During our Advent Bible Study, a few people were surprised when we saw an image that looked a lot like this one. It is a feeding trough, a manger, from the part of the world where Jesus lived. For many of us who grew up in northern woodlands, this is not at all what we have been taught or expect. For most of our lives we have grown up with the idea that the manger in which Mary and Joseph placed the baby Jesus was a wooden thing made with boards nailed into an ‘X’ on each end and this doesn’t quite seem right. For us, a people who are accustomed to being surrounded by trees, building things from stone seems unnecessarily difficult. Where we live, trees grow wild and we have to mow, trim, cut and work to keep them from growing where we don’t want them. Israel (and all of the Near East) is a different place. Take a look at the pictures and videos that are available, look at the pictures you can find in books about Israel. You will likely notice that in much of the country, trees are not common and often, where they are more common, they are tended and cultivated as food producing crops, not as building materials. In that part of the world, stone is a much more common building material… for many things. Stone is used not because it is easier or cheaper (it isn’t) but because it’s what they have.
I saw this image a year or two ago and I have had conversations about Near Eastern building materials before so this didn’t really surprise me. What struck me however came later when I opened this month’s issue of Biblical Archaeology Review and read an article on the Tomb of Pharaoh’s Daughter in Jerusalem. There, included in the article, were photographs of stone sarcophaguses (sarcophagi?) found in and near Jerusalem. I could not get copies of these pictures but they are similar to this one.
Before the front wall of this was broken out, it would have looked strikingly like a stone manger.
An argument could be made that tombs that contain this sort of sarcophagus were built only for the rich and powerful of Israel’s elite. Jesus would never have been buried in such a tomb… and yet… far more common in that time, even for middle class and poorer folks were burials in stone ossuaries, bone boxes, in which the remains of a buried person were re-buried.
Jesus came to earth to sacrifice his life and die on the cross for our sins.
Was his death and burial foreshadowed by the manger in which he slept on the day of his birth, or was it an accident?
Either way, it makes you think.