As we consider the nativity story in Luke 1-2, an intriguing player who is key to the story but never named is the owner of the manger where Jesus was laid, the person who had to make room for the Christ child to be born. The familiar interpretation of the story casts Mary and Joseph as unwelcomed in Bethlehem, looking for a safe place to have their baby. However, I’ve become captivated by the more recent scholarship that finds that our understanding of the verse is most likely not historically correct. The word translated in the King James Version as “inn,” which has persisted in many translations to this day, is better described not as a motel-like structure that we would think of, but a guest room in somebody’s home. As Kenneth E. Bailey details in his book, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, 1st century homes in Bethlehem were designed with two levels. The top level was the “guest room” or the “upper room,” like we read about in narratives of the Last Supper (it’s the same Greek word used in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11). The bottom level had the main family living area and a slightly recessed area with a manger where the animals would be brought in at night. This is far more likely to be the scene where Jesus made his grand entrance as a newborn king.
While this context challenges some of our traditional interpretations of the text and the need to “open the door” and “prepare Him room,” I believe there’s a rich depth in seeing the nativity in this more historically-informed way. Instead of seeing a young couple outcast and alone, this gives us a beautiful picture of hospitality in ancient Israelite culture. In this scenario, Jesus was likely welcomed into the world not by a terrified Joseph, delivering this precious child alone in the dark, but by a midwife or experienced female relatives who had walked this journey countless times before. While the guest room was full, the manger was prepared. “Preparing him room” was not something that happened as an afterthought in a crisis, but as a forethought in a culture that prized hospitality and that welcomed in the newcomers to Bethlehem with open arms and homes that were prepared for an extra guest, even if they didn’t have an extra bed to sleep on.
As we consider what these ancient biblical texts say to us as followers of Jesus today, I hope that we will look with hope toward the humble, faithful people who have made room and will continue making room every day: not just room for an infant Christ, but for those who bear his image and likeness across the world. May our hearts prepare room like the unnamed owner of the manger, who offered hospitality to an ordinary woman carrying an extraordinary gift to the world. May our hearts prepare room not just on Christmas, but all year round.
Written by Sheila Joiner.