So both on Mission, and then again last night at the CU Christmas party, I was encouraged by K’s exhortation to us all that we not let the familiarity of the Christmas story rob us of the wonder of the event; as Matthew tells us here we meet ‘Immanuel’ God with us!
The incarnation of God where he takes on all the stress and mess of human existence is indeed something to praise him for and to deeply ponder.
However K. used a particular turn of phrase on both occasions that stuck in my mind, and it is an excellent example of how we can let familiarity colour our reading so that we are not actually seeing what is in front of us (in the text).
Let me explain…
The particular culprit here was the phrase “stable born.”
When K. was practicing her devotion for me on mission I remarked on this phrase (and the bunch all around it) as being an excellent a piece of communication, and pithy summary of the nativity. I strongly encouraged her to use that phrase (and the rest). So what I am about to do is critique MYSELF not K! (It was a wonderful devotion!)
You see… I’ve been doing some reading, and some thinking, and there is no stable.
That’s right folks. You can look again at Luke chapter 2 and you’ll see that there is no stable mentioned at all!
In fact, let me show you…
4 And Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David, 5 to be registered along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 Then she gave birth to her firstborn Son, and she wrapped Him snugly in cloth and laid Him in a feeding trough—because there was no room for them at the lodging place.
With K (and pretty much everyone else in the Western World) my reading of Luke 2 has been coloured by nativity sets, pretty Christmas cards, Carol night, and ultimately, behind all of those things, ASSUMPTION.
You see, we have had handed down to us in our Christmas traditions Western European and American assumptions about how things worked in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.
You can see in the text the baby Jesus is clearly said to have been laid in a ‘manger’ or “feeding trough” in verse 7.
The (not unreasonable) assumption made by us Westerners is that this must naturally mean that the location of the birth is in a stable. Why? Because that is where we keep *our* feeding troughs.
Unless it’s Kitty or Fido – we do people inside, animals outside…
However, I’ve been doing some reading and it turns out that in Palestine in the 1st century AD (in fact, up until very recently) this was not how they did things.
There is very strong evidence that the normal peasant’s home in ancient Judea was a single roomed building. This building had a lower section near the door and a raised platform further back in the house. The lower platform was where the animals – the family goat or cow – were brought in at night (kept them safe from theft and provided free heating). The family would live on the raised platform together. Evidence shows that there was a “manger” inside the house – usually fixed on the edge of the raised platform – so that the stock could eat overnight.
(Similarly a poor assumption was made about how to translate the word for ‘lodging place’ or ‘guest room’ as “Inn” which has also coloured our understanding of the story. But I’ll leave that issue for today. If you’re keen though, you can read about it here and fuller argument here)
The picture that Luke is painting for his readers is of Jesus’ birth amongst the lowly people, the ordinary folk. He is the humble one. Approchable by shepherds, approachable by you or I. In fact, even as a king he is able to represent you and I the ‘common’ folk fully and really.
His original readers would have got this point pretty naturally just with mention of ‘manger’
Now why does all that matter? Seems a pretty trivial detail to be picking up on.
Well I think that it just goes to show how we need to READ, READ, READ, the text in front of us.
Some of you have just gotten back from NTE where you were taught the discipline of ‘exegesis‘ in strand 1 – that is: Getting out from the text what is there.
The problem with familiarity or hearing annual explanations of passages is that we can actually do the opposite; we do eisegesis (sounds a bit like “icy Jesus”) that is: Reading into the text things that are not there!
At its best this springs from a reasonable but incorrect assumption and leads to a fairly minor distortions. But at its worst this can lead to a radically wrong understanding of God’s work in Jesus’ and ultimately a different gospel that is no gospel at all!
We need to guard against it at all times!
If this was a mistake that I (as your trained exegete) made, and encouraged K to continue in, then it’s certainly one that the rest of you ought to be reminded to take care with – especially at Christmas when there is so much ‘tradition’ shaping our reading.
Let’s add to K’s exhortation “not to let familiarity undermine our wonder” with “let’s not let our familiarity undermine good reading of the Bible!”
It’s worth reminding ourselves that there is always more to learn and discover in the Bible. We will never exhaust our growth or understanding of God as he reveals himself to us in his Scripture.
So read IT.
Read what it is saying, consider what it isn’t saying.
Check your assumptions.
Read it again, and again – you might find new and exciting things even in the most familiar of stories, just asI have this Christmas.