Their journey ending with the birth of Jesus was a challenging one. Having traveled the rout many times, I invite you take this virtual trip with me.
From Nazareth they would have crossed over the mountains through Canna to the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee, approximately 18 miles. There they would have rendezvoused with others going south.
It was the norm for people to travel these routes in groups to avoid robbers. Usually a self-appointed guide/protector was paid a fee in order to go along with his group.
There is no donkey in the Bible account for Mary to ride. Walking, though drudgery, might have been easier for a woman nine months pregnant than riding a donkey. Mary would have been a teenager at the time and doubtless a hardy one, as most people of the time had to be to survive.
The route started on the west shores of the Jordan River. Just south of Beth Shean the party would have crossed the river to the east side of the Jordan into what is now Jordan. The route was easier and safer from there to Jericho where they crossed back, approximately 79 miles.
The temperature in this fertile green valley would have been mild. To this point the route would have been mostly smooth terrain. From Jericho to Bethlehem would have required going through the barren Wilderness of Judea, approximately 84 miles. Here especially the protection afforded by group travel would have been essential.
The total distance traveled was approximately 180 miles. Some persons suggest they went a shorter rout, but it would have gone through Samaria and they definitely would not have gone through that region.
Once they arrived in Bethlehem no regency would have been afforded them. An “inn” was simply a caravansary. There was one in Bethlehem which King David named for one of his generals. Such consisted of a plot of ground cleared of most stones out of which a perimeter “fence” would have been made. It restricted animals within it.
An inn was in no way anything like a hotel or motel. It was an outdoor walled off place where people and their animals slept together as they often did in the field. Within they were protected and had a bit of shelter.
The mountains around Bethlehem are porous, providing many caves. Some of these caves were used as dwellings and to shelter livestock. Often a cave would have more than one chamber. The animals were kept in the outer chamber and provided warmth for the family deeper within. This is similar to what Eskimos allegedly do with their dogs in their igloos. Such caves were called mangers.
There is no innkeeper in the Bible narrative, but there must have been some proprietor to allow Mary and Joseph to use the manger. It afforded more privacy than would have the inn itself.
I have visited that cave in Bethlehem more than 50 times. It is a humbling thing to stand there and think here, right here, the Word became flesh and came and dwelt among us.
Just outside that night an angel appeared with a special message that was good tidings of great joy. It entailed the potential for what we all long: “Peace on earth good will toward men.”
That is not a prophecy of peace. It is a prescription for peace.
The Rev. Dr. Nelson Price is pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church.