Okay, our next stop on the list is the manger. We have to examine this because there is a misconception about this particular part of the story. Many people have actually already written on this subject, but they usually take an approach that is linguistic or archaeological. I’m going to look from a more cultural perspective.
The Greeks and Romans had inns. And when I say inn, I mean what we typically think of as an inn: a place to pay and get a room for the night. The Jews at the time really didn’t practice this concept. Jews strongly believed in the idea of hospitality. It was a commandment to look after travelers. The travelers must be given protection for the night and be well treated. Why? Well, aside from it being a commandment in scripture, it’s a well established tradition dating back at least to Abraham. Heard of Sodom and Gamorrah? It’s about hospitality (don’t worry, it’ll get its own post or three).
So there was no inn like what we in a modern sense associate it with. It’s possible that Bethlehem would have had a public house where any traveler was welcome to stay, but more likely it would have been someone’s home. The cultural imperative of hospitality would have demanded that someone in the village take in Joseph and a very pregnant Mary. Moreover, Bethlehem is one of the cities of David, of which Joseph is of the line of David. He would have had some kind of relatives there, even if highly extended, that surely would have offered the couple a place inside.
The inn would refer to the main part of the inside of the house. Most houses of the time period didn’t have separate rooms. It was one giant room where everything took place. And even then we’re not talking very spacious. A good-sized bedroom today would be the size of the entire house in Antiquity.
Now, we examine the manger part itself. A manger is not a separate building or stable area outside of a home. People don’t think about this often, but deserts are cold. At night. There’s nothing to hold onto all that heat, so it just radiates out of the ground into the sky, and is gone. It was not unheard of for temperatures to get down to freezing at night after spending the entire day baking. Fifty and sixty degree (F) temperature variations between night and day are common, especially in the ancient world. Animals could die from exposure if left outside. Worse, they could easily be stolen while the family is sleeping.
However, inside the house there would be a place, a little dug into the ground, for the animals to sleep. In the morning they would be taken outside for grazing and other activities. Again, this is part of the culture of the time. The family would sleep on one part of the floor while the animals would sleep in their manger, all part of the same big room in the house.
So when rereading this story, don’t think of a no vacancy sign in a Motel 6. Jesus was likely born someone’s house, possibly a relative’s.