Whenever the Christmas story was read to me as a child I had an image in my mind of Joseph and a very pregnant Mary making their way down a crowded street that was lined with hotels, their signs lit up in neon, a little like the strip in Vegas. As they reached each hotel, the proprietor would slam the door in their faces and slap a “No Vacancy” sign in the window. At long last, they made it to the last innkeeper who also slapped a “No Vacancy” sign in the window, but when he sees Mary grasp her abdomen and begin Lamaze breathing, he feels pretty guilty so he lets them use his barn out back.
This version might, perhaps, just be a little bit westernized.
There were of course, inns available for people travelling during the first century such as in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) but the greek word for this type of lodging is “pandoxeion”. The word in Luke 2:7 is “kataluma”, from the root word “kataluo” which means “house guest, a guest room, or a banquet room”. 1st century peasant homes had two main rooms, a main living area for the family and a secondary “kataluma” for guests. So when Luke says “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room in the “kataluma”, he was stating that there was no room in the guest room.
Joseph and Mary had travelled to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem for the census because he had property there and was required to register it to pay taxes. It makes perfect sense that they would have stayed in the home of relatives during their time in Bethlehem. First of all, it is the choice that would have fit the social norm of the day. Secondly, we know they ended up remaining in Bethlehem for sometime, far too long to pay for lodging. Most importantly, the word choice here clearly indicates it was a guest room and not the type of inn used for caravans, a “pandoxeion”.
Why was there no room in the kataluma? Most likely, the house was packed full with family members from all over who had to make the journey to Bethlehem for the census. When young Mary went into labor, it just wasn’t possible for her to give birth in the kataluma with any privacy. So, the stable below the home was readied so that she might give birth there.
Hospitality is of utmost importance in Middle Eastern culture and she was most likely attended to during and after the birth by the other women in the family. In his wonderful book, “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes”, Dr. Kenneth Bailey states that if the shepherds had arrived and found Mary in the traditional western picture of the birth- young, alone, and in a filthy stable, they would have been horrified.
“If, on arrival, they found a smelly stable, a frightened young mother and a desperate Joseph, they would have said, ‘This is outrageous! Come home with us! Our women will take care of you!” – Dr. Kenneth Bailey
So, the Savior was born into lowly circumstances hardly fit for a king but perfectly aligned with the norm for Middle Eastern peasants of that time. He was born into a full home, and surrounded by family. I smile to think of how many arms he passed through that first night. It might not have been as plush as Vegas, but it was most certainly sweet.