Ask almost anyone about the setting of the birth of Christ, and you will likely be told about a stable, a wooden manger filled with hay animals surrounding the baby Jesus and snow falling outside as the shepherds enter the stable to worship the king of kings.
The problem is that this depiction, though we’ve heard it many times, is likely far from what actually took place on this night of nights to better understand the more probable setting of the Nativity.
Its first helpful to understand a little about the natural landscape of Israel and in particular, Bethlehem.
The land of Israel is covered with stones, hills and caves.
In fact, there is so much stone that most ancient homes would have been built almost exclusively of stonework, only using lumber for building aspects like the roof ceilings and doors.
Trees were a limited, valuable resource, so they chose to build from the more abundant supply of stones. Caves were also commonly used, and it is probable that the stable, which is not even mentioned in scripture, was located in one of these caves surrounding the hills of Bethlehem. These caves were a perfect place to keep animals as it was cool during the hot days and warmer during the cooler nights. It also was a naturally built fortification, so little work would be required to build it except for adding a fence and a gate at the entrance.
Also, that wooden manger filled with hay.
Well, it actually would be made of stone as well. Many ancient stone mangers have been found in Israel of different sizes, shorter ones for animals like sheep and goats, and taller mangers for animals like horses and donkeys.
The manger’s were generally block like in shape and were only about six to eight inches deep.
In addition, manger’s were not used for hay, but instead for watering animals as cutting and storing grass for feed was not necessary because of the warmer climates, because Israel really only has a rainy season and a dry season with little to no snow grasses available all throughout the year.
So why do we often see a wooden stable in a manger filled with hay?
Well, because most early Christian artists who depicted the Nativity lived in Europe, where trees were readily accessible, winters were cold so that you had to store hay and manger’s were made of wood and used to feed the animals. Oh, and what about all those animals, especially the sheep, donkey and the ox that are in virtually every nativity scene?
Well, once again, the birth accounts of Jesus never mentioned other animals being present. It only mentions that there was a manger implying that there would be animals. So where did the animals come from? The sheep are there, most likely because of the shepherds.
The ox and donkey, however, come from, interestingly enough, a prophecy of Isaiah. The verse states the ox knows its master, the donkey, its owners manger. But Israel does not know. My people do not understand.
In other words, an ox and a donkey can recognize who feeds and waters them.
But Israel cannot recognize God’s hand in their lives because this verse refers to a manger or a crib is translated in the King James Bible. Later, Christians decided to incorporate an ox and a donkey into the story. Understanding the setting of the birth of Jesus not only gives us a more realistic picture of this significant event, but it also seems to foreshadow the mission and death of Christ.
At his birth, Jesus was likely born in a stone cave because there was no room in the inn wrapped in linen swaddling bands and laid in a stone manger.
At his death, Jesus was buried in a borrowed stone tomb, wrapped in white linen and laid on a slab of limestone.
In addition, how appropriate that the great Messiah, the one who provides eternal living water, was laid as an infant in a watering trowel.
It seems that even from the very beginning, the events of the life of Christ were meant to point to and foreshadow the most important part of his life that of his atonement, death and resurrection.