Adinah's eyes flew open. What had awakened her? In the flickering dimness of a lone lamp, she listened for the cry of a child. She twisted her lips into a crooked smile. Sleep had never been the same since she became a mother. Hearing nothing but a shifting animal below, she sat up to look around. Her five children slept around her, curled up with siblings. Nathaniel, her youngest, sucked his thumb. Adinah smiled at them and was about to lie back down when a sound caught her ears. It was a low moan, a groan of pain.
“Mary,” Adinah breathed instinctively. She slipped out from beneath her shared blanket and tiptoed across the room, stepping over cousins and aunts. The house was packed full. Bethlehem was a small village of shepherds. Though they enjoyed the claim of King David's hometown, every house was simple and common—and lately, overflowing with extended family. So many had returned here to be counted for a census. Adinah felt the familiar burst of frustration. As if Rome needed more tribute!
Ah well, there had been good sides to the ridiculous census. Adinah had met more relatives than she knew she had! She smiled wryly as she approached the shadowy corner where Mary had set her mat.
As Adinah approached, Mary sat up.
“Did I wake you?” Mary asked, sounding guilty.
Adinah crouched. “Don't worry about that, my dear. Have the pains begun?”
“I-I think so,” Mary whispered. “At least, they are different than the usual aches.”
Adinah nodded. “Let's get you something to eat. Sometimes that eases things.” Adinah helped Mary rise to her feet. The young woman arranged her long tunic over her round belly and rubbed her lower back with a deep sigh.
“I do feel better standing up,” she said, and Adinah caught the glint of a smile in the gentle lamplight.
The two women found cups of water and some left-over bread from supper. Adinah set out some spiced olive oil and they took turns dipping their bread. Mary gave a gentle laugh. “I feel like we are children, sneaking a midnight snack!”
Adinah chuckled as well, but then watched as Mary stiffened slightly, her hand coming to rub her belly.
“Relax your body through the pain,” Adinah soothed. She reached out and felt the height of Mary's belly. It was as taut as a drum. She nodded knowingly. Labor was beginning. As the pain left a few seconds later, Mary took a deep, cleansing breath.
Adinah pushed the bread closer. “Eat up, you're going to need it.”
This was Mary's firstborn, and Adinah knew it would be hours, perhaps days, before her child made an appearance. Adinah didn't wake the others yet, but she encouraged Mary to lie back down and rest. Adinah moved her mat near the young woman, and the two of them caught snatches of sleep throughout the night.
As the sun rose, Adinah heard shifting above. The men were waking. The men were sleeping in a tent on the roof, leaving the mezzanine for the many women and children. Adinah sat up, checked on Mary, and then went to wake her eldest daughter, Bini, asking the thirteen-year-old to get the children washed and dressed for the day. “Pack a lunch for them as well,” Adinah said. “They will be spending the day elsewhere.”
“Why?” Bini yawned, rubbing her eye with the heel of her palm.
“It is your cousin Mary's time,” Adinah said.
Bini's eyes widened, and she hastened to obey.
Adinah heard the men walking down the stairs outside, ready to start their day. She awakened the other women and sent them to Mary, and then she hastened down the inside stairs and past the stalls of animals with their earthy scent. The goats and donkeys were ready to be milked or led out to water and pasture. The flocks of sheep Bethlehem was known for were all in the sheepfold in the hills, guarded at night by several men from the community.
Adinah met the men at the doorway. “Today is the day,” she said with a grin, and the men all nodded. Adinah saw Joseph pale, and she gave him an encouraging smile. “We women will need the house. Right after prayers, please have the boys clean the stalls quickly before they leave for the fields.”
“I will do it,” Joseph said quickly, reaching for a rake.
The men all chuckled. They had been through this before.
“Yes, better keep yourself busy!” Adinah's husband slapped Joseph on the back.
In a short time, the animals were led out and the stalls clean. Joseph spread fresh straw on the ground, glancing upwards to the mezzanine when he heard Mary's groan.
“It will be hours yet,” Adinah said as she patted his arm. “Go out with the men to the fields, or find some carpentry work to keep you busy.”
The day slipped by slowly, and yet all at once. The house took on a cloistered, holy feeling as they prepared for the miracle of birth. Outside was bustle and business, but inside all the focus was on the young girl about to become a mother.
The women stayed with Mary always, helping her to walk around the room, rubbing her aching back, encouraging her to sip water and take bites of food. In-between contractions they talked and laughed. They swayed with her when the pains came, breathing as one, remembering their own moments of trial. Labor was a sisterhood of shared suffering and joy experienced throughout women's history, all the way back to Eve.
Mary prayed throughout, drawing strength from the Lord. The women sang to her, the same songs that had been sung over them when it had been their turn. Songs of Sarah, of Rachel, of Leah.
Twilight fell, and still, Mary labored. The men and children returned, and some of the women prepared food for everyone in the courtyard and got the children settled for the night. The men went to the roof to wait and pray.
As the stars came out in the sky, Mary transitioned into the final stages of birth. The women took her downstairs where the birthing stool was surrounded by fragrant, clean straw. A long, sturdy length of cloth was looped over a beam of the mezzanine. Mary slipped her arms through the loop, hooking it under her arms and gripping it to support herself as she sat on the stool, leaving her back free so the women could massage her and give her support. The women gathered around her, encouraging her as she began to push her baby free.
By the light of a lamp, Mary's son was born in a baptism of blood and water. Mary burst into tears when he let out his first, hearty cry. The women supported Mary as she took her son to her breast, weeping with happiness. She lifted her face and declared her thanksgiving to God.
As the women began to clear away the soiled straw and prepare a bed for Mary, Adinah brought a basin of warm water.
“Here, let me wash him for you,” Adinah offered.
“No, please,” Mary said, holding him closer. “Let me do it.”
Adinah smiled and nodded with understanding. Mary carefully washed her new son, rubbed him gently with salt, and bound him snugly with cloths. A sturdy manger was built into the wall nearby, and Mary nestled him safely down. Adinah smiled in approval and went to help Mary wash and change into a clean tunic.
When Mary was ready, the others came to see the new baby. Joseph came forward first to examine his son.
“You have done well, hand-maiden of the Lord,” Joseph whispered hoarsely, and Mary's teared up at his praise.
The children all crowded around the manger, cooing over the baby.
A knock sounded on the door. Adinah looked up in surprise. Who would come at such an hour? She opened the door and was surprised to see a group of local shepherds.
“Caleb!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
“We came to see the child,” he said. His eyes were lit up in wonder and joy.
“But, how did you know?” Adinah demanded. “He was just born within the hour!” She glanced behind Caleb and saw all the shepherds had the same eager expressions.
“The angel of the Lord told us we would find a baby lying in a manger,” Isaac breathed, gripping his shepherd's staff. Startled, Adinah stepped back, and the shepherds came reverently into the room. When the shepherds beheld Mary and Joseph and had gazed upon the infant lying in the manger, they cried out praise to God.
“What's this about an angel?” Adinah's husband demanded.
“An angel appeared to us in the fields as we were watching over our flock,” a shepherd named Micah said. “He told us that today in the city of David a savior has been born, who is Christ the Lord.”
As everyone gasped, Adinah glanced at Mary and Joseph. Neither seemed surprised. They simply drew closer together, sharing a smile of understanding.
Caleb nodded and added, “The angel said, 'This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.'”
Isaac lifted his arms to the sky. “And then a whole multitude of heavenly host appeared, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased!'”
Adinah stood shocked as the shepherds left as reverently as they arrived, eager to share the good news with everyone.
As Adinah put her children to bed an hour later, the child sleeping in the manger kept returning to her mind. Was it as the shepherds said? Had a messiah come at last? Her heart turned over eagerly with hope.
Read this story for yourself in Luke 2:4-20
Most likely, this story is not how you pictured the birth of Jesus, right?
I always pictured Joseph and Mary stumbling into Bethlehem late at night, wandering hopelessly from inn to inn, being turned away at every door as Mary was in the throes of birth pains. At last, a kind innkeeper offers his stable, and the couple takes their only option. Joseph feels guilty that the messiah will be born in a dirty barn, but what can he do? Jesus is born in the night with only Joseph for a midwife, the animals nearby. It is a private and cloistered, a humble and intimate moment too precious for other eyes.
However, none of that is in the Bible. I looked and looked again and then sheepishly admitted I had fallen into the trap of believing tradition, art, and popular retellings as biblical truth.
To be clear, my retelling is just from my imagination. Adinah is a fully fictional character. I am in no way saying that my way is the way it happened. Honestly, no one knows for sure.
These are the bare facts we DO know:
Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for a census.
While they were there, "the days were completed for her to give birth." Were they there a day prior? A week? A month? It doesn't say.
She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn/guest room/hostel.
So what is the real story? Here is some history that might help us understand.
The word often translated in many modern English Bibles as "inn" is better translated as "guest room". We see it translated that way in Luke 22:11, and it is different than the word for "inn" in Luke 11:34.
Bethlehem was a little village a few miles from Jerusalem, and not on any major roads. There was most likely no dedicated inn for travelers. However, hospitality was an ingrained and sacred tradition. It is shown by biblical commandments to love our neighbors and to be kind to foreigners and wanderers. We see amazing examples of hospitality in Abraham and Rebekah, and Jewish people tried to imitate their kindness.
Instead, historians have discovered that synagogues often had a guest room for travelers. The narrative in Luke says the guest room was full. If that is unavailable, someone from Bethlehem would squeeze them in somewhere, it was their way.
A typical Jewish house for commoners was both stable and home. Only the rich could afford a separate building just for animals. The lower level of the home was a multipurpose space for animals and work. Practically speaking, keeping animals in the home would have made the houses warmer in the colder months. The second level, a sort of loft or mezzanine, was reached by stairs, sometimes built on the outside of the house. The roof of the house was flat. It could be used for work, for sleeping in the hot summer months, or as a guest space.
We can assume that Joseph, being descended from the house of David, may have had relatives in Bethlehem, however distant. Family and ancestry were vital to Jewish life, and we can have little doubt that Joseph' family would have attempted to find them a safe place to stay within their homes, even if that meant swinging a cot in the lower level of the house not typically used for sleeping.
With this typical layout, mangers were inside most houses. They were generally built into the wall and were very sturdy. A child could be placed in them the same way we use a crib or playpen, keeping a child secure and protected.
Mary and Joseph were traveling as commoners, and their accommodations were typical for travelers of the day. If the place Mary and Joseph were staying was truly a hovel, a nasty place unfit for habitation, then I would like to believe the visiting shepherds would have offered their own homes for the family of their long-awaited savior!
It is unlikely that Joseph assisted Mary in the birth of Jesus. It was not typical of their society. Midwives had been a part of Jewish culture for millennia, we see them featured in the Israelites plight in Egypt. (Exodus 1:15-21) Even if there weren't relatives in Bethlehem to assist, there would have been a woman summoned to aid Mary. In most ancient Mediterranean births, several women gathered together to help a woman in labor, offering comfort and support. Birth was not a solitary event in the first-century world.
So, we might say that Jesus' birth, like his ministry and his death, was not a secluded and private event. It was not a secret revealed to one or two, but heralded by heavenly angels and common shepherds alike!
We just don't know all the intimate details surrounding Jesus' birth. I think the point Luke was trying to make was that while Jesus did not come like a king in a palace, he did not come unannounced. His destiny as savior was proclaimed from the beginning, and his birth was an event that glorified God.
Jesus' birth was probably like so many other births in Bethlehem that year. For me today, I see the wonder of Jesus' earthly arrival as not being in its amazing events, but in its startling normalcy. He came as one of the people he wanted to save—he is touchable, reachable. In our lives today, Jesus does not only reach us in the tumultuous and fantastic moments that make our heads spin and hearts burst, but he also meets us in the everyday situations we live daily. He truly was 'God with us', our Immanuel.
If you enjoyed this short story, you can read more about the shepherd's angelic visit in 'As the Stars: 45 Bible Fiction Short Stories', available on Amazon. You can purchase the ebook for less than the cost of a fancy latte!