Why the Inn?

The story of Jesus’ birth is so familiar and oft repeated that readers may be tempted to skip this chapter in favor of “juicier” ones. Please don’t. There are some things in this story that most everyone has missed. But these missing pieces are certainly part of gaining a correct picture of Who Jesus IS. Read on.

Outstanding Writing

We have no way of knowing how good of a medical doctor Dr. Luke was. We probably assume he was wise and competent, but we have no direct evidence for this belief. However, if we want to evaluate his ability and care as a writer, we do have enough material to form an educated opinion. The truth is (in this writer’s opinion), as a writer Dr. Luke was top of the line. He researched,[1] interviewed his sources,[2] and composed his lengthy writings[3] with thoughtfulness and care.[4] He was an accomplished writer, and his two books in the New Testament are living proof.

Luke the writer sometimes employed an economy of words that reveal incredible skill and deliberation. He knew how to structure a story. With careful arrangement and a few choice words he could paint a vivid scene.

The story of Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem and ending up in a stable is certainly written this way. Dr. Luke does not describe Bethlehem, does not describe the journey there. He simply gets them there and states that it was time for the baby to be born. He has not described a scene at all.

He writes, “He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth . . .” Luke 2:5-7a).[5]

He offers this bland reporting then finishes off this episode with two bomb-shells:

             “. . . and laid him in a manger,”

            “because there was no lodging available for them.[6] (Luke 2:7a).

We may not have (up till now) understood these as bomb-shells, but Luke’s original readers knew more than we do, and they couldn’t miss it![7]

To catch the impact of these words we have to go back to the time and the cultural practices of the day. Near eastern people, and particularly Jewish people, had very fixed cultural and societal practices (which can still be seen today). Dr. Luke knew these things, the person/people he wrote to knew these things. He was not going to state the obvious when it wasn’t necessary (and might prove a stumbling block to some).[8]  Keep reading.

The Culture of the Day

In modern times, in technological, advanced societies, we are able to plan out and arrange all the details of an upcoming trip: Plane, car, and accommodation can be booked and paid for months in advance. Wherever we go there are coffee shops, restaurants, public restrooms, and a large array of accommodations to choose from.  This was clearly not the case two millennia ago. But there were structures in place that assisted people with travel.

The Jewish people of Jesus’ day prided themselves on hospitality. Their houses were built to handle an influx of guests at any time.

The Jewish people of Jesus’ day also had very strong relational ties to their large extended families. They kept family trees and knew the complex interrelatedness of their families, clans and tribes. Relatives in need would always be taken in and cared for.

The Jewish people of Jesus’ day also celebrated life, they valued large families, and each and every child was welcomed and celebrated. The birth of a child was a joyful and sacred event.

Joseph and Mary didn’t voluntarily choose to go to Bethlehem during Mary’s ninth month. They (and everyone else) were ordered to return to their tribal and family homes by Caesar Augustus.[9] Joseph was from a proud family line.[10] He was a direct descendant of King David, and their ancestral home was Bethlehem. When Joseph and his betrothed,[11] Mary, arrived at Bethlehem, they arrived “home.”[12] The town was literally filled with relatives.

Under normal circumstances there would have been any number of relatives who would have welcomed them with open arms. And the advanced pregnancy gave an additional reason they would be welcomed, and this little family would be celebrated. Under normal circumstances.  

So why did they end up outside the inn with money in hand hoping for a place to stay? This is the very question that Luke expected his readers to ask. Look at his deliberate ordering of information and intentional wording. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”[13] Luke 2:6-7 NIV, 1984

What is left Unsaid

There is something desperately wrong here. Bethlehem was their ancestral home. It was filled with relatives, direct relatives, some were immediate relatives. Yet no one opened their door to them. No one welcomed them and their soon-to-be-born baby. Something was desperately wrong.

Here is Joseph taking his wife fiancée with him to his brother’s house, “please my brother, you see my wife fiancée is in great need, can you give us a corner of a room?” and the brother snorts, shakes his head, and briskly shuts the door.

Then there is Joseph going to his favorite aunt’s house, “we are so sorry to inconvenience you, aunty, but could we have a place to stay?”  And the aunt, with tears in her eyes, slowly closes the door and says softly, “sorry, I want to, but they won’t let me.”

Why did Joseph and Mary go to the inn with money in their hands hoping to find a place to sleep? Because every last relative in Bethlehem rejected them. No one offered a place to stay. They were resigned to let Mary have her baby outside in the elements. This is shocking!

Note this: Jesus was an unwelcome addition to the Davidic clan.[14] His own uncles and aunts and cousins and even grandparents did not rejoice at his birth. Why? Because whenever people looked at Joseph and Mary the word that came to their minds was a horrible one, “fornication.”[15]

No one in Bethlehem or anywhere in Israel was ready to believe any story about a virgin birth,[16] preposterous! This pregnancy was a scandal among a proud, devoted, judgmental people.

The impact of Luke’s account was not that there was no room for them at the inn, but that they were forced to check out the inn at all!

Jesus’ parents were outcasts among their own people, shunned, despised, hated. They would have been alone that night[17] if it were not for the host of angels announcing the special birth to shepherds on the hillsides. The shepherds came and gladly witnessed God’s greatest miracle.[18]

The Apostle John said it well, “He came to his own, yet his own people did not receive him.” John 1:11.CSB

[1] Luke 1:3.

[2] The detail he includes about Zechariah and Elisabeth and Mary and … must have come from detailed interviews.

[3] His books are the two longest in the New Testament.

[4] An example is given in this chapter, but they are all through. He also used the most expressive and varied vocabulary in all the Greek New Testament.

[5] The translation used here is NLT 2nd ed., 2004.

[6] The use of the word “lodging” in the NLT is a very good choice. KJV uses “inn”, as does GWT and earlier additions of NIV, and this has made it into all the Christmas performances. Another good choice is “guest room”, used in NIV and CSB. Houses were built with hospitality in mind, and it was every-day practice to take in relatives who are travelling.

[7] The insights in this chapter are not something I can take credit for. I would never in all my life observed and figured it out on my own. I am so grateful for a timely visit by Dr. John Hitchen of New Zealand during which we discussed many things including the kernel content of this chapter. I asked him if this is something he discovered himself or has he seen it written somewhere. He said he can’t remember seeing it anywhere in print. I told him on the spot that if I ever put it in print myself I would give credit to him as my source. So thank you, Dr. Hitchen.

[8] Dr. Luke uses tact here. He didn’t need to add extra words that might offend some of the line of David and possibly drive them away.

[9] Luke 2:1-3.

[10] It is commonly believed that Mary was also from the Davidic line. But what is the evidence for this? Contrary to this belief, we do know that she had a “close relative” who was from a completely different line, the line of Aaron (Luke 1:5, 36). 

[11] In modern language, the word “betrothed” gets switched out to our word “engaged.” These are similar but not synonymous arrangements. This is explained below.

[12] Even if they were born and raised elsewhere, their ancestral home is always “home.”

[13]  Normal narrative would have put the inn-search well ahead of the manger and birth. But by putting the inn-search at the end, it opens a pandora’s box to consider. [FYI, newer editions of NIV dropped the word “inn” and replaced it with “guest room”, but the point is still the same.].

[14] This explains Mathew’s genealogy. He hangs out the Davidic line’s “dirty laundry” for all to see. They should be ashamed to have rejected God’s chosen Deliverer.

[15] In modern language, the word “betrothed” gets switched out to our word “engaged.” These are similar but not synonymous arrangements. A betrothal is a legal agreement between two families (Individuals didn’t act alone, families were always involved.) Betrothal gave them (the families) about a year to prepare for the wedding. There was to be no sexual activity before or during the betrothal period. All Israelis’ were expected to marry as virgins. Deuteronomy 22:13-29 states very strict guidelines. Mary’s pregnancy caused a dilemma for Joseph and his extended family. They would have put pressure on him to report her as violating the betrothal, otherwise he himself will look like a guilty party. Mat. 1:19 shows he decided to break the legal agreement in as quiet a manner as possible [The Torah actually calls for the death penalty (Deu. 22:20-21), but under Roman rule this could not be done]. This was before the Lord told him to do otherwise Mat. 1:20-21. They then lived as an unmarried couple, or “too early” married couple from that point on. This was a serious violation of social and religious expectations, and a direct cause for being shunned.

[16] Except Elizabeth, Luke 1:42,43.

[17] It is very likely that midwives were present to assist with the birth. This would have been done out of a sense of duty and the value of life.

[18] If we were to enter the halls of deepest and greatest theological debate to answer the question of what is the most astounding act of God in known history, I would immediately put forward the answer – “the incarnation!”

2 thoughts on “Why the Inn?

  1. James Berlin

    Jesus being rejected by family also happens in adulthood . Mt. 13:53-58. A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and house. Nazareth was the one place he did no works. Also those 1st century Jews would have been looking for the Messiah. That is why Matthew genealogy is important. They knew that between abraham and David there 14 generations. Between david and Babylonia exile were another 14 generations. Between the exile and that time were 14 generations. Also when they would realized the significant of john the Baptist. When ever a king would visit. A herald would sent beforehand. John was that herald.


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