[The Bible is an “Eastern” book. It was written many years ago in the “East” which today we refer to as “The Middle East.” As such, there are many customs and idioms that are not familiar to the “Western” mind.]
This time of year, many Christians all over the world remember the birth of Jesus Christ. The story is re told in a variety of ways. There are nativity scenes, plays, sermons, etc. There is an element of the story that has been a bit misunderstood by some, and that is the “swaddling clothes.”
Most people are familiar with the verse, “…and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” If you are familiar with the account, then you know that Bethlehem was rather crowded that evening and all the “hotels” were full.
It is not within the scope of this article to examine exactly what the manger may have looked like and where it was located. it is significant to note, however, that the savior of the world, the most important human being ever born, had some very humble beginnings. The king of kings was laid in a manger.
They Weren’t Rags!
There are some who assume that because he was laid in a lowly manger, instead of a big fancy hotel fit for a king, that the swaddling clothes must have been some type of rags, or at best, some cheap clothes to keep him warm. Once again, an understanding of the customs of the East brings great insight to this great event.
The material itself was long strips of cloth, usually linen, perhaps two inches wide. Had Jesus been born in the best lodging available in Bethlehem, he would have still been wrapped in swaddling clothes. They were not rags, and certainly not used by poor people to wrap their babies because they couldn’t afford anything else.
I remember hearing someone teach that Joseph and Mary were so poor that they could only wrap Jesus in rags to keep him warm. Joseph and Mary couldn’t stay in an inn because they were poor, but because there was no room. And God, who handpicked them, would have certainly not picked the poorest people of Israel to raise His Son.
Salted And Swaddled
In the Eastern culture, whenever the son of a king or of a prince was born, they were always both salted and swaddled. I have read that there are still places today in the East where sons of kings or princes are both salted and swaddled. The salting of a newborn is in reference to the salt covenant.
The newborn baby would be washed with water that contained a small amount of salt. The salt represented truth and honesty. It was symbolic that the child would be raised so that he would grow up and have his words “salted,” that is, that he would say what he meant and mean what he said. He would speak truthful words.
While the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus only mentions the swaddling clothes, it is understood to the Eastern mind that he was both salted and swaddled. In the East, a child born to nobility or royalty would always be salted and swaddled, never just one and not the other. In fact, there is a verse in the Bible, an insult actually, concerning not being salted and swaddled.
And as for your nativity, in the day you were born thy navel was not cut, neither were you washed in water to supple you; you were not salted at all, nor swaddled at all.
Right after washing the newborn in water containing salt, the baby would then be swaddled. They would take the strips of cloth, in most cases linen, and wrap the baby from head to foot, leaving his face uncovered so that he could breathe. Because he was wrapped in this manner, the baby’s arms and legs would be held very straight.
The custom of swaddling represented that the child would be raised to be “straight” before the Lord, meaning that his life would be free from “crookedness.” You can probably now understand the great insult in Ezekiel 16:4. To say that a person of nobility was not salted and swaddled was to say that they were dishonest, crooked and had no integrity.
For How Long?
Swaddling clothes were only left on the baby for a short amount of time. It would be anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours. During that time, the parents would pray and offer their vows to God concerning the child that God had blessed them with. At the end of that time, the swaddling clothes were removed and the normal baby attire would be put on the child.
You can certainly understand now why the Bible says that the shepherds went in haste to see the savior. The angel had told them that Christ had been born in Bethlehem. They were also told that they would find the babe lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. They knew that they needed to get to the city quickly if they were to find and see the savior of the world.
It is absolutely amazing to think that the birth of God’s only begotten Son, the Messiah, the Christ, the savior of all of mankind, the king of kings and lord of lords, was laid in a manger at his birth. God chose to reveal this wonderful occasion not to people of great stature and importance, not to the high priest in Jerusalem or to any religious or political leaders.
He sent an angel to announce the birth of His Son to some humble shepherds. They were just living their lives, doing their jobs, and doing the best that they knew how to do. The Bible is true when it says that God is no respecter of persons.
One might have thought that the savior of the world, the long awaited Messiah, would have been born in Jerusalem instead of some little town south of the main city. One would have thought that it would have been a very momentous occasion celebrated by the entire nation. One would have thought that everyone would be aware of this great and wonderful event.
That’s what the Magi thought when they arrived in Jerusalem. In the next Eastern Eye, we’ll take a closer look at who the Magi were.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
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The Salt Covenant
(For more “Eastern Eye” articles, Click Here, or click The Eastern Eye tab above.)
There are a number of books that you can read to get insight on customs, manners, idioms and meanings from the Eastern culture in which the Bible was written. The best I know of were written by by Bishop K. C. Pillai. I have had the pleasure of listening to recorded teaching by him.
He wrote three books, and they are hard to find, and are usually over priced. But, if you want to you can check this link to see what Amazon has to offer. Light Through an Eastern Window
Another great resource that I have used for years is a book called, “Manners and Customs of the Bible,” by James Freeman. Mine was printed in 1972 and I know they have newer additions. For the newest edition, just click the link and it will take you to Amazon. The New Manners and Customs of the Bible (Pure Gold Classics)