This blog is about the irony of the shepherds, wisemen, perhaps camels and the babe in a manger. Last Christmas I wrote about cultural differences interfering with our interpretations of the Christmas story. This past August I explained why first-century Jews hated shepherds. Briefly, they were one of the most unlikely types of people God would deliver the good news of Christ’s birth to. The other most unlikely type of people were Gentiles. About mangers, from Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes:
The Westerner reads Luke 2:7, “She laid him in a manger,” and assumes that Jesus was born in a stable because, of course, mangers are in stables. This judgment is…culturally conditioned…the Middle Eastern Palestinian farmer reads the same text and assumes that Jesus was born in a private home. In the Middle East, the villager’s home is one room with a lower level at one end where the family donkey and cow are brought at night. The family lives on the upper level. This raised terrace has mangers built into the floor at the end nearest the animals. So the Middle Eastern peasant…decides that Jesus was born in a private home. I have seen homes here in the Middle East with mangers in the floor…built in the 11th century. This is my earliest evidence. We are then faced with 3 alternatives:
1. We can continue assuming our own Western culture…
2. We can say, “We don’t have any 1st-century evidenced about where animals were kept…
3. We can tentatively agree, “We know that the peasant has not changed his ways from the 11th century until now, and it is reasonable to assume that the centuries before were also culturally unchanging.
So Jews at that time despised, scorned, and didn’t trust shepherds, yet the angels’ message was given to them. They’re told the babe would be lying in a manger—i.e. the feeding trough for animals. Their very occupation of caring for animals was what earned them this hated, scorned status. And that’s where they’d find their Messiah?
Now as for the wise men, they likely came with camels. There’s no reason from the Bible to believe there were exactly 3 wise men, or even that there were camels. But donkeys carry only up to about 100 pounds each (45 kg), and camels can carry 880-1323 pounds (400-600 kg, depending whether it’s male or female). And from “How Long Can a Camel Go Without Water?”
When temperatures rise above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, camels can survive for about five days without drinking water. During the winter, camels can survive six or seven months without drinking water. During that time, they may obtain moisture from plants they consume.
Did you know camels spit? Those used to camels are careful to avoid standing less than a few feet in front of them. And did you know they were unclean to the ancient Jews? It was just as wrong for Jews to eat camel meat as it was to eat bacon or ham. This means Jews wouldn’t own or raise camels just like Jews wouldn’t raise or own pigs. And for Christ’s parents welcoming these Gentiles into their home, or providing for their camels, this was all deemed as unclean.
So angels came to shepherds and the star led the Gentile wisemen. God delights in irony which glorifies him—to save the unlikely wretches that we are. And we would benefit from reviving this newness to our old Christmas traditions, pushing back against our sentimentalism and even commercialism.