satan who keeps messing with his mind, telling him to doubt what the angel has told him about Mary. Having lived in the Middle East for more than 20 years, I find that Arab Christians almost think it is heresy to say He was born in a stable, because the cave/tomb connection points to the reason he was born.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 29, 2013 at 8:12 pm - Reply

      Fascinating, thank you for sharing these tidbits, they demonstrate how culture-bound our way of reading scripture can be, don’t they? I am excited to be learning more and more things like this through reading and these types of conversations, thanks Mary!

  17. Peach December 18, 2013 at 1:21 pm - Reply

    I absolutely love talking and reading the scriptures to my children explaining the birth of Jesus. Several years ago the Holy Spirit began prompting my husband and I to look more closely at the truth of the Word. We couldn’t find anywhere in the Word where ‘Christmas’ is mentioned or 25th December as being His Birthday..more likely as someone else mentioned in Aug/Sept time. So Why have we been lying to our children that this is when it was and why we ‘should’ celebrate it at all in the way we have? These were questions we believe the Lord was prompting us to consider.. I believe we had been celebrating Christmas within the church just because its what everybody does each year..but does the Bible actually tell us to remember his birth in the way the church does? The scriptures do tell us to remember his Death and Resurrection clearly. So we’ve been challenged on this very much..and believe its time we asked God individually whether He wants us to celebrate in the way we always have, when that date has nothing to do with Christs Birth and actually more roots associated with pagan practices, it certainly made us wonder what on earth does God think of the church continuing to teach and show the world that the 25th December is His Sons Birthday when clearly from scripture its not.. when we seek truth we realise how blind we’ve been all the years.. This is our personal conviction from reading the Word and we don’t seek to tell others what to do. But after celebrating Christs Birth on this Day for practically all our lives,people do now ask us why we no longer practice this..
    Shalom/Peace to All

    • Beverly December 20, 2013 at 1:32 am - Reply

      Amen! The American church has created a story as full of lies, misleading information and dangerous as the very pagan holidays that the Roman Catholic Church decided to piggyback Christmas on to as well. Santa and the cute “Elf on the Shelf” are not anything like the origins of their creation. Yes, fall, near the Feast of Tabernacles, is a much more realistic time for the birth. The shepherds would have still been in the fields, Tabernacles is a pilgrimage feast so traveling to Bethlehem, and Jerusalem 40 days later for Mary’s cleansing sacrifices at the Temple, would also fit that time frame. There is SO MUCH MORE to the TRUE story than our “cleaned up” American version! Emmanuel-YeHovah TABERNACLES with His people! HalleluYah!!! Shalom in the name of YeHovah!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 29, 2013 at 8:13 pm - Reply

      Thanks for this, I love the way your family is thinking critically and making your own decisions on how/when to celebrate.

  18. hakirby December 19, 2013 at 5:08 pm - Reply

    Thank you! I’ve been saying this for years, especially regarding Joseph.

    if a God is picking human parents for a child, he’s picking them for a reason. He’s picking them because they are awesome people, going to shape this young godling into someone worthy of following. Jesus always seemed to me to be a pretty stand-up guy and God didn’t do that. Joseph and Mary did. I’m tired of seeing them relegated to bit players. Joseph especially.

    I’m tired of seeing the humanity of these amazing people swept aside and that includes Jesus.

    And I’m not even Christian.

  19. Cindy Wiens December 20, 2013 at 4:27 am - Reply

    My brother just wrote a book on this very thing. After a lot of research he finally got it printed last Christmas. You might want to check out his book: “Closer to the Real Christmas Story” by Dr. Jared Burkholder.

  20. Kristie December 20, 2013 at 12:40 pm - Reply

    Please help me to understand the apparent contradiction of your explanation. In the beginning of your article, you state that Joseph was a hero as he saved Mary from likely stoning by the villagers. But a few paragraphs later, you elaborate about how community and hospitality are highly valued in eastern culture and that a woman pregnant out of wedlock would never be stoned or left alone on the streets. I ask for clarification in a spirit of wanting to understand, not to challenge. Thank you for your help and for sharing this article. It is fascinating to ponder the circumstances of this amazing time of history – the events leading to the birth of our Savior.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 29, 2013 at 8:42 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your question Kristie. I see what you mean about an apparent contradiction and there could be a number of explanations for this, such as Mary’s hometown taking her perceived infidelity as a more direct affront to their honor. But also, when I consider simple human nature, both responses are possible and likely. Some people would be angry and ‘righteous’ while others would be willing and able to offer grace and welcome. I am totally speculating, but in my imagination I can even see people in both locations having both response, maybe some in the house were upset by her presence while others allowed her to give birth there graciously. From what I have seen/learned, the strongest negative reaction to this type of situation often arises from those closest to it – family and extended relatives. Perhaps simply by taking her to a different area for a while Joseph gave the situation time to calm down. I don’t really know, of course, but want to keep learning. Thanks for pushing on this.

  21. Jared Burkholder December 20, 2013 at 8:08 pm - Reply

    Ten years ago I “happened upon” an article by Kenneth Bailey on”The Manger and the Inn.” I could hardly believe my eyes. All my adult life and ministry as student (including study at the Institute of Holy Land Studies, now Jerusalem University College) misssionary, pastor and educator,I became more and more skeptical about the accuracy of our Western, individualistic interpretation and application of the Christmas Story as proclaimed every Christmas. Something seemed out of whack. Things didn’t add up. Joseph was a jerk, The beautiful light of Middle Eastern hospitality is non-existent. Having to deliever their own child seems unnecessarily foolish. That additional people are in the stable when the shepherds tell of their encounter with the angels is omitted in the traditiional telling of the Christmas story, but a careful reading of the text indicates that there were. And a taxation/registration paradigm that assumes a kind of April 15 deadline for rapidl completiion is suppprted neither by historical record or logical expectation in the vast Roman Empire.

    And then, of course, there are many questions and clarifications that need to be made, not so much about the nature of the star (interesting though that be), but with regard to what the biblical text does or does not say about the star’s appearance in relation to Jesus birth. Did the star first appear in the sky the night Jesus was born or two years before Jesus was born? Was Herod’s interpretation of the wise men’s answer to his question accurate? When during the wise men’s trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem was the star visible? How many wise men were there? What is/are the implication(s) of the wise men worshipping Jeus in a house and not a stable?

    After reading Bailey’s article on “The Manger and the Inn” I could hardly contain myself. Eureka! I (with God’s help) had found it! Those “little” clarificatons by Bailey made the Christmas Story finally make sense. Everything fell into place. The questions I had asked over a lifetime of ministry suddenly came together. Wondering what the Christmas Story would look like with the Bailey adjustments and explanations, over the next few months I re-wrote fast and furiously the Christmas Story, weaving together a harmony of Mathew’s and Luke’s very different accounts of the Nativity. I’ve never been so excited about creating anything in my life. I couldn’t stop writing and refining. I finally settled on 16 short chapters to tell the story, hiring a professional watercolor artist (presently serving with Mission Aviation Fellowship in Indonesia), who over a three-year period helped us visualize the story as geographically, historically, architectually, culturally, textually and logically as we could. At the end of each chapter I invite the reader to integrate faith and life by responsiding to one of the gifts of Christmas fleshed out in that chapter.

    After spending a lot of time trying to land an agent, only to be repeatedly rejected because I am un-known and am not an already published author, I decided to work with Dorrence Publishing,Inc.. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Inc.to subsidy publish the book myself. I titled the book Closer to the Real Christmas Story, and the interest has been amazing. There are a lot of people out there who share your.(and my) frustrations. The exciting thing is the tremendous response I have gotten and continue to get from those who have read the book Many have given the book as a gift only to have the recipient(s) buy some to give to others. I trust the ground-swell will incease. You are a breath of fresh air, Rachel, and I praise God for your persistence. Preach it!!

    Thanks for your taking this so seriously. Closer to . . . can be found on Amazon.com. I trust you will be able to get a copy of my book. Blessings.
    Jared Burkholder .

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 29, 2013 at 8:16 pm - Reply

      Thanks for following up Cindy’s comment Jared and for sharing your publishing journey, as a fellow writer I Love reading things like that. So glad you decided to go for it yourself and that the response has been positive. I’ve just returned from being out of town and will look your book up this week.

  22. […] recently, I’ve been learning from Marilyn in Boston and Christena in Minneapolis and Rachel in Djbouti.  Connecting to this virtual world was like someone entered a very dark room and […]

  23. […] Rethinking the nativity by Rachel Pieh Jones.  “We want to make the birth of Jesus as hard as possible, as cold and lonely and desperate and painful as possible. Why? Is it because we can’t grasp the infinite coldness, loneliness, desperation, and pain of what the incarnation truly meant? We wrap it up in dirty clothes and stinking animals, in physical loneliness and fear. Is our feeble attempt at re-imagining the Christmas story our way of trying to understand, to put images and emotions to something so powerfully and deeply beyond our comprehension? To bring the miracle of God-made-flesh into our realm of understanding?” […]

  24. nauda internetā September 18, 2014 at 7:57 am - Reply

    It’s a shame yyou don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly donate to tjis superb blog!
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  25. lily December 20, 2016 at 4:16 am - Reply

    Yes yes yes! I lived overseas for years and really came to read my Bible differently. I also recommend “Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes” for a fresh look at the cultural blinders we all bring to texts outside our own cultural references.

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