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The Story of Ruth: The Kinsman Redeemer

Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, shall I not seek security for you, that it may be well with you? Now Boaz, whose young women you were with, is he not our relative? In fact, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Therefore wash yourself and anoint yourself, put on your best garment and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. Then it shall be, when he lies down, that you shall notice the place where he lies; and you shall go in, uncover his feet, and lie down; and he will tell you what you should do.” (Ruth 3:1-4)

Naomi knew it was just a matter of time. Once the harvest was over, their livelihood would again be in jeopardy unless…unless a kinsman redeemer[1] would step in and come to their rescue. Boaz, though not the nearest relative, would be their first resort. After all, he already knew Ruth and had shown a concern for her welfare as well as, by extension, Naomi’s own. The time had come for a bold plan.

At the threshing floor

English: Threshing place. The circle is made f...

English: Threshing place. The circle is made from concrete. Harvested straw is put on the concrete surface and a donkey is made to walk on it in circles, which causes the process of threshing. On the left (front of the picture) visible leftovers (mostly tailings and chaff). Around the perimeter there is some threshed straw. On the floor there are some threshed grains. Photo taken near Vlyhada (Santorini, Greece). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Boaz worked alongside his hired men at the threshing floor—a cleared solid surface of hard-packed dirt or rock—preparing for the final stage of the weeks-long harvest.[2] Ruth watched as this kind kinsman, or was it one of his workers, expertly urged draft animals, whether oxen or donkeys is unclear, to drag heavy threshing sledges[3] back and forth over the sheaves, breaking down the stalks into husks, straw, and grain kernels. Then experienced hands wielding wooden pitchforks lifted the straw away so the process of winnowing could begin.

Winnowing the Chaff | Bamiyan

Winnowing the Chaff | Bamiyan (Photo credit: Hadi Zaher)

In the cooling evening breezes, waiting crews used winnowing forks, tossing the remaining grain into the air. Mesmerized, Ruth watched lighter stalks and husks (the chaff) be whisked away on capricious currents of wind, and the heavier kernels plummet back to the floor in a haphazard heap. Then mounds of the tawny pellets were scooped up and sifted through trays to remove any remaining dirt and debris. The clean grain was finally ready for immediate use or storage in sealed clay jars.

As the last rays of sunlight grew dusky, weary workers allowed themselves to relax, enjoying food and drink, celebrating harvest’s end. Bellies full and hearts merry, first one and then another fell silent, except for an occasional grunt and snore. Ruth’s gaze followed Boaz through the dimness as he made his way to the end of a grain pile, spread his blanket, and quickly dropped off to sleep.

Naomi’s instructions had been quite clear: Wash yourself, put on your best garment, go back to the threshing floor, and wait for the moment of opportunity. That time had come. Ruth quietly made her way to where Boaz lay, uncovered his feet, and lay down.

The Kinsman-Redeemer

Naomi’s strategy was one of enlisting the involvement of the kinsman-redeemer.[4] Now Ruth lay at Boaz’s feet, anticipating the opportunity to bring Naomi’s plan to fruition. His sleep suddenly troubled, she watched him awake with a start sensing her presence in the darkness. “Who are you?” he challenged warily. Ruth responded with her request. “I am you servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me,[5] since you are a kinsman-redeemer” (3:9 NIV).

Flattered by Ruth’s request, Boaz commended her for approaching him, since it is likely that he was considerably older than she, and she might well have chosen a younger man. Rather than interpreting her actions as wily and improper, he afforded her only kindness and respect.[6] He encouraged her to wait until morning for the sake of her reputation and for her own protection. Before first light she could safely return to Naomi, and none would be the wiser. Then he would attend to the business at hand.

Following the rules

Boaz knew there was a kinsman closer than he, and his integrity dictated that he go to him first before proceeding any further. By rights, this relative (who, though unnamed in the Bible, was obviously known to Boaz) could redeem Elimelech’s land either by buying it back, if it had indeed already been sold, or he could buy it outright.

Now Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there; and behold, the close relative of whom Boaz had spoken came by. So Boaz said, “Come aside, friend,[7] sit down here.” So he came aside and sat down. And he took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down. Then he said to the close relative, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, sold the piece of land which belonged to our brother Elimelech. And I thought to inform you, saying, Buy it back in the presence of the inhabitants and the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not redeem it, then tell me, that I may know; for there is no one but you to redeem it, and I am next after you.'”

And he said, “I will redeem it.”

What happened next affords a certain opportunity for speculation. Was Boaz disappointed when the near kinsman quickly accepted the responsibility? He obviously had more than a casual interest in Ruth and her welfare. Or had he anticipated just such a response, and, as the astute business man he undoubtedly was (Scripture describes him as a mighty man of wealth), knew just when to bring up an additional requirement to put the negotiations in jeopardy? Note the various translations of verse 5 below:

Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you must also buy it from Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the dead, to perpetuate the name of the dead through his inheritance” (NKJV).

Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, you acquire the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property” (NIV).

Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance” (NRSV).

Boaz had just introduced the obligation of a levirate marriage, and the kinsman, recognizing the inherent liabilities that such an arrangement could impose on his own family, quickly forfeited his right of redemption to Boaz.[8] So, in the presence of ten official witnesses and many onlookers, Mr. So and So removed his sandal, thereby signaling the transfer of the property. A communal blessing followed:

And all the people who were at the gate, and the elders, said, “We are witnesses. The LORD make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel; and may you prosper in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring which the LORD will give you from this young woman” (vv. 11-12).

The rest of the story of Ruth

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and when he went in to her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a close relative; and may his name be famous in Israel! And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her bosom, and became a nurse to him. Also the neighbor women gave him a name, saying, “There is a son born to Naomi.” And they called his name Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David” (vv. 13-17). 

Ruth, Naomi and Obed. Pen and brown ink over p...

Ruth, Naomi and Obed. Pen and brown ink over pencil on paper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Summary

The book of Ruth, in its four short chapters, gives one of the few detailed glimpses into the everyday lives of Old Testament characters in the Bible, and in particular, women. The reader is exposed to the nuances of the desperate plight of three widows, two of whom found themselves displaced and in foreign lands; and marvels at their courageous efforts to survive by hard work and ingenuity. The reader senses the depth of the bond of devotion to both kin and God, and the bitter anguish of loss. The reader observes the realities and rigors of harvest and manual labor; and sits as one of the collective witnesses to the legal proceedings involving rights of inheritance and preservation of a family line. Lastly, the perceptive reader will recognize and value this book as a beautiful exemplar of kindness, the evidence of which is found on every page.

What a gift to have The Book of Ruth preserved in the pages of the Bible!

 ***

For additional reading please view Mary Hendren’s post,  Levirate Law– in Confusion.

The Writings

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[1] A Ga’al (Strong’s 1350), or kinsman redeemer, could act in several ways. By definition according to http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/hebrew/nas/gaal.html , the kinsman redeemer could marry a brother’s widow to beget a child for him (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), redeem from slavery (Leviticus 25:47-49), redeem land (Leviticus 25:25), or exact vengeance (Numbers 35:19). In the book of Ruth, Boaz acted as a levir as well as one who preserved claim to the family property.

[2] It is possible that Boaz, and /or others, were overseeing the process. The Archaeological Study Bible, in its cultural and historical note on “The Threshing Floor” (page 608), comments that because the threshing floor was the largest open area within a village,“town elders were typically present to oversee the threshing of the year’s crops.” The threshing floor was also a suitable locale for “legal actions, criminal trials, and public decisions.” The city gate was also used for such proceedings as will later be seen.

[3] Sledges were heavy wooden slabs with teeth made of stone, metal or potsherds fastened to the underside. See Isaiah’s vivid description of the whole process in chapter 41, verses 14-16.

[4] Whether this was simply to assure that Elimelech’s landholdings would be preserved within family lines, or to ensure there would be a son to carry on the family name, or both, are topics for on-going discussion. Leon Wood, in his book, The Distressing Days of the Judges (1982), addresses both: “When an owner was forced to sell property due to poverty, it was the obligation of the nearest relative to buy this property back (thus ‘redeeming’ it), so that it could remain in the possession of the original family” (p. 261). Wood goes on to comment that “it was the obligation of the nearest kinsman, in this instance, not only to purchase the property of Naomi—which really also belonged to Ruth, because of inheritance rights through her dead husband Mahlon—but also to marry Ruth and raise up a son to Mahlon who might then inherit that property in due time” (p. 262).

[5] Scholars do not agree as to the meaning and symbolism associated with this action. Some feel it amounted to a request for protection, while others interpret it as a request for marriage. For a detailed examination of challenges present in the wording of the Hebrew text see

http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/08-ruth/texts/books/leggett-goelruth/leggett-goelruth.pdf, pp. 192-3.

[6] Some have chosen to attribute to both Ruth and Boaz activities or motives of a sexual nature, but others, such as The Expositor’s Bible Commentary in its note regarding Ruth 3:13, write to the contrary: “Both Ruth and Boaz acted virtuously in a situation they knew could have turned out otherwise. Chastity was not an unknown virtue in the ancient world.”

[7] The word friend (NKJV) and kinsman (KJV) in this verse is taken from a Hebrew idiom best translated “Mr. So and So.” It is translated as such in the Tanakh. This idiom is said to have been used when it was not deemed essential to use the person’s actual name. Some think they detect a certain disdain attached to its usage here, since the relative declined to step in to help. See The Expositor’s Bible Commentary comments on Ruth 4:1-3.

[8] Expositors comments concerning 4:6:”Most scholars interpret the kinsman’s refusal as an awareness that he would be paying part of what should be his own children’s inheritance to buy land that would revert to Ruth’s son as a legal heir of Elimelech.” Others posit he was reluctant to intermarry with a Moabite woman (cf. Deuteronomy 23:3-4).

Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament comments on verse 6: “The redemption would cost money, since the yearly produce of the field would have to be paid for up to the year of jubilee. Now, if he acquired the field by redemption as his own permanent property, he would have increased by so much his own possessions in land. But if he should marry Ruth, the field so redeemed would belong to the son whom he would beget through her, and he would therefore have parted with the money that he had paid for the redemption merely for the son of Ruth, so that he would have withdrawn a certain amount of capital from his own possession, and to that extent have detracted from its worth. ‘Redeem thou for thyself my redemption,’ i.e., the field which I have the first right to redeem.”(Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament: New Updated Edition, Electronic Database. Copyright © 1996 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.)

 

The Story of Ruth: New Beginnings

But Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The LORD do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17).

Coming home

The small town of Bethlehem was abuzz—Naomi was back after more than ten years! But where was Elimelech? And Mahlon and Chilion? Who was the young foreigner walking beside her? Why did Naomi look so sad?

From the time she entered the gate[1] undoubtedly town elders and townspeople alike plied Naomi with questions. One can only imagine what went through Ruth’s mind, as she, too, encountered first one person and then another, aware of scrutinizing, and sometimes suspicious, eyes. While Israel was enjoying a period of detente with Moab, Ruth was most likely aware of the checkered relationship of their shared past[2] and all that entailed. Now, unfaltering in her pledge of undying devotion to Naomi, she was more resolved than ever to make a new life for herself—Moab, along with its gods and culture, was going to become a thing of the past.

She listened as her mother-in-law told and retold the pitiful story of her plight, lamenting, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me” (vv 20-21)? For reasons unstated in scripture, she believed her misfortunes were somehow punishments from her LORD. For that, Ruth could offer no solace.

New beginnings

The rules of hospitality[3] ensured that the two weary women had a place to stay at least temporarily until permanent arrangements could be made, so they probably found lodging with some of Naomi’s relatives or friends. It is assumed, though, that she quickly returned to her husband’s property, possibly a house that had been rented in the family’s absence or guarded by relatives who remained in the land. At least they would have shelter. Their means of support and sustenance was quite another matter.

They had arrived at the beginning of the barley harvest, and Ruth soon learned that Israel had provisions in place to care for the poor including widows, orphans and foreigners: the right to follow behind the reapers and glean the fields. It was hard work for all concerned, and for gleaners it likely represented a tenuous hold on survival. “Since prudent workers worked carefully, the gleaning of the fallen grain was mere subsistence living, much like trying to eke out survival today by recycling aluminum cans” (The Book of Ruth, Robert L. Hubbard, 1988, Google Books, p. 138). She wasted no time in gaining permission to work one of the fields, the owner of which, she learned, was a man named Boaz.

English: Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2:2-20) Русский: ...

English: Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 2:2-20) Русский: Руфь и Вооз (Руфь 2:2-20) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A day’s work

 At first light Ruth watched as reapers, men who were either hired laborers or slaves, established a time-worn rhythm, grasping the mature stalks with one hand, and using a sickle to cut off the grain with the other. When an armload of ear-laden stalks became unmanageable, the reaper laid them in rows by standing stalls where women waited to tie them into bundles eventually to be transported to the threshing floor. There threshers separated the grain from the chaff, and sealed it in jars for later use.

Ruth swiftly moved in behind the laborers, scooping up the precious grist as it fell, and before other gleaners, or avaricious birds could claim the prize. It was backbreaking work, and she did it willingly. Naomi was depending on her. What she did not know is that someone was observing her with keen interest.

  ***

 “Now behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said to the reapers,‘The LORD be with you!’ And they answered him,‘The LORD bless you!’ Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers,‘Whose young woman is this?’ So the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered and said, ‘It is the young Moabite woman who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. And she said, ‘Please let me glean and gather after the reapers among the sheaves.’ So she came and has continued from morning until now, though she rested a little in the house” (Ruth 2:4-7).  

A man views his fields

Boaz[4] had come from Bethlehem to oversee his fields, already alive with harvest activity. He saw the usual familiar crews, but one stranger stood out among them—according to his foreman, she was Ruth, a Moabitess, the widow of Naomi’s son, Mahlon. Curious, he studied her as she swiftly cleaned between the rows, back and forth in the warm springtime sun. He had already heard of her widowhood, and her devotion to Naomi—it was the talk of Bethlehem. Now, seeing her in person, something about Ruth touched him, and he ordered his crew to see to it that she had plenty to glean by purposely dropping stalks along her way.

Ruth in Boaz's Field

Ruth in Boaz’s Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After a while Boaz sent for her; she came obediently, bowing her face to the ground, struck by the fact that he would take the time to speak to her, a lowly reaper, and a foreign woman at that. After his assurances for her safety, Ruth found herself invited to share the noon meal with the reapers under the shade of a make-shift shelter. She watched as the laborers deftly roasted ears of freshly harvested barley over a ready fire. Boaz himself quickly removed charred husks, and passed parched kernels to Ruth to eat her fill.[5] She must have marveled at his kindness—a man of such wealth and stature.

Ruth gleaned until evening, and had still more work to do—separating the grain from the chaff. By the time she finally returned to Naomi, she had enough barley to last them for several weeks.[6] Her mother-in-law was amazed, and upon further inquiry, learned that Ruth was gleaning in the field of a near kinsman of her husband’s.

Though Boaz’s benevolence continued to meet the widows’ short-term needs, Naomi knew it simply forestalled the inevitable. Unless something was done to ensure their future survival, very difficult times lay ahead. What they needed was a plan.

To be continued….

[1] Obed Borowski, Daily Life in Bible Times, p. 21: “In settlements with no inns, local people were expected to invite out-of-towners into their homes. To be invited, out-of-towners would sit in the street or town square …and wait for an invitation by one of the locals (Judges 19:13). This was done probably by the entrance to the village, where people used to pass (Ruth 4:1)….Houses were so close to each other that people could tell when guests were visiting (v22). Further, the village population was small enough that the arrival of an outsider was noticed and quickly broadcast (Ruth 2:11).”

[2] See Numbers 22 and 25, and Deuteronomy 23:3-6 for the historical backdrop.

[3] The Woman’s Study Bible, Topic, “Hospitality: The Gift of Welcome,” p. 2071, comments, “For the people of the Bible, hospitality was not merely a matter of good manners but a necessity in the harsh desert regions. Hospitality was openly rewarded…(Joshua 2:12-14). Lack of hospitality was punished…(1 Samuel 25:2-39).”

See other posts relating to hospitality on this blog: https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/27/a-point-of-focus/

https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/28/hospitalityor-else-abigails-dilemma/;

https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/29/the-hospitality-of-two-widows/

https://womenfromthebook.com/2012/08/28/pattern-for-hospitality-in-the-old-testament/

https://womenfromthebook.com/2013/07/21/a-hospitality-of-believers/

[4] Watching her was Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, probably a widower or perhaps one who never married—the Bible doesn’t say. There is no record of any children prior to his marriage to Ruth. Chances are he was older than Ruth—perhaps even by quite a bit—and the record indicates that he was successful—“a mighty man of wealth” of Elimelech’s clan (Ruth 2:1 KJV), making him related to Naomi by marriage.

[5] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, comment on Ruth 2:14.

[6] Expositor’s estimates her gleanings measured about an ephah of barley—approximately one-half to two-thirds of a bushel, estimated to be from 29 to 50 pounds. (See comment on verse 17.)

 

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The Story of Ruth: Choices

Then Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died; and she was left, and her two sons. Now they took wives of the women of Moab: the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth. And they dwelt there about ten years. Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; so the woman survived her two sons and her husband (Ruth 1:3-5).

Naomi had arrived in Moab never suspecting the twists and turns her life would take during the next ten years. Now she found herself robbed of the emotional and physical support of not only her husband, but her two sons as well. In her homeland this would have been difficult enough, but finding herself bereft in a foreign land left her vulnerable, facing a uncertain future. It was only natural that she should think of home—Bethlehem in Judah.

She was not entirely alone—her daughters-in-law were quite devoted to her, and she still had her God, although Naomi agonized that perhaps she had fallen from His favor in light of her sad circumstances. Ruth and Orpah were well aware of her dedication to Israel’s God, as they must have seen it demonstrated numerous times over their years together as a family.

Weighing her options

By her own admission, Naomi was past the time of child-bearing. She knew that chances of remarriage, especially in Moab (and likely in her country as well), had she been so inclined, were virtually non-existent. If she went back to Judah, her husband had extended family there, so potentially she could have emotional support and even, perhaps, some rights of inheritance; she would be back in the land of her God; and if worse came to worse, there were provisions in Israel’s law to take care of widows, orphans, strangers, and the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 24:19-21).

Decisions. How to close down her home, and arrange for travel. Then there was the matter of Ruth and Orpah, both of whom felt a responsibility for her welfare, and she, for theirs. What should she do? What should they do?

A parting of the ways

News from home gave her the answer. By God’s grace, the famine had finally ended, and there was no real reason to remain in Moab. Informing Orpah and Ruth of her decision was no doubt emotional, but still they insisted on going with her. And so it was that the three widows found themselves on the road to Bethlehem, embarking on a journey not only fraught with potential dangers from roving bandits and miscreants along the way, but one which also posed many unknowns concerning what lay ahead.

That, however, is not what troubled Naomi most. She was quite concerned for the futures of her daughters-in-law. They would be foreigners in Judah, widows without any means of support or probable prospects for marriage—the plight she herself was fleeing.

She pleaded with them, “Go, return each to her mother’s house. The Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband…” (1:8-9).

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to t...

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab by William Blake, 1795 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She kissed them and wept.

They cried in protest.

She reasoned, “Turn back…are there still sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?”

Naomi cherished them both—they were like her very own daughters (1:11-13). They loved her in return, each in her own way.

Eventually a tearful Orpah[1] conceded, kissed Naomi one last time, and  returned to the sanctuary of her parents’ home.

Ruth, however, was another matter.

To be continued….

[1] Orpah, Chilion’s wife, is only mentioned in a few verses in Ruth 1, and then she disappears from the pages of the Bible. People have tried to “flesh” her out, but there is little to go on. The Woman’s Study Bible, in its Topic titled “Orpah, the Daughter-in-Law with a Wavering Faith,” says her name has several meanings: fawn, double-minded, nape of the neck (interpreted to indicate stubbornness or being self-willed). Hence, to some, her actions reflected the negatives attached to her name—she left Naomi for entirely selfish reasons. Even the title of the Topic on Orpah presents a definite bias with regard to her actions. However, as mentioned in the introductory post on The Story of Ruth, depending on names and their meanings is quite subjective.

Some draw attention to the statement that Orpah kissed Naomi, whereas Ruth clung to her, inferring a difference of the depth of attachment. The manner in which Orpah returned is in itself viewed subjectively: She was either obediently complying with Naomi’s urging, or she was selfishly looking out for her own future, as well as returning to the religion of her people.

Since there is no definitive statement as to her motive, people continue to construct arguments supporting their particular interpretation.

 

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The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Conclusion

Herod’s troubles

Herod spent his last decade in the grips of turmoil fueled by an ever-growing paranoia. While he had achieved a degree of peace in Judea (despite the financial rigors imposed on his subjects due to Imperial taxes and his own extravagant building projects), there were always trouble spots to be dealt with, especially within his own family. During his seventy years Herod married ten wives and fathered fifteen children. Needless to say, troublesome rivalries found fertile soil.

To make matters worse, Herod suffered the effects of a painful degenerative disease which affected not only his body but also his mind. He knew death was inevitable and imminent—there was no cure for his malady. The time had come for him to nominate, by Emperor Augustus’s request, an heir to assume his kingdom upon his demise. Obviously it would be a son—but which one?

A tangled web

Early on, Herod divorced his first wife, Doris (a “commoner” so to speak), and banished her and his firstborn son, Antipater, in order to marry a true “royal,” the Princess Mariamme 1, of Hasmonean descent. She also bore him sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, and two daughters. The ensuing years were littered with political intrigue as mothers and sons, jealous siblings, shrewd sycophants and toadies, connived and maneuvered to grab the reins the instant of his death. The demented king saw threats everywhere—some quite real, others figments of his tormented mind.

As Augustus requested, Herod put forth the names of three sons, Antipater, Alexander and Aristobulus, for consideration; in response, each ambition-driven mother with her cohorts sought to claim the throne for her son by whatever means at her disposal. In the end, it finished badly for them all: Antipater, Herod’s firstborn, was executed on a charge of plotting to murder his father; Mariamme was executed because of an alleged murder plot; her two sons were strangled on charges of treason; and Doris was once again sent into exile.

Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of ...

Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maniacal obsessions

Herod was increasingly plagued with fears of treason and impending overthrow, and the palpable Jewish expectation of a coming Messiah did nothing to calm his apprehensions. Just yesterday his spies brought word of a caravan arriving from the east, and among its travelers, Magi, wise men of some stature, with their gift-laden entourage, inquiring about one born King of the Jews. “We have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” A King of the Jews?!

Summoning all the chief priests and scribes, Herod got straight to the point: Where was this Christ to be born? Their reply: according to the prophet, in Bethlehem.[1] His minions were no doubt already combing all Jerusalem to find out more, sneaking, demanding, investigating, threatening; before long the whole city knew that Herod was on a rampage, and braced itself for his growing fury.

These wise men…they could be pivotal players in his manic search. Herod arranged for a private audience with them, and a plan took shape. First, a question. Exactly when did they see this star? If it took several weeks, or months even, for these Magi to make their journey,[2] how old might this…this king be—days, months, even a year or more? Then suppose he feigned a shared interest in paying homage also, and encouraged them to continue on their quest and keep him informed? Once Herod knew the child’s whereabouts, he could quickly dispatch this interloper. The Magi, unaware of such a murderous plot, played into his hands, and set off for Bethlehem, still guided by the star.

Herod waited.

Sometime earlier

Jesus was eight days old, and according to the Law, it was time for his circumcision. Joseph and Mary sought out the local Mohel to perform the age-old rite. The young mother comforted her crying infant, and soothed away his tears with the gentle sound of her voice. Their bond was already strong, and she found herself pondering many of the recent events which had so dramatically changed their lives. What did the future hold for this Son of God?

Perhaps this question loomed large a month or so later. Mary’s days of purification were completed and the time for Jesus to be consecrated to the Lord had arrived. Both events required sacrifices, and so Mary and Joseph with their precious son journeyed to Jerusalem and climbed the steps to the temple courtyard, making their way to the Court of the Women to fulfill their duties.

Unexpectedly, out of those gathered in the temple precincts, a man appeared, one Simeon by name, and took the infant Jesus in his arms, blessing God, saying, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). The parents marveled as he continued, speaking directly to Mary, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). Surely she would revisit this scene in the years to come as she and Jesus lived through the full implications of Simeon’s foreboding words.

A very old woman, a prophetess named Anna, upon witnessing this encounter, added her blessing, thanking the Lord, and explaining to all who would hear that the long-awaited Messiah had been born.

Visitors from the east

Mary must have watched with interest as the group of foreigners approached, fascinated by their strange accents, their quick gestures, and their obvious delight at what appeared to be a star hovering directly over the couple’s house. She learned these were Magi, dignitaries from the east, who were on a quest.

Was it a whimper or a full-blown cry that attracted their attention, stopping all conversation, and causing the strangers to turn in her direction? Perhaps as she shifted position and lifted Jesus to her shoulder, the realization hit them: They had come in search of the one born King of the Jews; they were led to this very place by a star; and now here he was, in the arms of his mother. Scripture records that the wise men dropped to their knees and worshiped him. Then they presented the little child with chests of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, gifts carefully guarded and transported over hundreds of miles, gifts in honor of the King.

Warnings

Herod’s plan was about to be thwarted by God Himself with two dreams. First He warned the wise men not to return to Herod, but rather to choose another route for the journey home. And He warned Joseph to take his family and leave immediately, that very night, and flee to Egypt. By the next day, both parties were well en route.

The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, by...

The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem, by Matteo di Giovanni (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Herod realized that his plan had gone awry and he had been outwitted by the Magi, he flew into a murderous rage, and issued a chilling edict: All boys[3] from two years old and under living in Bethlehem and its environs would be killed. Scripture records, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more’” (Matt 2:17-18). To this day, the event, sometimes referred to as the Massacre of the Innocents, is synonymous in the minds of many with Herod.

One last slaughter

According to historical records Herod the Great, King of the Jews, died in 4 BC in great pain, suffering from among other things, gangrene and dropsy.[4] But he did not go without one more grand design. “During his sickness Herod meditated only upon ways and means by which he might make the Jews mourn the day of his death. When he had returned from the baths of Callirrhoe to Jericho, he is said to have given orders that upon his death the most distinguished of the nation, whom he had caused to be shut up in the arena of that place, should be slain, so that there might be a great lamentation on his passing away. In his delirium he tried to kill himself, and the palace resounded with lamentations.”[5]

After Herod’s death Joseph had one last dream. It was finally safe for his young charge to return to Galilee, and particularly to Nazareth, thus fulfilling yet another prophecy: “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:23). Mary’s son, One born King of the Jews, would live to fulfill many more.


[1] See Micah 5:2.

[2] There is no easy identification of who these individuals were. Possibilities include Babylonians and Persians. See The Expositor’s Bible Commentary comments on Matthew 2.

[3] Scholars estimate that based on the size of Bethlehem (a small village), perhaps a dozen or so baby boys were murdered in Herod’s attempt to stop a threat to his throne.

[4] Stewart Perowne, Herod the Great, His Life and Times (1956), pp. 172-173.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 5

Shepherds Fields Near Jerusalem

Shepherds Fields Near Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shepherds abiding in the fields

The shepherds did what they had done for endless days and nights—too many to remember—for a lifetime, really. That meant the constant search for food and water, and protection from thieves and varmints.  In the spring it was not so bad. Pastures were lush and green, and a flock ideally could graze near the home of its shepherd. And when the grain harvest was over, and the poor had gleaned their fill, the sheep came along behind and took care of the leftovers. Later the searing heat of summer transformed standing fields of grass into hay. A good shepherd[1] expertly navigated his flock through these cycles, in first one location and then another. He knew where fresh water flowed, and where wells with watering troughs were situated. Autumn and winter, however, presented the most challenge.

As the temperature began to moderate, and the nights grew cooler, the shepherd knew it would only be a matter of time before the winter rains, and the survival of his flock rested squarely on his shoulders. First he must find shelter, ideally in a cave turned sheepcote. If not that, then he would have to find a protected site, perhaps in a valley or on a sunny hillside, and build a sheepfold of large stones piled three to four feet high, secured with a gate, and topped with thorn branches to discourage predators, both men and beasts. (The bandits of Israel were known to climb stealthily over the walls of a sheepfold, drop in among the sheep, kill[2] as many of the hapless animals as possible by slitting their throats, heave them up and over the stonework into the arms of awaiting accomplices, and fade away without being caught.[3])

Sheep and lambs spring 2011

Sheep and lambs spring 2011 (Photo credit: Ambersky235)

Unlike goats that will hunt for the best feeding grounds, sheep had to be led by their shepherds to food and water. If there was little in the way of grasses to be found, the resilient caretakers must scour the countryside for anything edible including leafy trees and bushes—quite an undertaking if the flock was large. At the end of a day of foraging, the animals were led back to shelter, carefully counted and safely secured behind gated walls. Both animals and herders could then settle in for a night’s rest.[4]

Visitors from another realm

And so it was, on a seemingly routine fall night somewhere in the countryside near Bethlehem, that a particular group of shepherds bedded down with their flocks, tired and ready for sleep.[5] Tradition[6] has it that these were no ordinary shepherds; that these men were charged with tending flocks destined to be used as sacrifices during the Passover season in Jerusalem.[7] Newborn lambs demanded the most care and scrutiny because only the perfect males of the first year could be used for the Passover sacrifice itself, and thousands would be needed. Any shepherds responsible for such a flock would be held to strict account when they delivered their charges to the priesthood and the Temple.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a being like none they had ever seen before appeared, and said: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” The very glory of the Lord shone all around the terrified shepherds; their hearts quickened as they heard the exuberant praises of an innumerable multitude of angels fill the night air. “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”   (Luke 2:10-15). As though an invisible curtain had dropped, the heavenly host was gone, and all was quiet once again.

Though stunned by fright and amazement, the shepherds’ instant response was one of faith: to personally witness the event that had surely come to pass in Bethlehem.  Luke says, “They came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger” (2:16). They could not contain themselves. Everywhere they went, they heralded the glorious news:  A Savior has been born! Spread the word! He has come!

When at last they returned to their flocks they continued to praise and glorify God concerning the things they had heard and witnessed that astonishing night. What unlikely messengers—social outcasts—of the gospel of peace.

Meanwhile Mary kept all these things in her heart, pondering the workings of God in her young life.

Sedition afoot?

It didn’t take long for word of the shepherds’ cosmic encounter to reach Jerusalem and create a buzz of excitement throughout its environs. Herod’s ubiquitous spies hastily brought him a detailed report, and he, too, pondered these things—but not as the workings of Israel’s God. This smacked of nothing less than sedition. He, Herod the Great, would know more about this so-called “Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

(To be continued.)


[1] Society held a certain disdain for the lowly shepherd class. See The Woman’s Study Bible (1995), p. 1690. “Shepherds were often viewed as outcasts, and as dishonest, and unclean according to the Law.”

[2] It is interesting to note Jesus’ later reference to this nefarious activity in John 10:7-10: “Then Jesus said to them again, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.’”

[4] Rops, Henri Daniel-, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1980), p. 231. “…the shepherd also had to look after the sick sheep and those that were hurt, take care of the gravid ewes and the new-born lambs, make wethers of the male lambs that were not to be kept for rams, and tithe the flock according to the Law, which was done by making all the animals pass through a narrow gate, every tenth beast being set aside for the priests.”

[5] If the flock was particularly large or perhaps a combining of several different flocks (which, in regard to this event, the Bible doesn’t indicate) each shepherd would stand his designated watch to insure safety throughout the night from thieves and predators. See Rops, Henri Daniel-, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (1980), p. 230.

[6] See Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (1980), pp. 80-81; also Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (updated edition, 1993), p. 131; and The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, note on Luke 2:8, p. 845.

[7] Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, in their book, Killing Jesus (2013), mention that the high priests controlled the sale of Temple lambs at Passover and received a cut of every exchange made by money changers. They owned vast farms and estates which garnered additional profits for their bottomless coffers (p. 228). It is possible that this flock was owned by some temple official.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 4

 For unto us a Child is born , Unto us a Son is given;

And the government will be upon His shoulder.

And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end,

Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,

To order it and establish it with judgment and justice

From that time forward, even forever.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

(Isaiah 9:6-7 NKJV)

***

Mary barely heard the urging of the women as her body responded to contraction after contraction, unrelenting waves of pain, each closer to the one before, until finally… one huge push, and there were no more. Seconds later, a baby’s cry filled the air and she felt tension drain from her body like wine from a ruptured wineskin. Swiftly deft hands cut the umbilical cord and lifted her squalling infant, wiping away amniotic fluids and washing him gently with warm soothing water.

Swaddling (How to)

Swaddling (How to) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She held out her arms to comfort her little one, his arms and legs flailing, searching the familiarity of her warm body.  Holding him close and stroking away his tears, she rocked gently, humming a melody only mothers know, until his crying gave way to silence as he listened.  She pulled back the blanket, marveling at his beautiful fingers and tiny toes, the plump softness of his body, the wisps of fine dark hair framing his brow. He was perfect in every way. Reluctantly she handed him back and watched, taking note, as he was swaddled securely with linen strips. Then, in her arms once again, she put him to her breast and smiled, wincing a little as he nuzzled, then latched on and suckled contentedly to drink his fill. In one sublime moment their eyes locked on each other, mother and son, and her heart soared.

The love of a remarkable man

Joseph[1] quietly entered upon this touching scene and stood watching, his curiosity and awe obvious. The past nine months had not been easy. The shock and indignation when the truth of Mary’s swelling belly could no longer be denied. The feelings fueled by trust betrayed. Struggling with what must be done. Law in the extreme dictated stoning even when parties were only betrothed, but few, if any, did that these days. A quiet divorce with no reason given, in the presence of two witnesses—that seemed the only just thing to do. He did not want to shame Mary publicly, even in his hurt and anger. This way she could quietly prepare for the consequences to come. And he could begin putting his life back together.

While that was the course he intended to follow, a heavenly messenger cast a new light of understanding on an otherwise dismal situation.  “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Joseph himself was destined to be part of a grander plan.

Now he stood looking at the fulfillment of the angel’s word, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms. “Jesus,” he said to Mary. “He will be called[2] Jesus.” “Yes. He will be called Jesus,” Mary responded softly, and gently placed her swaddled babe in his make-shift manger bed.

The world would soon know that the Son of God was born in Bethlehem that autumn day.

(To be continued.)


[1] Joseph’s part in the story of the birth of Christ is often overlooked. But in the opinion of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, a comment concerning Matthew 1:24-25 observes, “While the story is told simply, Joseph’s obedience and submission under these circumstances is scarcely less remarkable than Mary’s.” Barnes’ Notes adds, concerning Joseph as a “just” man: “The meaning is that he was kind, tender, merciful; that he was so attached to Mary that he was not willing that she should be exposed to public shame. He sought therefore, secretly to dissolve the connection, and to restore her to her friends without the punishment commonly inflicted on adultery” (see note on Matthew 1:19).

[2] Naming a child was of the utmost importance, and the Bible reveals instances where both mothers and fathers did the naming. In Jesus’ case, God, His Father, chose His name, and both Mary and Joseph complied. In that day, sons were often named during the circumcision ceremony. Scripture seems to indicate Jesus was called by His name from the time He was born.

The Story of Mary and the Birth of the King: Part 3

The End in Sight

It was the last day of a long, tiring journey. Five or so miles further, and Joseph and Mary would be in Bethlehem. At last, a respite from all the jouncing and jarring over hard-packed country roads. Just to stay in one place for a while—what a relief!

This wasn’t Mary’s only trip out of Galilee that year. Not so many months before, after her remarkable encounter with Gabriel, she had hurried south to the hill country of Judea to see her cousin Elizabeth[1] and share her wonderful news.[2] Would she ever forget Elizabeth’s greeting that day? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Her cousin already knew! Mary, her heart filled with adoration, humbly responded, “For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). The two of them, one, aged and past child-bearing years, the other,  young and a virgin, both pious, both miraculously pregnant and favored before God, spent three months together before Mary returned to Nazareth, and her future.

If she understood the prophecy in Micah 5:2, she knew it meant that she would make yet another journey—this time to Bethlehem, the city of David—where her miracle son, Jesus, would be born. How ironic that Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, and his edict, served as the impetus to get her there, and bring about the fulfillment of inspired words uttered 600 years earlier.

Bethlehem

Bethlehem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A place to stay

Joseph came to terms (after some angelic intervention) with Mary’s bewildering condition, and with her role in his life and in God’s plan. Now he had to ensure the safety and well-being of his very special charges. The first order was to find a place to stay. Bethlehem, normally a quiet little village of 1000 or so, was struggling to accommodate the numbers who had come to be counted in Caesar’s census.

Rules of hospitality dictated that villagers open guest rooms[3] in their own homes to travelers in need of food and lodging. In this instance, registrants might have had relatives who would take them in since they were in their ancestral home. That may have even been the case with Joseph and Mary. Otherwise strangers were to be welcomed wherever there was space.

Making room

Homes of that day were made of mud brick, and normally consisted of one to two rooms on one level and a terrace area containing a permanent stone manger for fodder to accommodate the family’s livestock. It was not uncommon that guests be housed there in the event of an overflow. It’s easy to imagine beds being rolled out in one area and perhaps a donkey or cow slumbering in another. Not only did their body heat add warmth for the household and the guests, the critters were kept safe from thieves and predators.[4] At morning light animals were led to pasture and the terrace floor routinely cleaned and swept.

It is likely that Joseph and Mary found lodging in a private home,[5] not in the usual guest room, but on just such a terrace level. They were warm and secure; food and water were available; they had access to help if they were still there when Mary’s labor began; and there would be a suitable place for a newborn in the security of the manger.

Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Ci...

Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Civica, on display in the Musei Capitolini (Rome). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Caesar’s due

Within the next several days they were obliged to make their way to the official place for registration. Mary found herself standing beside Joseph, waiting impatiently for the line in front of the Emperor’s bureaucrats  to shorten, shifting her weight from time to time, rubbing the small of her back to ease the strain, acutely conscious of the little life within her belly, pushing and nudging.

It wouldn’t be long now.

(To be continued.)


[1] There is some discussion as to whether Elizabeth and Mary were first cousins, or distant cousins, or how exactly they were related. The New King James version simply calls her a “relative.” The general opinion is that they were cousins.

[2] The Bible gives no details concerning Mary’s route, the mode of her travel, or the time it took. In looking at a map, it seems likely that months later she and Joseph retraced at least a portion of her travels, especially the part that avoided Samaria.

[3] Normally these were in the home itself, but sometimes a separate room was built alongside the house itself to house guests. A guest room could have been in a cave if the cave was part of the home itself, which was sometimes the case. The current tradition of Jesus being born in a stable in a cave, essentially isolated from the town and away from helping hands, does not jive with the cultural standards of hospitality of the day.

[4] In a visit to Switzerland some years ago, we noted houses with animals sheltered under the living area, so the practice has endured over time, not only in the Middle East, but other areas of the world as well.

[5]The phrase, “no room in the inn,” has led to a distorted view of the story of Christ’s birth, due largely to the interpretation of the Greek word, kataluma. According to Kenneth Bailey, in his article, “The Manger and the Inn,” this word can be translated several ways, including “inn,” “house,” and “guest room.” The author questions whether Bethlehem would have had a commercial inn since no major Roman road passed through it, stating that “small villages on minor roads had no inns.”

Bailey continues, “No unkindness or lack of hospitality is implied when the Holy Family is taken into the main family room of the home in which they are entertained. The guest room is full. The host is not expected to ask prior guests (or a recently married son) to leave.” His conclusion concerning lodging for Joseph and Mary is,“They find shelter with a family whose separate guest room is full, and are accommodated among the family in acceptable village style. The birth takes place there on the raised terrace of the family home, and the baby is laid in a manger.”

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