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Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 2

The Journey to Bethlehem

Mary packed as though she and Joseph were changing residences rather than making a round trip—that’s what astute travelers of her day did. Perhaps she had an idea or premonition that it would be a long time before they would return to Nazareth and home. There would be caravanserais[1] along the way, usually situated where roads crossed, for food and water, bathing, supplies, fodder for the animals, and places to sleep; but the wise and experienced often brought along their own tents and blankets as well as clothing and containers of dried raisins and other foodstuffs, water, oil, and flour, prepared for any eventuality.

Joseph was well aware of the difficulties of such a journey, not just for Mary in her condition, but for their safety as well. The eighty-mile trip could take as many as five days or possibly more, depending on the route and traveling conditions. The shortest and most direct way, through Samaria, was not an option for most Jewish travelers in light of long-standing animosities. They would rather face the threat of robbers and bandits[2] who often menaced the next best highway.

Félix_Bonfils_(French_-_Le_Jourdain_(The_Jordan)_-_Google_Art_Project (1)Caravans frequently traversed Roman roads, including the one he likely chose[3]—the road that went east from Nazareth, crossed the Jordan, and ran south through Perea toward Jerusalem. Ideally they could join such a convoy and lessen the danger along the way. Such a group contained a lively cross-section of humanity. Along with the average traveler and perhaps courses of priests on their way to fulfill their duties in the Temple, opportunistic hawkers often joined these odysseys, producing the latest articles of commerce or luxury, and passing on the most titillating news of the day. Nighttime chatter around campfires must have been a welcome relief from the monotony of seemingly endless miles of travel.

Taxed to the limit

Did Joseph and Mary hear grumbling about the latest demands and scandals of Rome? Most likely, and with good reason.  The general population was already taxed to the limit[4], and now this. Word had it that Caesar was displeased at the declining birthrate[5] in his empire, and this census would confirm his annoyance. It would not only give him his numbers, but replenish his coffers as well. Resentment seethed under the surface at the injustice of it all, a malignant stow-away on this mandatory trek to be counted. What they needed was a deliverer, and soon!

(To be continued.)

[1] Follow the link below for a picture of an Ottoman caravanserais built in the 1700s. Those available to Mary and Joseph were probably much smaller, but were also walled enclosures with guest rooms on upper levels, and the terrace level below, used for bedding down the animals. At night the gate was secured to protect travelers from robbers and wild beasts.

[2] Palestine was home to highwaymen who robbed only for personal gain, and guerrilla warriors who directed their aggression against Roman Authorities and/or the Jewish authorities and persons who collaborated with them. Even the Apostle Paul was alert to such dangers in his travels (2 Corinthians 11:26). For more information on the social world of bandits, see the following link: .

[3]   Alfred Edersheim, in his Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1980), mentions six different highways or main arteries of commerce in Palestine. See Chapter IV, pp. 42-45. The one I chose for the journey of Joseph and Mary seems to me to be the most likely.

[4] Richard A. Horsely with John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (1985). During the time of Julius Caesar, “the Jewish agricultural producers were now subject to a double taxation, probably amounting to well over 40 percent of their production. There were other Roman taxes as well, which further added to the burden of the people, but the tribute was the major drain” p. 56. “If a peasant family, after rendering up 40 percent or more of its harvest, then had too little left to survive until the next harvest, it would have to borrow grain for food, or for seed for the next sowing….Continued borrowing would increase a family’s debt significantly, with great risk of complete loss of land …[and] sink into the ranks of…the landless day laborers, or…become a sharecropping tenant” (pp.58-59).

[5] Dio Cassius, Roman History, 1vi, 1-10. Dio Cassius tells of one occasion when Augustus was so vexed by the declining marriage and birth rates that he strode into the Forum, separated the married men and bachelors he found there into two different groups and then let the bachelors have it: “What shall I call you? Men? But you aren’t fulfilling the duties of men. Citizens? But for all your efforts, the city is perishing. Romans? But you are in the process of blotting out this name altogether! . . . What humanity would be left if all the rest of mankind should do what you are doing? . . . You are committing murder in not fathering in the first place those who ought to be your descendants!” Quoted in Paul L. Maier’s  In the Fullness of Time (1991), p.6.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King

Setting the stage

For over 500 years the nation of Israel chafed under the thumb of first one Gentile kingdom and then another—Babylon, Persia, the Greco Macedonians, and now Rome, with its absolute ruler Caesar Augustus, and Herod the Great, one of his ruthless client kings. It wasn’t unusual, particularly during Passover season, for passions to ignite as the tribes of Israel revisited the story of God’s intervention and the stunning liberation of their ancestors.  When the white-hot flames of resistance and rebellion flared, they were summarily stamped out under the cruel boot of Herod’s soldiers.

English: Herod the Great Suomi: Herodes Suuri

English: Herod the Great Suomi: Herodes Suuri (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Exorbitant taxation compounded the misery of oppression in pre- and first-century Palestine: the mandatory tribute to Rome; locally imposed taxes; several layers of temple tax; impromptu levies to fund military expeditions and building projects. Privation and hardship enveloped the land like a dank, smothering blanket, and peasants found themselves forced to sell their land holdings—inheritances from generations past—in order to survive. The swelling ranks of day laborers told the tale.

No relief

After a reign of more than 40 years, Herod the Great died in agony—some say from intestinal cancer, and many assert, a fate fitting for such a tyrant. Instead of relief, what ensued was a mad scramble for power and outright revolt. Research professor in the classics and religion at the University of Massachusetts, Richard Horsley, describes the aftermath: “As for the scribal rabbinic elite, so also for the ordinary people, resistance under Herod’s iron-fisted rule was futile and suicidal. But the minute Herod died, revolt erupted in every major district of the land, and the Romans mounted a massive expedition to reconquer Galilee and Judea. Thus, Jesus’ parents’ generation and his own generation as children in villages such as Nazareth suffered the slaughter or enslavement of family members, burning of their houses and goods, and the general trauma of war.”

As things worsened the dream of a messiah-deliverer flourished, only to fall prey to opportunists and pretenders. Pseudo-messiahs deluded the people with false hopes, created dissensions, and gave rise to sects. Their influence was mostly local and temporary; some, however, succeeded in attracting large numbers of followers, and created movements that lasted for considerable periods. Others, along with their ardent followers, died as insurrectionists.

A quiet miracle in Nazareth

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shephe...

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923. via Category:Historical maps by William R. Shepherd (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a cool autumn morning sometime before Herod’s death, in the frontier town of Nazareth in Lower Galilee, a young woman prepared for a long trip to Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus called for a census, declaring “all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1-5) and ordered that everyone[1] must register in their ancestral home. And so, Mary, nearly full-term in her pregnancy, helped Joseph load the cart with the necessities they would need to see them through their journey to the ancient city of David.

She must have replayed the angelic visit innumerable times, and marveled at Gabriel’s amazing pronouncement. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).

While Herod in his paranoia planted spies and scoured the countryside for seditious plots and traitors, the prophesied King of Israel, the longed-for Deliverer, quietly and miraculously grew in the safety of the womb of a young virgin, Mary of Nazareth, waiting to be born.

(To be continued.)

[1] The Archaeological Study Bible (2005), p. 1669, a note on Luke 2:5 states that in Syria (the Romans included Palestine under Syrian jurisdiction) “women twelve years of age and older were required to pay a poll tax and therefore to register.” This would explain the historical impetus for Mary’s making this trip, and the advancing of a divine plan.

Birth and Salt

As for your nativity, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water to cleanse you, you were not rubbed with salt nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you, to have compassion on you; but you were thrown out into the open field, when you yourself were loathed on the day you were born” (Ezekiel 16:4-5).

 God began His declaration of love for Jerusalem with her birth, a child of Canaanites, struggling, unsanitary, bereft of rudimentary natal care. No tender parent cut the cord and washed away the blood; no gentle hand rubbed with salt or swaddled with linen. Apart from God’s intervention, Jerusalem would have died in its bloody iniquity, as surely as an infant abandoned in a field would die.

God said that out of compassion He gave Jerusalem a chance to live. “Live!” Yes, I said to you in your blood, “Live!” (Ezekiel 16:6) He washed her with water, anointed her with oil, and blessed her with luxuries, clothing of linen and silk, leather sandals, earrings, bracelets, fine pastries, honey and oil. Because of God’s love, Jerusalem was splendid and beautiful, briefly.

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbili...

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbilical cord has not yet been cut. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I was acquainted with three of the procedures mentioned in Ezekiel 16:4, cutting the cord, washing with water, and swaddling, but rubbing a baby with salt was unfamiliar to me. This scripture is the only bible reference to the practice of salting a newborn, and it raises the question of what does it mean? Was it a pagan custom or a standard procedure in the ancient world? If it was a common procedure, then why was it done?

Commentators looking into the use of salt on newborns agree that it was “an ancient practice,” common among Jews, Christians, Arabs and others, either for ritual purposes, medical purposes or both. It is thought that babies may have been sprinkled with a few grains of salt as a ritual to signify integrity, purity, and dedication, patterned after salted offerings made to God (Leviticus 2:13). It may have been that parents salted their children to ward off evil spirits. However, the Bible doesn’t say that salt protects an infant from spiritual harm or that God requires babies to be dedicated to Him through salt ceremonies.

Historians cite some traditionally accepted beliefs for washing babies in salted water, or rubbing them with salt powder, or massaging them with salted oil. The earliest documentation they mention is a treatise written in 100 AD by Soranus of Ephesus, a Greek obstetrician, pediatrician and gynecologist who practiced medicine in first century Alexandria and Rome. Soranus’ work set the standards for medical treatment of women and children for 1500 years.[1] In his document, “On Midwifery and the Diseases of Women,” Soranus recommends sprinkling babies with powdery salt to cut through any placental remains and birth residue on the infant’s skin. He believed salt mixed with honey, olive oil, barley juice, fenugreek or mallow should be massaged into a baby’s skin then washed away with warm water.[2] The only other old reference I found was a comment attributed to Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Arabanel that salting the infant strengthened its skin.[3]

The few commentators (Clarke, Gill) who expound the salt element of Ezekiel 16:4 state that it was believed by some to be healthful, as it purportedly:

  • promoted greater firmness to the skin by constricting the pores,
  • cleansed from blood,
  • prevented putrefaction,
  • hardened the flesh,
  • dried up moisture,
  • purged the skin,
  • softened the skin,
  • disinfected,
  • strengthened immunity,
  • improved wound healing,
  • prevented rashes, and
  • created an environment inhospitable to bacteria.

If it is true that salting babies is so beneficial, then why isn’t it a general practice everywhere today?

Danger of Salt

Grains of salt

Grains of salt (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

Current findings indicate there is good reason such a procedure is not advised and practiced, and caution that parents, grandparents, and caregivers need to be wary of salting an infant. “Even small amounts of salt can be dangerous” for babies’ kidneys and organs not equipped to handle “more than what is found in their mother’s milk.”[4] However well intentioned, salt applied to an infant’s skin and in its mouth can be harmful, even fatal.

After a number of babies had been admitted into Jordan Hospital with symptoms of hypernatremia (too much salt), four doctors in the Neonatal ICU published a report, “Salting Newborns: Pickling Them or Killing Them? A Practice That Should Be Stopped.” The doctors interviewed mothers in the maternity ward and gave them a pamphlet “explaining the possible dangers of salting and the complications of hypernatremia and its signs and symptoms.”[5]

In the course of interviewing the 112 mothers, the doctors learned the following facts: 48 mothers had been salted themselves as newborns, 37 mothers had salted their other babies at least once, 56 mothers thought it was advantageous to salt babies, 18 mothers knew there were dangers to salting babies, 5 mothers knew there were some harmful consequences but salted their babies anyway, 6 mothers salted their babies just because it was traditional to do so. A significant number of mothers continued the practice because it was passed on from their mothers and grandmothers.

Many of the 112 mothers didn’t understand the dangers of salting babies.  There was no agreement on how to do it, how much salt to apply, how long to leave the salt on, should it be washed off, should the baby be swaddled with salt on the skin, if so for how many days, what to do if the baby looks sick? Doctors referenced four sad examples of infants who had suffered from different kinds of salt treatments, with harmful effects ranging from skin scars to brain damage and death.

The staff at Jordan Hospital continues to educate mothers about the dangers of applying salt to their newborns. As young mothers learn safe methods of infant care, the unsound traditions will be put to rest.

My take-away

What do I take away from this study? To be careful with God’s word and search out its application with the help of experienced counsel.—Mary Hendren

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica, online, “Soranus of Ephesus”

[2] Mi Yodea, online, “Ezekiel 16:4—what practice does this describe?”

[3] Same source

[4], “What does salt symbolize in the Bible?”

[5] “Salting Newborns: Pickling Them or Killing Them? A Practice That Should Be Stopped,” PowerPoint presentation, Y.K. Abu-Osba MD, R.A. Jarad MD, K.H. Zainedeen MD, A.Y. Khmour MD; Jordan Hospital

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