Away in a Manger at Migdal Eder

researched and written by Donna Gawell

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For years, I’ve imagined Jesus’ humble birth and the manger scene all wrong. Like most people who grew up with an heirloom nativity set, I envisioned Baby Jesus in a tattered wooden shack surrounded by Mary, Joseph, shepherd boys, the wise men, and all the requisite animals: lambs, camels, cows, etc.

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My version of the nativity story was colored by my modern, Americanized understanding of Jesus’ birth. I was told Mary and Joseph were forced to seek a room in Bethlehem, where they were repeatedly told there was no room for them. A grumpy but somewhat sympathetic innkeeper probably pointed at the shabby wooden stable behind his building and agreed to let the poor couple stay there. Then, an angel told the shepherd boys in the fields about the birth, and they joined up with the wise men to adore and honor the baby and deliver gifts. It is a nice story but one colored by my western understanding.

The historically accurate story is not only more fascinating but also fulfilled prophesy and places Jesus’ birth in the proper cultural context. Perhaps, God intended for there to be no room in the inn.  Maybe, He wanted His Son to be born in a stone manger in a very special place: Migdal Eder, the Tower of the Flock as the paschal lamb of God.

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A tower similar to what Migdal Eder might have looked like

Scripture tells us Caesar Augustus issued a royal decree for all his citizens to go to the town of their ancestors to be counted and taxed in a special census. Joseph, as a descendant of David, traveled with his very pregnant wife, Mary, to Bethlehem. David, Joseph’s ancestor, was born in Bethlehem, where he served as a shepherd boy before meeting Goliath.

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A Modern Sheephold shows how the Levitical shepherds tended the flocks in the
fields of the Shepherds near Bethlehen in Israel.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem had a population of about three hundred and was the area where Levitical shepherds raised lambs for sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. These special shepherds were trained and tasked with the responsibility of discerning which lambs were suitable for sacrifice as only an unblemished lamb was acceptable. Continue reading

Caesarea Philippi: The Gates of Hell Will Not Prevail

Jesus brought his disciples to Caesarea Philippi before his final journey to Jerusalem, as described in the Gospel of Matthew. They had been together for almost three years and were followed by crowds wherever they went. Here, in this northeastern area of Israel not frequented by pious Jews, Jesus would have some private time to prepare his disciples for the inevitable.

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Jesus’ teaching in Caesarea Philippi would be the first time he spoke about his future church, and it seems curious why Jesus chose this pagan location for one of his most important lessons and revelations. Jesus, however, was a masterful, intentional teacher and storyteller. He must have selected this area for a powerful visual illustration of the disciples’ future challenges and responsibilities. In Old Testament times, Caesarea Philippi, then known as Banias, sat at the base of Mount Herman and was a pagan center of Baal worship. Eventually, the cult of Baal was replaced with the worship of Greek fertility gods and Caesar.

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At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus and his disciples were standing in front of the largest rock formation in Israel with pagan statues and at least fourteen temples in the background. Without understanding the uniqueness of this visual context, a person reading Matthew 16:13 might imagine the setting to be what classical painters of religious stories created. We can’t be too upset with these Renaissance artists as they had no opportunity to travel to the real setting.

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Figure 1 Renaissance Painting of Jesus handing Peter the Keys to Heaven  at Caesarea Philippi

The Ancient History of Caesarea Philippi

The early Canaanites worshiped Baal at Banias, and people were thrown into the “Gates of Hell” to determine guilt for a crime. Ferocious waters gushed from a very large spring of this limestone cave. In ancient times, the water was fast-moving and would have propelled the bodies over the rocks, and death was guaranteed. The waters filled with human or animal corpses must have been a frightening sight.

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Figure 2 The Cave of Pan today

To the ancient Greeks who settled in this area, the cave at Caesarea Philippi was the gate to the underworld, where fertility gods dwelt during the winter and then returned to the earth each spring. The people also believed the cave held the “Gates to Hades.”

At the time of Jesus, the most important god in Caesarea Philippi was Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and the wild. Pan’s hindquarters, legs, and horns are like that of a goat while his upper body was of a man. The Greeks believed Pan was born in this cave, and he is often associated with music and fertility. Each spring, the people of Caesarea Philippi engaged in wicked deeds, including prostitution and sexual interaction between humans and goats to entice the return of Pan. Continue reading