In the culture of the Bible, whenever a woman went into labor, it was the custom for the ladies to ask the men to leave, so they could gather inside to assist in the birth. It doesn’t make sense to assume that people were so cold-hearted back then that they wouldn’t assist a young girl in labor, only to send her away to give birth in an outdoor barn.
While all this was taking place in Bethlehem, God dispatched angels to a field nearby.
Luke 2:8 And there were shepherds in the same area, living out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock at night.
People who had a flock of sheep too large to keep indoors would have a shepherd watch their animals outside at night to protect them from predators.
Shepherd boy with sheep, just south of Bethlehem
Luke 2:9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were frightened with great fear.
Imagine peacefully watching sheep in the quiet of the night with some other shepherds, and suddenly you see an angel standing in front of you, and a brilliant light shining around you. This frightened the shepherds, but the angel assured them …
Luke 2:10-12: And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for Look!, I bring you good news that will cause great joy, which will be for all the people.
For to you was born this day in the city of David the Savior, who is the Messiah and Lord.
And this will be the sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Note that the angel said the baby would be lying in a manger, a feeding trough, but nothing about an outdoor stable.
Luke 2:13-14: And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying,
“Glory in the highest heavens to God, and on earth peace among people with whom he is well pleased.”
What a glorious sight to behold—a multitude of God’s warrior angels, His heavenly host, praising God!
Luke 2:15-16: And it came to pass, when the angels had departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.
The shepherds were excited. Their ancestors spoke about and awaited the Messiah’s coming for millennia. And now the promised Messiah had arrived—in their neighborhood! They hurried to Bethlehem to see him, but how would they find the baby?
In their culture, it was pleasant when a girl was born. After all, who wouldn’t melt at the coos of a newborn infant? But when a boy was born, it meant that when he got married, he would bring his wife to live with his family. This meant future grandchildren, more workers, and increased prosperity for the family. Even today, you can see homes throughout the Middle East with rebar on top, ready to add an additional story when their son(s) marry.
So, when a baby boy was born, there was cause for a large celebration with music and food. All the shepherds had to do was follow the sounds of a party in the small town of Bethlehem, to find who was celebrating the birth of a boy. When they found the joyous party the new parents’ relatives were having, imagine their excitement. They may have nudged their way through the jubilant company, working their way toward the baby inside. Was this the right house? When they saw baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger—just as the angel told them—they were filled with praises of joy.
Luke 2:17-20: And after they saw it, they made it known about the message that had been spoken to them about this child.
And all who heard it were amazed at the things that were told to them by the shepherds.
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen; everything was just as it had been spoken to them.
So, should you keep your Nativity set’s ruggedly elegant, 17th-century-style outdoor wooden stable, or chuck it? I’ll probably keep mine.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this heartening retelling of the Christmas Story, just as it comforted us to hear an age-old story being shared in the cultural context of family members taking care of each other and rejoicing with one another.
May your Christmas celebration be filled with peace and joy with those you love.
Sunset over Bethlehem