In nativity pageants all over the world, several roles fit well for those terrified of public speaking: cows, sheep, and the innkeeper. The innkeeper, in most dramatic renditions, has no speaking lines. Instead, the person must merely look sad, hold out their hand, and shake their head to say no.
Luke’s gospel tells us that Mary and Joseph laid Jesus in a manger “because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7, KJV). Some people are surprised when they find out there is no innkeeper in the Bible—and probably not even an actual “inn,” at least in the way we think of it.
Many experts in this time period argue that the word translated “inn” in our New Testament texts probably doesn’t refer to the Middle Eastern equivalent of a hotel or motel. The problem is not one of overbooked rooms.
New Testament scholar Darrell Bock suggests that the “inn” refers to any form of public shelter—usually a two-story house in which the lower story was for animals and the upper floor was for guests, or a one-story building with a stable attached.
The “inn” may have been the home of Joseph’s or another’s extended family in town—who welcomed them as guests but were unable to accommodate birth-giving in the upper rooms. In no first-century context would a Jewish family have countenanced such a breach of hospitality by turning away strangers, let alone extended family, into the night.
Regardless of what exactly Luke meant by the word “inn,” the larger point stands that not only was Jesus born into humble circumstances—placed in what was probably the feeding trough of an animal—but also that his birth was displaced by a crowd of people.
The crowding of public shelters in Bethlehem was no doubt due to the influx of people into the small town for the census, which Luke references at the beginning of the nativity passage. The political decree from Caesar Augustus was that all people must register in their hometowns (2:2–3). This story of people trekking into the City of David for a census should prompt us to recognize it as a callback to a previous biblical plot line.
After all, David himself had sinned against God by doing the equivalent of what Caesar Augustus mandated in Luke 2: counting the people. And in doing so, he brought a plague of judgment on his kingdom (1 Chron. 21:1–17)
David’s notable sins are clear to readers of his story—the sexual misconduct with Bathsheba, the arranged killing of her husband, and so on. But on this point, one that brings about anguished repentance in David, his mistake isn’t immediately obvious to us. What’s wrong with a statistical representation of people?
Daniel Heller-Roazen, a Jewish scholar in language and literature, illustrates the dangers of such counting by citing Rabbi Eleazar: “Whoever counts Israel transgresses a prohibition, as it is said, ‘Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured.’”
Implicit here is the idea that counting people—often done, directly or indirectly, for political purposes or military readiness—seeks to quantify by sight what God has promised by faith. Or it could be that the census was meant to replicate the world’s standards of power and strength—that is, through numbers and armies rather than through the covenant presence of God himself.
The sin of this counting, meant to create corporate solidarity, created isolation instead—as David begged for the curse of God to fall on him alone and not on the people (1 Chron. 21:17). Seeking to avert God’s judgment, David then purchased a threshing floor, where he built an altar to the Lord. There, God accepted the king’s offering by fire and ordered the fearsome angel to put away his sword (vv. 18–27).
The site of this altar, and later the temple, was the spot where Abraham had once offered up his son Isaac—the very forefather of faith through whom God’s promise to make the people of Israel as numerous as the stars of heaven, would come (2 Chron. 3:1).
In the shadow of a census, which was meant to showcase carnal might and multitude, God brought forth a sacrificial offering in an unlikely place. In the time of another ruler—Caesar Augustus—the house of David was the counted, not the one counting.
Thomas Merton, a 20th-century Trappist monk, saw the lack of room in the census city as a metaphor for our time. The end-time judgment, Merton notes in an essay reflection, was a time of crowding—a mustering of armies, a moving of mobs, a display of power.
“That which is to be judged announces itself, introduces itself by its sinister and arrogant claim to absolute power,” he writes. “Thus, it is identified, and those who decide in favor of this claim are numbered, marked with the sing of power, aligned with power, and destroyed with it.”
“Why was the inn crowded?” Merton asks. “Because of the census, the eschatological massing of the ‘whole world’ in centers of registration, to be numbered, to be identified with the structure of imperial power,” he answered. “The purpose of the census: to discover those who were to be taxed. To find out those who were eligible for service in the armies of the empire.”
He goes on to say that “the numbering of the people of God by an alien emperor, and their full consent to it, was itself an eschatological sign.”
But the point of the Incarnation was not the absorption of the person into a nameless, faceless mass. “It was therefore right that there should be no more room for him in a crowd that had been called together as an eschatological sign,” Merton writes. “His being born outside that crowd is even more of a sign. That there is no room for Him is a sign of the end.”
Merton complained that our age is one of crowdedness, an era in which our technological mastery and connectedness leave us with no room for solitude or thought—a time in which “the crowd” leads to more loneliness than ever.
Keep in mind, Merton observed this long before anyone had imagined an internet or an iPhone or a Metaverse. Merton foresaw that such crowding and “fullness” would end in emptiness, lifelessness, and alienation.
Can we deny that this is the case, especially when our identities are subsumed in the “power” of our political herds or our digital tribes? Who can deny that—in a time of the most concentrated power in human history—we feel weak, lonely, and lost in whatever crowd we choose to seek refuge?
“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited,” Merton wrote. “But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room.”
Christ’s place, Merton argues, “is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.”
Maybe there wasn’t an annoyed hotel supervisor at the nativity scene. Maybe the straw-filled manger was itself an offer of hospitality by some compassionate villagers. But what is clear is that Caesar’s quantifiable numbers did not bring good tidings of great joy. For that, we must look to the baby in a feeding trough, surrounded by sheep-herding nomads.
Instead of Caesar’s statistics, we find the kind of promise that results in a number no man can count—and instead of a place with no room, we will find a house with many mansions.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.