Tuesday, December 20, 2016

How Scriptural IS Your Nativity Scene?

A San Diego-based company is getting a lot of press...and a lot of flak...concerning its 2016 creation of a Nativity set designed as if Jesus were born to a Millennial couple in 2016. The wise men are on Segways, bearing gifts from Amazon Prime. A shepherd is posting the event on Instagram. The "100% Organic" cow is eating gluten-free feed.

And at the center of it all, in a solar-paneled stable, are the new parents, sipping a Starbucks and taking selfies.

Not surprisingly, there are two equal and opposite reactions to this product. Some think it's hilarious and they're buying the sets as fast as they can be produced. Others think it's sacrilegious and are condemning it loud and long.

But before anybody gets out the tar and feathers, maybe we should stop and consider...just how Scriptural (or not) are the "traditional" Nativity scenes (which have only been around for about 700 years or so)?

It's nothing new to mention that the Bible does not specify the number of wise men, just the number of gifts. And it's probably good to remind ourselves that there's no Scriptural precedent for having the wise men and the shepherds visiting the baby at the same time.

But how about that meeting place? Why have it all take place in a stable?

Presumably, because of Luke 2:7, which in the King James translation says, "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."

We read that and in our minds we think, "No vacancy at the local motel; a manger is a feeding trough for animals; that adds up to Mary and Joseph being in a stable, right?"

Not necessarily.

There are some other factors to put into our mental equation:

  • Bethlehem was Joseph's ancestral home. (That's why they were going there to register with the government.) He had family there.
  • Extending hospitality to family members was (and is) very important in the Semitic culture.

Joseph and Mary would be staying with family, not in some generic "inn". And that makes the NIV's alternate translation of the word "inn" more likely: "...there was no guest room available for them."

"But wait a minute!" you interject. "If they were at a relative's house, what's the deal with laying the baby in a manger?"

Good question...and here's what I think is a good answer.

According to my Adult Bible Fellowship (aka Sunday School) teacher, who got his info from N. T. Wright's Luke for Everyone, a standard house in first century Palestine would have two rooms: the main room where all the cooking and living took place, and a guest room/sleeping area where the family was always prepared to accept guests and offer hospitality. Also likely was the existence of a kind of lean-to along the outside of a wall of the main room that served as shelter for any animals a family might have. And in that wall would be an opening or two that the sheltered horse or mule or whatever could stick its head through to eat hay or feed from the manger that was on the INSIDE of the wall of the main room.

So here's how it could have all gone down...

Joseph and the very pregnant Mary arrive at Joseph's relative's house and are welcomed to stay in the main room, as the guest room is already filled because of the massive influx of people coming to register with the government. Mary delivers her baby (Jesus), wraps him up, and lays him in the only available cradle: a feeding trough.

An extra point in this interpretation's favor is that it eliminates the need for Mary and Joseph to purchase a house and live in Bethlehem for two years before the wise men show up.

Truth is...this isn't going to change anyone's life, unless it causes someone to be a little less judgmental and self-righteous. And in that case...have yourself a merry little Christmas!

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