When I recently read Kenneth E. Bailey’s book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, I was fascinated that he proposes some different ideas about our favorite images of the Nativity.
For instance, he suggests that the manger that baby Jesus was placed in wasn’t in a barn or stable like we’ve pictured it, but actually within a private home. He describes a typical Palestinian home this way,
The main room was a “family room” where the entire family cooked, ate, slept and lived. The end of the room next to the door, was either a few feet lower than the rest of the floor or blocked off with heavy timbers. Each night into that designated area, the family cow, donkey and a few sheep would be driven. And every morning those same animals were taken out and tied up in the courtyard of the house. The animal stall would then be cleaned for the day. Such simple homes can be traced from the time of David up to the middle of the twentieth century. I have seen them both in Upper Galilee and in Bethlehem.
The one-room village home with mangers were made note of by modern scholars as well. William Thompson, an Arabic-speaking Presbyterian missionary scholar of the mid-nineteenth century observed village homes in Bethlehem and wrote, “It is my impression that the birth actually took place in an ordinary house of some common peasant, and that the baby was laid in one of the mangers, such as are still found in the dwellings of farmers in this region.”
Obviously, such a possible change of perspective doesn’t diminish the power of Jesus being born as a baby and coming as a human. But it does remove the problem some people have with thinking of Jesus in a smelly “barn” kind of setting. And it still lets us know that God designed His Son’s entrance in a humble setting.