March 16, 2010

The "NO VACANCY Inn" and Mary's Hurried Delivery - a Fanciful Interpretation

Nowhere in Luke 2 does it imply that Mary, the mother of the Messiah, went into labor on the way to Bethlehem - in fact the passage suggests quite the opposite. 

“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
(Luke 2:4–7 ESV)

We often assume that because "there was no place for them in the inn" then the labor must have been hurried - it's like we are trying to make a Lifetime special out of the first Advent.  Even if the line "no place for them in the inn" is a correct translation, which is highly suspect, there is no reason to believe that Mary was about to "bring forth" as she reached the hometown of King David.  The line "And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth" makes it abundantly clear that there was a sequence of events at work here.  The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, an unknown length of time in which Mary and Joseph settled in before the birth of the King, and finally the birth of the Firstfruits of God. 
Moreover, the Greek phrase underlying "no place for them in the inn" should be read "no place for them in the guest room." The word kataluma is only used two other times in the New Testament and in both cases it is referring to the same event - Jesus telling his disciples to go and secure the room for the Last Supper.

“And tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ (Luke 22:11 ESV see also Mark 14:14).

The translation "guest room" eliminates any need for a hurried delivery on Mary's part or any amount of desperate consternation upon Joseph the soon-to-be father.  Beyond that this translation is much more fitting with the cultural context of the story - Mary and Joseph, Judeans of Davidic origin, would have had family members living in Bethlehem who would have been more than happy to host the expecting parents (remember how Mary stayed with her cousin Elizabeth 6 months earlier - somewhere around Jerusalem only 5 miles from Bethlehem).  However, due to the overcrowding caused by the census guest rooms were full so they had to move their extended family to other rooms in the home - the next candidate would be the stable (which were almost exclusively built into the homes since the livestock of the family was an integral part of its livelihood, as well as acting as a free furnace during cold months).

This reconstruction then means that Mary came to Bethlehem towards the end of her pregnancy, but not to the point where she would give birth as soon as she got there. (Seriously why would Mary and Joseph do this?  It's not like they did not know when the census was supposed to be - Rome worked on a rigorous schedule, it's no coincidence that the modern calendar has it's foundations in the Roman one.  Mary and Joseph would have had to have been extremely irresponsible or just plain naive to wait until the last minute.)  When they arrived in the ancestral home of their fathers they stayed with family (most likely extended as their immediate family was in Nazareth) whose guest room had already been filled by other extended family - thus they were put in the next likeliest location - the stable where the God/Man was born and placed in a stone manger.

Let us cast aside the traditional fanciful interpretation of the advent of our Lord - the actual story of his condescending and taking flesh is humble enough - let us not go beyond the Bible in our attempts to steep lowliness upon the shoulders of the Lord.  Let us add the myth of the "no-vacancy inn" to the myth that the "three kings" were present at the manger - perhaps they can stay in this mythical inn during their alleged visit to the manger.

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