Decoding Christmas—No room at the inn

December 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

The holy family making do with a barn on the night that Jesus was born is often presented as a sign of their humbleness, even of their poverty.

However, any family in first century Palestine who, under the burden of double taxation under the Roman Empire, could still afford an ass and had the cash to pay for a room at an inn was solidly in the “middle class” or better.

Moreover, if we are to believe Luke, Jesus’ uncle was a presiding priest in the temple and his mother was descended from none other than Aaron, first priest of Israel. In its priestly fashion, this is a lineage as impressive as the Davidic genealogy that Matthew gives us.

Meanwhile, peasants in first century Palestine slept with their animals as a matter of course. The standard peasant home was a one-room building, often with a sleeping loft, and some of their animals often sheltered in a corner of the first floor, often in a sunken area that served to keep them from coming up into the living quarters. I suspect this was because their pastures were often quite a distance from the village and were not fenced. So a manger might have been a regular feature of your own home.

On the other hand, Joseph was a tradesman and therefore probably slept over his shop, rather than over his animals . . . although there was that ass. So the stay in the barn may have been for Luke a symbol of the peasantry’s acceptance of the messiah Jesus, just as the story of the shepherds signified the acceptance of the more conservative and more pastoralist people inhabiting the highlands, the “hills from whence cometh my help”. Jesus would call upon that help when borrowing another ass for the procession into Jerusalem at the culmination of his prophetic career at the beginning of Passion Week, on what we now call Palm Sunday.

Jesus procured that later ass in order to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 *, which is itself a kind of reverse echo of the ass provided David in the very same spot when he was forced to flee his son Absolom’s rebellion. [* Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.]

The ass was the preferred cavalry mount of the ancient tribes of Israel. They were extremely sure footed and hardy, and could go without water five times as long as a horse. They were ridden into battle by the heads of the mispaha, the military unit of ancient Israel that was based on “clans”—family groups—and/or small settlements. So the original Christmas ass may have been another symbol of the salvation that the “triumphant and victorious”, if still infant, messiah was going to bring.

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