The Innkeeper

Sean O'Mordha   December 3, 2018   No Comments on The Innkeeper

Background

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One element of the story surrounding the birth of Jesus the Christ impressed on my youthful mind involved the behavior of the innkeeper in Bethlehem. Joseph of Nazareth and his very pregnant wife arrive having completed an arduous, ninety-mile trip which would have taken about five days, perhaps longer considering her condition. Claiming no room in his inn, he turns them away. In later years, interest in archaeology, history, and cultural changed my perception of the man – he was not a mean-spirited, greedy person as suggested by the teachers in my youth. This I wanted to convey by writing a fictional account of the birth of Jesus the Christ.

The principle characters central to this story are Bethlehem, Cyrenius, Joseph, Mary, and the innkeeper. What do we know of them?

Bethlehem, also called Ephratah by the compilers of the stories found in the Tanakh (the Jewish scriptures containing the Torah and words of the prophets AKA Old Testament) and the Christian NewTestament, is an old, old community. The region seems to have been first settled 11,000 years ago according to recent archaeological discoveries. The Canaanites built a temple to the Akkadian god of fertility, Lehem, sometime in the 3rd millennium. This is believed to have been located on what is identified now as the Hill of the Nativity. People erected houses around it which would have been known as Beyt Leḥem, or “House (Temple) of Lehem”.

Later, the Philistines located a garrison there. Why? The area around Bethlehem is very fertile land which grows almonds and olives for oil and can support domesticated animals. More importantly, beneath the ground is an enormous aquifer. By 200 BC the Bethlehem area became Jerusalem’slifeline supplying, produce, meat, wool, and drinkable water.

The Tanakh first mentions Bethlehem as the place where the matriarch Rachel died and was buried. According to the Book of Ruth, the valley to the east is where Ruth of Moab married Boaz. Their son, Obed, fathered Jesse who in turn fathered David. Bethlehem is where the prophet Samuel anointment David as King of Israel. While Matthew and Luke provide lineages for Jesus, it appears Matthew’s line traces that of Joseph (while not Jesus’ natural father, he is considered his legal father). Luke appears to trace the lineage of Mary. Both were descendants of David. That puts Bethlehem in place for the birth place of Jesus and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy concerning the messiah.C

Cyrenius (in the New Testament) is Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (c.51 BC – AD 21) appointed legate or military governor of Syria which included the province of Judea. Coming from an “undistinguished” family, he rose in rank and favor with Augustus Caesar through military victories. Charged with taking the second census for the area, he was sensitive to the hatred the Jews had toward their pagan overlords. Jewish law forbid being counted. By making it a tax avoided a widespread revolt, they would pay a certain amount which he then translated into a headcount. An astute move. The Jews were allowed to obey their law, he gathered the census Rome wanted, and pickup up a few sheckles to pay for it.

Joseph lived in Nazareth some ninety miles north of Bethlehem. Entrusted by G-d to raise Jesus to manhood, by gleaning the scriptures we know he was a devout Jew. His age at the time is a toss-up; however, by custom, he may have been about twenty. This guess is based on the norm of the time for men to marry in their late teens. Also, a wide age spread was frowne upon.

Joseph is portrayed as a “righteous” man, a devout practitioner of Jewish law. This is shown by the purification offering following the birth of Jesus, circumcision at eight days, and presenting the baby at the Temple. He and his family traveled each year to the Temple in Jerusalem, a five-day trip each way. When Jesus appeared before the men in the Temple at age twelve, he demonstrated a profound knowledge of the scriptures. Joseph would have had asignificant input in the boy’s education.

Mary also lived in Nazareth and most likely would have been fourteen or fifteen at the time of espousal to Joseph. To clarify, the marriage custom at the time included two ceremonies each marked by a celebration. At the espousal or betrothal, the woman became legally married but remained in her father’s house. The second ceremony was the wedding. At this time she moved in a colorful procession from her father’s house to that of her husband where the marriage was consummated. As neither were a widower or widow, the time between these two ceremonies would be about twelve months. If something wentsouth during this time, the separation would be easily accomplished. In the case of Mary becoming pregnant without Joseph’s participation, he could have made a public declaration. He obviously loved Mary a great deal and planned a quiet separation until receiving an angelic visitation.

The Innkeeper is the central figure in this story and most overlooked and maligned. Nothing is known about the man or his family. What Christians do not care to understand or chose to ignore is that he would have honored Arabic custom like Abraham. That custom is to provide shelter and food for travelers.

References:

  1. Erich S. Gruen, “The Expansion of the Empire under Augustus” in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume X: The Augustan Empire, 43 BC – AD 69. Cambridge University Press, 1996. page 157.
  2. Hayes, John Haralson; Mandell, Sara R. (1998). “Chapter 3: The Herodian Period”. The Jewish people in classical antiquity: from Alexander to Bar Kochba. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 153–154.
  3. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 1.
  4. Losch, Richard R. (2005). The Uttermost Part of the Earth: A Guide to Places in the Bible. Wm. A. Eerdmans. p. 51. 
  5. Moore, Bill H. The Annotated Books of Moses. Vol. 1: Genesis. Celtic Publications. 2001.
  6. Wikipedia contributors, “Roman consul,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Roman_consul&oldid=862754782.
  7. Worrall, Simon. The Little Town of Bethlehem Has a Surprising History. National Geographic. Dec. 23, 2017.
  8. Talmage, James E. Jesus the Christ. Chapter 8. Deseret Book Company. 1922.
  9. Wikipedia contributors, “Quirinius,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Quirinius&oldid=851749815
  10. The Old Testament. Genesis.
  11. The New Testament. Books of Matthew and Luke.

With this background, let the story of the Innkeeper begin.

The Innkeeper

Sean Patrick O’Mordha

Azriel greeted the Hebrew month of Aviv with open hands. This was the beginning of a new year and the month of redemption but not the one he expected.

By Roman decree, the descendants of King David converged on tiny Bethlehem for taxing. To accommodate as many as possible the innkeeper’s family moved to the roof. Except for the money, he would have thrown the lot onto the streets. They were boisterous and rude, pressing his family to meet their demands.

Storming into the kitchen, Azriel’s eyes bulged as cheeks flamed with anger. A bull of a man, he was ready to explode, until his eleven-year-old, Hedva, offered him a ladle of water. He found it impossible to lookat his daughter and remain angry.

“Only a few days longer,” Hedva said.

“I don’t know if I can last,” he said, sitting upon a three-legged stool. She patted his hand as his thick chest heaved. “I thought this Roman tax a blessing, bringing us money, but it has brought these . . . ” He stopped abruptly trying to find a term to describethe inn’s guests without offending God. There wasn’t any so remainedsilent.

Frustrated, exhausted, and defeated, Azriel took a pot of stew out to where the travelers were eating. That’s when he saw him, a tall, slender, young man. Another looking for a room. Even if there had been space, he determined to take no more.

“I seek a place,” the man said, trying to be heard over the tumultuous noise.

“We are full.”

“We come from Galilee.”

“I said we are full,” Azriel shouted, trying to be heard.

“. . . is there . . ?”

“What?” Azriel couldn’t understand.

He spoke again. It was impossible to hear. Azriel escorted him onto the street to get rid of him. The traveler repeated his question. “We have traveled far. Is there no place to find shelter?”

“Doyou realize how many people have come because of this Roman order? My family sleeps on the roof to provide room for these, these . . . ” Azriel again stumbled for a word to describe his insufferable guests that wouldn’t offend God, and again gave up. “All of Bethlehem sleeps on their roofs while others take over our homes. You won’t . . . ” Azriel stopped mid-sentence as his eyes fell upon a young woman seated on a small donkey. “Is that . . .?”

“My wife. She is with child,” the man said.

“How soon?” Azriel lowered his voice.

“Very soon. The journey has been difficult.”

Azriel’s tone became more conciliatory. “Look. There really is no room in my house, and you’ll not find a place except under the stars, and that is not good. With the honest come the dishonest. She needs something private.” Azriel tried to think where they could possibly lodge, then said with great hesitancy, “There is one place. I’m sorry, but it is all I can think of. There is a small cave behind the house. I truly wish I could think of something better.”

“No, that will be fine. Thank you.”

“Micha’el,”Azriel said to his son who had followed them outside. “Clear a place in the stable for this man and his wife.” Then to the new guest, “Rest on the bench by the door. Inside is no place for a woman.”

As the man helped his wife from the donkey, Azriel returned inside. “Gilead. Help Micha’el clean the stable. We have guests staying there.”

“Stable? Have you become so greedy that now even the animals must give up their place of rest?” his wife scolded.

“It is the man’s woman, Malka. She is with child. There’s no place left in the town, and she is near to giving birth. I couldn’t allow that under some tree or among these . . .,” he waved a hand toward the mainroom, “these men.”

“Give birth? Absolutely not. Ehud, help your father finish serving the food. Hedva, take over the kitchen. Oh, Azriel, a stable? To give birth in a stable? The poor child,” Malka dried her hands and hurried outside.

As Gilead rapidly swept the last of the dung from a section of the shelter, Micha’el scattered a generous portion of new straw. With all ready, Malka approached the couple.

“Come, child. It’s not much, but it is clean,” she said. The young womantook one step and faltered, clutching her stomach while exhaling a gasp. Malka put an arm around the girl’s waist. “It’s not far. We will go slowly. Micha’el, I need Hedva’s help.”

The boy ran into the house, returning with his sister before the visitors covered half the distance to the cave. The woman stumbled again, crying out softly. The contractions were coming more frequently. The man handed the bed mats he had been carrying to Hedva and swept his wife into his arms. Hedva rushed ahead to spread the mats on thestraw where the man laid his wife. He watched as Malka knelt and patted perspiration from the girl’s pained brow. Concern for his wife etched deep lines across the husband’s brow as he knelt at her side. Taking one delicate hand in his, he silently offered a prayer of thanks for finding someone who knew what to do.

Meanwhile, Micha’el had gone to the donkey. Scratching the creature’s head, he looked toward the cave and worried, too. “Come, little one. Let me find you a place to rest, too.”

Placing the donkey in a nearby stall with grain and a bucket of water, Micha’el stared as the woman cried out in pain. He had added extra straw, yet worried it wasn’t enough.

Malka began issuing orders. “Micha’el, fetch clean cloth from the kitchen. Gilead, bring water, then all you men wait outside.”

Inside the inn Azriel and his older sons worked feverishly until their guests settled for the night. Finally dropping exhausted onto the kitchen stool, a deep sigh brought him peace. After a time, he rose and went outside to check on the new arrivals.

Approaching the entrance he saw a lamp with two people huddled in its golden glow. Drawing closer, he could see Micha’el seated on the ground next to the man. Stopping a few meters away, he gazed in awe. The boy held a scroll in his lap. The man had one hand on his son’s shoulder while holding a lamp in the other so the boy could see. Azriel listened as the man uttered a prayer and then encouraged Micha’el to read from the Prophet Isaiah.

“For unto us a child is born, unto us, a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful . . .”

Azriel interrupted. “What kind of work do you do in Galilee?”

“I am a carpenter.”

Azriel gasped. “I am so sorry. Had I known you were a holy man, I would never . . .” The cry of a newborn stopped him. “From that sound, you have become a father, and by the strength, it is a healthy child. Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” the man said.

Shortly, Malka appeared, looking tired, but smiling. “It is a healthy boy, praise be to our God. Goto your wife.”

Azriel moved next to his wife and put an arm around her shoulders to draw near. She rest a weary head on his arm.

“Do you remember when Ehud arrived?” she said.

“How could I forget? I did not sleep for weeks until he figured out the difference between night and day.”

“Father, I’ve never noticed that star before,” Micha’el said, pointing upward.

“A good omen,” Malka said.

Invited inside, Micha’el looked down at the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger he had filled with fresh straw. Looking on with an infectious smile, he asked, “What will you name him?”

“The Lord, praise be His Holy name, instructed that he will be known by the Greek form of Joshua. His name is Jesus,” the man answered.

About to make a comment about the overt influence of their previous overlords, Azriel heard a commotion outside. Going to the entrance he potted a group of shepherds walking directly toward the stable.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“An angel of God, praise be His Holy name, appeared as we tend our sheep and said that the Messiah has been born this day in the City of David. As a sign, we shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Then there appeared a multitude of the heavenly host saying, Glory to God in the highest, and peace be on earth, and good will toward men.”

Dumbstruck, the innkeeper turned to stare at the cave. Slowly dropping to his knees he began to praise God, tears coursing down brown cheeks. The Messiah had come.

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