There can be little doubt that we have before us here just such a lowly bed as that wherein the infant Saviour was laid. We read that Mary "brought forth her son--the firstborn ; and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." "In" here must be either literal, and mean the whole inn, or else be the trop of synecdoche--the whole put for the part--that is, in this case, the whole of the inn put for that part of it where travellers lodge, for it has two distinct parts. The inn of the East, the modern khan, or caravan-seray (literally "'caravan-house"), has a large open courtyard with empty rooms around it on two or three sides, where for a very small sum paid to the khangee, or khan keeper, the traveller is allowed to lodge, bringing with him his own bed, table, stool, fireplace, fuel, food, etc., and camping in the bare apartment. The animals of his caravan--not only those ridden by himself, his family, and his servants, but also the sumpter beasts, often a large number, that carry his tents, travelling furniture, baggage of all kinds, and if he is a merchant, his bales of goods--are tethered in the open central courtyard, or in some covered place set apart for this purpose, where the grooms and muleteers sleep. If all the rooms were full of travellers, this stable part would be crowded with strange animals. As there are no geldings in the East, many of these horses, mules, asses, and camels would be stallions, and the fights, stampedes, and confusion that would be constantly going on under these circumstances would render it an impossible place for Mary, or for the birth or cradling of her child.
Therefore, in all probability, the word "inn" must be taken literally, and the meaning be that the whole of the khan was full. There is no hint of a separate stable in a cave, as tradition teachers ; and when the wise men from the East arrived they found "the young child with Mary His mother," we are expressly told, in a "house" at Bethlehem. Unable to find accommodation in any part of the inn, and with all the Bethlehem houses thronged, they were thankful to find such poor shelter as the stable part of one of them could afford! Here doubtless the Saviour--thus from His earliest years on earth in deep disguise--was born, on a night towards the end of September, 8 B.C., and laid for comfort on the crushed straw in one of such mangers as are shown in our picture. But what must it have meant for a child to be born in such a place! No wonder it is "Luke, the beloved physician," in those simple words, which indicate how poor and afflictive from His first moments on earth were the surroundings of the incarnate Son of God: "She brought forth her son--the firstborn--and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger." (Luke 2:7)
When a child is born in the East it is washed in salted water and then swaddled. There is no doubt that the child Jesus would be treated in this respect like any other infant. Ezekiel strikingly alludes to this universal custom when, speaking of the kingdom of Judah, under the name of Jerusalem, and upbraiding it with the lack of proper spiritual nurture, under the figure of an infant neglected from its birth, he says, "Thou hast not been salted at all, and thou hast not been swaddled at all." (Ezekiel 16:4)
The swaddling clothes of Palestine to this day consist of bands of white cotton or linen cloth about four to five inches wide and some five or six yards long. The child's legs are laid together, and his arms by his side, and these bands are then wound round and round his naked body until it presents somewhat the appearance of a little mummy. A band is even passed under the chin and round the top of the head, by which the child is unconsciously taught the important lesson of keeping its mouth closed and of breathing through its nostrils. In our picture the swaddled babe is seen in the hammock-like cradle hung on the wall, so often used in these village houses. Imagination can hardly picture a lowlier state, and one of greater weakness and helplessness than such a swaddled fellahheen child laid in the rude manger of such a humble abode!