What Sheep, Bread and Caves Have In Common: Adjusting the Western Perception of Christmas

I love the Christmas season! Especially since I have been to Israel multiple times, and more specifically to the small town of Bethlehem.

Each year as a child I sang about Bethlehem and read the story of Jesus’ birth in this insignificant town, and I created romantic visions of the stable and birth of Jesus.

Bethlehem Shepherds

Bethlehem is 5 miles south of Jerusalem, and home to many shepherds whose occupation was raising perfect Passover lambs for the annual sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem.   This quiet unassuming town of which its’ name, beit lechem, literally means, “house of bread,” was home to the smallest clan of Judah.

When visiting the site of Jesus’ birth, it is surprising for many to see that the “stable” was actually a small cave. Caves had many purposes. They served as storage rooms, as shelter for the animals, and on occasion, resting places for travelers, not unlike our camping sites of today.

Jesus’ birth was prophesied hundreds of years before by Micah. His words are recorded in Micah 5:2. “But you Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, ancient times.” It was prophesied that the Messiah would come from this little insignificant shepherding village of Bethlehem.

In what some would see as coincidence, Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Joseph’s ancestral home of King David) for an unordinary census ordered by Caesar Augustus. Mary was a pregnant virgin, near her due date of delivery.

In ancient Israel, families shared a room for sleeping, spreading out across the floor on mats. Due to the massive influx of travelers during this uncommon census, it makes sense that Bethlehem’s “Inn” was filled to capacity…no room…especially for a woman who appeared to be in labor!

Cave of Jesus’ Birth – Entrance

What a welcome relief the cave must have been to Joseph and Mary!! Privacy! Warmth from the animals! And they were prepared for Jesus, having come with their swaddle, the customary sign of a legitimate birth. In the Old Testament book of the ancient prophet Ezekiel (16:4), we learn of the Jewish custom of swaddling when the Lord through Ezekiel compares Israel to an illegitimate child who has not been properly cared for or “swaddled” because they had rejected the Lord. It reads, On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in (swaddling) cloths.” (NIV) From this we learn that the care and swaddling of a newborn directly after birth was the traditional sign of a “proper” birth. Jesus was the legitimate Son of God!

Jesus, our “Bread of Life,” was born that amazing night, in the “House of Bread,” the perfect sacrificial “Lamb of God,” and wrapped in a swaddle!  Born in a cave, very properly provided by a caring host, because there was no room in the Inn.

Linda Gingerich

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