Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem? We know the miraculous reasons, and we can see the sovereignty of God clearly at work, but in a physical sense, what brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem?
Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, a city about 70 miles north of Jerusalem. Given this was their family home, it would make sense that Jesus should have been born in Nazareth. But He wasn’t. He was born in Bethlehem.
We have to turn to the book of Luke for the reason. In one of the most beloved passages of Scripture found in the Bible, Dr. Luke begins telling us about the birth of Jesus with the words, “In those days a decree went out…”
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem for the census. Bethlehem was the ancestral home of David, and all those who descended from him were required to travel to Bethlehem to register.
Stop and think for a moment about the inconvenience this would have caused for Mary and Joseph. Most couples today would never travel out of state around the due date of their baby. They would stay close to home, close to their doctors and support network. Yet, Mary and Joseph had to travel 70 miles away from home as Mary’s due date approached.
Travel was difficult in Bible times. A healthy man could travel roughly 20 miles a day on foot. Mary was very pregnant, and she likely didn’t walk the journey. The Bible doesn’t tell us specifically, but tradition often pictures Mary riding a donkey. This makes sense given the options that were available. She could have rode a camel, but camel’s were the luxury vehicles of the day. It’s unlikely Joseph could afford a camel. A donkey makes sense, but it is still difficult to picture a very pregnant woman riding a donkey for several miles a day. Perhaps more likely would have been a cart pulled by a donkey, with Joseph walking beside the donkey.
Regardless, it was a long trip—taking a week or more—and it was an uncomfortable trip for a pregnant woman. As one preacher once observed, “even though Mary had to ride on a donkey, it was better than a Ford, amen?”
Sometimes our familiarity with a Bible narrative like the Christmas story causes us to brush past the details without fully appreciating the trial this must have been for Mary & Joseph.
We can do the same thing when it comes to the celebration of Christmas. We allow our busyness and rush towards Christmas Day to often crowd out our appreciation for the meaning of Christmas. Take a few moments and reflect on all you have to be thankful for this Christmas as we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior.–Chris Eller
This Week’s Core Virtue
Joy (John 15:11): I have inner contentment and purpose in spite of my circumstances.