Miriam (Mary)

Miriam (Mary)

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Yosef, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Miriam.”
(Luke 1:26-27)

Today I want to look at just two of the events in Miriam’s life – the visit by Gabri’el, and Miriam’s response to what she was told; and the birth of Yeshua.

In the sixth month refers back to the previous verse, where Luke states that Elisheva kept herself hidden for the first five months of her pregnancy. So in the following month (which would be our December) Gabriel was sent from the presence of God to take a message to Miriam. In the culture of the time, most young women were betrothed by the time they had reached their mid-teens, so we can deduce from the verse above that she was in her early teens.

Miriam was just a normal girl from a regular family; she grew up in Nazareth, a small town in the Galilee. Luke calls it a city, mainly because there was no greek word for town – a bit like in America today where six houses and a dog kennel can constitute a “city”; in reality it was a large village. She came from a relatively poor background, even though Nazareth itself was in a region where there was wealthy industry, being near to trade routes from Egypt to Mesopotamia that passed through the hills of Galilee. So there was nothing special about Miriam, she was just a normal teenage girl, helping around the home during the day, grinding wheat and barley into flour, baking bread, fetching water from the well; and looking forward to her upcoming marriage to Yosef. Miriam had a strong faith. Yet, in fervently religious Nazareth with its high moral standards, she would hardly have  stood out at all, even in the eyes of those who knew her best. Besides, as a woman living in a culture where men counted most, she would be little noticed except by her closest acquaintances.

But God noticed her. There was something about her gentle nature and thoughtfulness, her simple faith, that had caught his eye. He had a very important job for her. So from the throne room of the third heaven, Gabri’el was commissioned by the Most High to take a message to her.

Gabriel greeted Miriam “Hail, O favoured one, the Lord is with you”. We could translate this opening salutation literally as "Grace to you who have been graced..." The angel opens with a double reference to grace. This is the basis on which God is dealing with Miriam. It was not because there was anything special about her – it was solely a sovereign choice of God to pour out his grace upon her for this task. Miriam’s first reaction was one of fear and wonderment. This is not surprising. She had never seen an angel before. Up to this point, she had been a very normal person living a very normal life in a very normal town. And yet, I don’t think that it was the angel’s appearance which troubled Miriam so much as what the angel said to her. She is told that she has been picked out by God for some special purpose.

Seeing the anxious expression on her face, the angel continued, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favour with God. Listen, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name Him Yeshua. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end”.

Miriam’s response was a simple question. Unlike Zachariah, she didn’t question what was going to happen, she is not doubting the truthfulness of the prophecy; her question was to do with her role in the prophetic announcement. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy - the Son of God. Listen, your relative Elisheva in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

The angel’s response seemed to satisfy Miriam. Her thoughts homed in on the last statement: nothing will be impossible with God. That was the promise. But notice the tense: it is a future tense. There will never be a time in the future when there will be anything that will be impossible for God. Miriam was faced with a decision. Could she believe that God is in control? Is God more real to her than any problems that may arise?

Meeting Gabri’el’s eyes with her own, Miriam answered from her heart, “Behold the bondservant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word”. Her ear was pierced, there was a “yes” in her spirit; Miriam willingly submits herself to the will of God. Despite all the unknowns, the fears, the “what-ifs?”; the shame, the rejection; the good news mingled with the bad news – yes God, YES!

What an example for us to follow. When God confronts us with a difficult, maybe seemingly impossible situation, do we look at the problem, or do we look to God? The promise to Miriam was “nothing will be impossible with God”. We are in the time-frame of that promise. Miriam didn’t have all the answers to the questions that were flooding through her mind. But she had the promise of God: it was enough.

Now let’s fast forward a few months and look at the birth of Yeshua. The traditional account goes something like this: Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, alone, with Mary riding on a donkey. They get there late in the day, and spend hours trying to find somewhere to stay. Unfortunately the inn is full, but the kindly inn-keeper takes pity on them and says they can stay in the stable. That night Mary gives birth to Jesus, and lays him in a manger. The same night an angel appears to some shepherds who are watching sheep, they are told the good news of the birth of Jesus so they leave their sheep and go down to the town and find Mary, Joseph and the baby. While they are there in the stable, three kings turn up, having been guided there by a star, then when they have all worshiped Jesus they go their own way. This is the story that is enacted at a thousand nativity plays up and down the country each year. The reality is very different: let’s look at what really happened!

Firstly, as I have said before, Miriam and Yosef travelled to Bethlehem some time before the birth of Yeshua. Travel in those days was difficult and dangerous, and they would not have wanted to leave the journey too near the expected time of birth – after all, babies sometimes arrived early! Now, how did they travel? In a previous post I outlined Miriam’s journey to the Judean hills to visit Elisheva her cousin. The journey to Bethlehem would have been made in similar a similar way, in company of one of the many caravans that went up from Galilee to Jerusalem. Miriam may have been able to ride on a donkey or pony, or she may have had to walk. Any mother will tell you, you do not make a 120 mile road trip, either on foot or on the back of a donkey, when you are 9 months pregnant! So they arrived in Bethlehem probably several weeks before Miriam was due to give birth.

 Where did they stay? Yosef was returning to what was effectively his home town. He may not have been born there, but it was his ancestral home through his “royal” antecedents. Yosef was returning to the village of his origin. In the Middle East, historical memories are long, and the extended family, with its connection to its village of origin, is important. In a situation like this a man like Yosef could have arrived in Bethlehem and told people, “I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, the son of Eleazar”and so on, the immediate response would have been “You are welcome – what can I do for you?”; most homes in town would be open to him. So they would have been staying with relatives in their own private home – more on that shortly. Now, if they were staying with relatives, where does the inn theory come from? It all centres around a bad translation of the greek word “kataluma”. Many of the older translations use the word inn, but this is completely misleading; the correct translation is guest room. And the whole phrase should be rendered “there was no place for them in the guest-room”. The fact is, there is a completely different word in greek which means inn - pandokheion – and this is the word that Luke correctly uses in Luke 10:34 – the story of the good Samaritan. So Luke clearly knew the difference between the two words. Bethlehem was a very small place at this time, and it is highly unlikely that there was an inn in the village anyway.

So, Yosef and Miriam were staying with relatives in a private house. A normal village house at that time would have consisted of either one large room, or sometimes there was a second room which was exclusively for guests – either on the roof or built onto the end of the house. The large room served as a family room where everyone would live, eat and sleep. This room was usually raised up, like a mezzanine or terrace, with the entrance at the lower level. This lower level is where the family’s cow or ox or sheep would have been brought in at night; the animals were brought into the house every night because they would have helped to provide warmth, and also to prevent them from being stolen.

We can throw a little more light on why Miriam and Yosef were housed in the family room, rather than the guest room. Note that what Luke actually says is that there was no place for them in the guest room (not no room for them). The real sense of that phrase is that the guest room was not suitable for their purpose. It was not the right place for a woman who was shortly to give birth.  This option admirably fulfils both the linguistic requirements of the text and the cultural requirements of the village scene. They find shelter with a family whose separate guest room is unsuitable, and are accommodated among the family in acceptable village style. The Jewish reader concludes, “Ah, yes—well, the family room is more appropriate anyway.” Thus, with the translation “guest room,” all of the cultural, historical and linguistic pieces fall into place. And God provides a place of safety for Miriam; childbirth was a risky process, and she would no doubt be apprehensive about what lay ahead of her. She would surely have received support and encouragement from those ehose home she was sharing.

Luke simply says “And while they were there, the time came for Miriam to give birth”. So they had been there for some time when the time came for Yeshua to be born. As in every culture in the world, the birth of a child is a special occasion. The idea that a woman about to give birth cannot find shelter and assistance from the village women in a Middle Eastern village, even if she is a total stranger, staggers the imagination. That is why the guest room was unsuitable – there would not have been any facilities for childbirth; space would have been cramped as most guest rooms were small. That is why, when the time came, Miriam went through her labour, and give birth to Yeshua in the family room of the house they were staying in. So as soon as she went into labour, the men were sent out, and the women took over! Miriam would not have been alone, the room would be full of women assisting the midwife – and Yosef would not have been present! A private home would have bedding, facilities for heating water and all that is required for any child’s birth. There is nothing to suggest that Yeshua was born at night: the shepherds came and visited at night because that is when they had been told of the birth.

What then of the manger? The text tells us, “She gave birth to her first son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” The traditional understanding of this verse in the Western world moves along the following path. Jesus was laid in a manger. Mangers are naturally found in animal stables. Therefore, Jesus was born in a stable. However, in the one-room peasant homes of Israel, the manger is built into the floor of the house. At the end of the raised part of the house, where the family room begins, would have been two mangers. All village homes at this time would have had them. These would either be recessed into the floor of the house, or sometimes free-standing structures that could be moved into place when required. So when the animals were brought into the house at night these would be at just the right level for them to feed from. Filled with fresh straw, it would have been a very comfortable and safe place for a baby to sleep while Miriam recovered from her hard work.

So there was no stable, no inn (therefore no inn-keeper!), and no frantic search for somewhere to stay. It was all exactly as God had planned it. The facts are all there in the bible passages, it’s just our Western culture that has obscured our understanding of the real events.

As we have seen, Miriam successfully and faithfully carried out her God-given mission. The prophetic promise given to Adam in Genesis was being fulfilled. It may not have looked like what we thought it looked like, but the end result was the same. In whatever circumstances, and whatever surroundings, Miriam brought forth her firstborn son, and eight days later, at his circumcision, she named him Yeshua. A royal birth in a peasant home, Immanuel had arrived!