Was Jesus Born Away in a Manger at Migdal Eder?

I knew the traditional nativity scene had issues.

The three wise men who likely weren’t three and didn’t show up until two years later.  The star hovering just above the quaint wooden structure that looks more like an English countryside barn than the back end of an inn. The all-too-pristine setting after an impromptu birth.

I thought I had heard it all.

I even shared a take on The Christmas Message based on the traditional interpretation just a few days ago. I thought I understood the Christmas story pretty well after nearly four decades of being steeped in Christianity.

Until I heard the theory that Jesus was born away in a manger – but at Migdal Eder and not in a cramped and filthy cave behind a crowded inn.

Migdal What?!

Migdal Eder seems to have been known as the “Tower of the Flock” located not far outside Bethlehem proper. The exact location is unknown though several credible sites have been suggested. Heretical, I know. But bear with me. I think the imagery alone makes it a theory worth considering.

It was Pastor Mark Spansel who offered the theory on the birthplace of Jesus in a recent sermon at our church, although it seems to have been Alfred Edersheim (1899) who gets most of the credit for breathing relatively new life into it. In Chapter 6 of The Life and Times of Jesus Messiah, he allegedly wrote:

And yet Jewish tradition may here prove both illustrative and helpful. That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, was a settled conviction.

Equally so, was the belief , that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock.’ This Migdal Eder was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheepground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem.

A passage in the Mishnah leads to the conclusion, that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices, and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds.

The latter were under the ban of Rabbinism, on account of their necessary isolation from religious ordinances, and their manner of life, which rendered strict legal observance unlikely, if not absolutely impossible.

The same Mishnaic passage also leads us to infer, that these flocks lay out all the year round, since they are spoken of as in the fields thirty days before Passover–that is, in the month of February, when in Palestine [Israel] the average rainfall is nearly greatest.

Thus, Jewish tradition in some dim manner apprehended the first revelation of the Messiah from that Migdal Eder, where shepards watched the Temple-flocks all the year round. Of the deep symbolic significance of such a coincidence, it is needless to speak. [emphasis mine]

Here’s the theory in summary. There was place just outside of Bethlehem city, but still within the region commonly known as Bethlehem, where Passover lambs were kept by specially trained and purified shepherds. The lambs were born in this “tower of the flock” known as Migdal Eder under the watchful eye of the shepherds who would then inspect and either certify them for use as sacrifices in the temple or designate them to be released for common use. The new lambs would, according to some sources, even be wrapped in special swaddling clothes once certified.

The Biblical arguments for the theory of Migdal Eder cite the fact that the word translated “manger” in the Gospels could also be translated as “stall” or any holding area for animals — such as Migdal Eder. Cooper P. Abrams III argues this point:

The Greek word which is translated in our English Bibles “manger” is Yatnh phat-ne (pronounced fat’-nay). The definition of the word is of a “stall” where animals are kept and in Luke 13:15 is translated as such. In the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) the word means a stall or a crib (See Proverbs 14:4).

Proponents of the theory point to rabbinical writings and Micah 4:8 and other more debatable passages that you can explore as you desire.

And you, O tower of the flock, The stronghold of the daughter of Zion, To you shall it come, Even the former dominion shall come, The kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem. ~ Micah 4:8

What I Like about It

Here’s what I find fascinating about the theory. First, it places Jesus’ birth in the traditional location for Passover lambs to be born. Fitting, since He became the Passover Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world. Second, it explains how the shepherds knew where to go to find the newborn babe — and why it being wrapped in swaddling clothes would be significant clue. Finally, it explains why those shepherds were notified as it was their holy calling to certify Passover lambs upon birth.

Maybe Jesus was born away in a manger, just not like the one made in China on the shelf at Wal-Mart. But in the “tower of the flock”, Migdal Eder, surrounded by holy shepherds, set apart to certify the birth of the ultimate Passover Lamb.

Jimmy DeYoung has an overly dramatic and under-sourced video at You Tube on the subject that really isn’t all that helpful. And I confess to not being familiar with most of these sources. But the data seems sufficient to entertain the possibile imagery at work here. I welcome comments from others who’ve already explored this one deeper.

About Bill Blankschaen

Bill Blankschaen is a writer, speaker, author, content and messaging consultant, and general Kingdom catalyst. As the founder of FaithWalkers, he equips Christians to think, live, and lead with abundant faith.

His writing has been featured with Michael Hyatt, Ron Edmondson, Skip Prichard, Jeff Goins, Blueprint for Life, Catalyst Leaders, Faith Village, and many others.

Bill is a blessed husband and the father of six children. He serves as VP of Content & Operations for Polymath Innovations in partnership with Patheos Labs. He is the Junior Scholar of Cultural Theology and Director of Development for the Center for Cultural Leadership. He works with Equip Leadership, Inc. (founded by John C. Maxwell) and ministry leaders around the Pacific Rim to better equip ministry leaders there to lead with passion and greater influence.

  • sbgndfsd

    And why again does this matter or have anything to do with our salvation?

    • http://BillintheBlank.com Bill Blankschaen

      Did anyone say that it did? Except perhaps for the beautiful imagery that more perfectly illustrates truths at the core of Christ’s sacrificial atonement.

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  • DanO

    This is an interesting post. While some may see this as an attempt to somehow tarnish the traditional understanding of the nativity in Bethlehem, it clearly is not. Edersheim’s contributions used to be the standard reference works but not any longer. Too many of his sources are too late to accurately reflect First Century practices. However, the Mishnah and Targumim do reflect later interpretations of relevant Scriptures. They can be found online (Mishnah is at http://www.emishnah.com/ and the Targumim at http://targum.info/targumic-texts/).

    One does want to be careful in drawing connections and conclusions when the real solid evidence and scholarship is sparse. It is really something to reflect on just what extent our thinking about the nativity has been influenced by our traditions and reception of the stories and imagery of our youth. I discovered years ago that growing up in central Wisconsin influenced my thinking about the shepherds and their flocks out in the field. I think, as a child I had somehow conflated “The Long Winter” of Little House on the Prairie with the biblical story. Shepherds watching their flocks by night in the dead of winter. Sprinkle in a bit of Dickens’ Christmas Carol and off we go. The current 10-day forecast for Jerusalem and the area is in the mid-50s and rainy.

    • http://BillintheBlank.com Bill Blankschaen

      Good point! Not exactly a white Christmas in Bethlehem. You are correct that it makes for an interesting theory that uncovers more theological richness. With sparse evidence, that’s about all it can be. Nevertheless, it likely has just as much weight as the traditional ( at least for now) take on the nativity.

      Thanks for the comment. And Merry Christmas!

  • http://juan1715.com Juan Seventeen

    Thank you Bill for your research and article. Jesus was placed on a manger, the place (tipically made of rock) where the sheep fed, because he’s the bread of life and we must all feed from him. He was protected in soft cloth as the newborn sheep destined for sacrifice, not to be harmed and found with defect. The tower of migdal eder was the ancient remains of a royal compound part of King David’s palace, so as fitting for a new born king. Sheep were inpected at the base of the tower, following rabbinical rules for sacrifice. This is for those who believe that a fish had a gold coin in it’s mouth, waiting for the disciple that Jesus sent to pick it up. J.

    • http://BillintheBlank.com Bill Blankschaen

      Thanks for the commment, Juan. Not sure how to take your fish comment, but Merry Christmas!

  • Jose

    According to Genesis 35:19-21………

    19 So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). 20 Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb.
    21 Israel moved on again and pitched his tent beyond Migdal Eder.

    Migdal (Tower) Eder (Flock) thus Tower of the Flock (Micah 4:8). I am failing to understand how this was a royal compound part of King David’s Palace, when it existed generations before him. Unless it became a part of his compound after the fact and then it was the only part that remained afterwards.

    Thanks Bill great article. I too believe it is very plausible that this was the location of “the manger.”
    1) Sacrificial Lamb – according to the Mishnah chap. VII (d) states, that the cattle in this area if male, as whole offerings, and if female as peace-offerings. And those that were fit to be used for Passover offerings were.
    2) Swaddling Cloths – according to Strong’s swaddling is from sparganon “a strip.” From the base of sparasso meaning to strap or wrap with strips. As others have noted, not to be harmed but furthermore so that as they are learning to move not to harm themselves.
    3) Manger/Stall/Feeding Trough

    All beautiful imagery, if indeed how are Savior was introduced to those special Shepherds and the world. His birth, life, death, and resurrection has everything to do with our salvation. Does the specific location of “the manger” impinge on my belief in who He is, how He lived, what He did and how my life’s response to that should be or is? Or simply put, does it affect my salvation? Of course not! But then again that is not what this article set out to state or promote. That was a harsh response to a nice article of something to think on, mull over, meditate, and/or research.

    Again thanks Bill, definitely something interesting to study. I find it fascinating knowing more of what was common knowledge during the Biblical times/era. It helps to further illuminate the Scriptures. There is so much in Scripture that as we read we overlook just because it doesn’t “click,” the way it would’ve for first century Christians living then.

    • http://BillintheBlank.com Bill Blankschaen

      You are welcome. I certainly did not intend it to call into question the birth of Christ. I think it supports it more firmly, if true. But if not, it matters not a whit.

      Thanks!

  • kim

    thank you for your research. i agree with Jose. interesting reading and believable. The Bible has a lot of references and hidden meanings, i believe that the more we read scripture the more that is revealed to us. i like to keep an open mind. it’s unfortunate that i was programmed to believe certain things as a child. my parents were just trying to give me a happy/normal life at first i was led to believe Christmas was about santa, and the easter bunny, then i found out about Jesus in school. I was taught the manger was a stable with donkeys and horses and sheep and oxen… but as an adult i can explore and find new understanding and perhaps truth. and i hope it is because i am being led by Jesus, my shepherd… saved your article to my favorites, thanks again.

    • http://BillintheBlank.com Bill Blankschaen

      Kim,

      Glad to be of help. Just make sure in your exploration that the Bible itself remains as the final standard to judge all things.

      Thanks for following along.

      • Dave Powell

        Excellent point Bill about keeping the Bible as the final authority. I too have been preaching the Christmas story for decades and had some unanswered questions like why would swaddling clothes be a sign. Edersheims makes some very plausible points and offers some good answers to my questions. You may know this but you can get his book from Google Books.

  • Raoul Gamache

    The new lambs would, according to some sources, even be wrapped in special swaddling clothes once certified

    Bill, do you know the sources? I can find no source material for this practice.

    • http://BillintheBlank.com Bill Blankschaen

      I’m checking my sources…. Time travel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. :)

      • Raoul Gamache

        An additional observation. While Jewish tradition and Scripture does seem to indicate a Messianic significance to Migdal Eder, having a woman give birth in the actual tower would seem to create a Halachic problem in that the woman would be unclean until her purification and would therefore make unclean an area specifically cleansed for the processing of the Tamid. I need to research this a little more.

        • http://BillintheBlank.com Bill Blankschaen

          I did check with my source and he cited Edersheims (s?) work as the source for the swaddling clothes info although he didn’t recall chapeter and page # off the top of his head. If he is able to track it down, I will pass it on.

  • http://twitter.com/piecesofsilver Benjamin Carpenter

    I’ve been studying this myself since last fall! It definitely puts a different spin on things, but it also makes things fall into place for me as a believer. I think it was mentioned in a previous comment about the place of Migdal Eder and how it came to be (as a burial tomb and monument to Rachel) the tower of the flock. Interesting to me is that Rachel died there while giving birth to a son, whom she named “Ben-Oni” which means “son of sorrow”, which foreshadowed the life that Mary would come to know as she would watch her blessed Son be beaten and crucified before her eyes. Back to Genesis 35, after Rachel died (I’m assuming) Jacob changed the boy’s name to Benjamin, which means “son of the right hand”. Though we have earthly sin and sorrow, we have a Father that changes our name and claims us as His own. Surely Jesus is at the right hand of the Father in heaven and because we are in Christ and He is in us, we too will be there with our Father! Great stuff, man… thanks for sharing!!

    • http://www.BillintheBlank.com/ Bill Blankschaen

      You are welcome. Thanks for bringing such an energy to the study of God’s Word. Keep it up!

  • Lillie Ardel

    Wow! this is one great peice of historical information. I have been on the trail of the birth of Jesus for some time. This writing confirms what I have already learned. It is so amazing, the deapth of the Messiah’s birth. I am engaged in writing an inspired book on the complete life of Jesus. I will be publising 4 eBooks very soon on Amazon.
    by DELLAROSE… Posted by Lillie Ardel

  • Lillie Ardel

    My eBook “Jesus Born in a Cave” is now available on Amazon eBooks. The book provides the complete details of this Cave Birth of Jesus. I have published my 6 eBook series on Amazon containing the complete life of Jesus in great detail with brand new information.

  • Lillie Ardel

    Thanks for posting my words.

  • Lillie Ardel

    You took my message off and wrote what you please. I don’t like that. Now I don’t trust you.;

    • http://www.BillintheBlank.com/ Bill Blankschaen

      Not sure what you mean Lillie…

      • Lillie Ardel

        OK Bill, I will give you a public, I am sorry. For three days my posts did not appear on your site. They were there, then they went missing. Today they are back. I leave posts so searchers will see that I have a voice. All is well…

  • Greg Payne

    Bill, I’m just finding this as a part of some research that I’ve been doing around Christmas. Thank you for the article.
    I does seem plausible, and it thrills me that the Author of the story of our redemption cared so much about the details. It would make sense that the shepherds would know where to look for a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths. They wouldn’t knock on doors through the town asking, they would run as fast as they could to where they knew it should occur.
    It also seems to make sense that a traveling couple looking for shelter in an overcrowds town may find it just outside the city limits in a tower only used by the least desirable citizens. If it were used for any Rabbinic function, I would imagine it to be clean and dry. That’s about all you would ask for if you were in the middle of labor pains.
    I’ve always wondered why Mary had to make the journey. Would women be counted in the census? It must have been desperate circumstances for Joseph to have not left her with relatives so she could give birth in a place more familiar.
    Thanks to all who commented. I’ve learned much, and am more amazed and grateful this Christmas.

  • Preacher Gideon Kioko Mutiso

    thanks for the fact findings about the Messiah’s birth. Have been having trouble accepting even a Dec birthday for Jesus. Am still finding out the facts right.

  • Michelle Ann Brown

    Hey Bill, former Cornerstone mom here. I stumbled on your post after
    hearing a Joseph Prince teaching on the very same topic this morning. I was
    interested in looking into this “Tower of the Flock” theory and that’s when I saw your
    name addressing the same topic. This year has been a year filled with discovery, that every last jot and tittle of the word of God is indeed, divinely inspired. I am learning, to my fascination that nothing recorded in it was done so haphazardly, done to even the order in which the books recorded. It is filled with mysteries waiting to be unraveled by those who are hungry for the truth that sets the captives free. I agree that we have to stop taking the traditions of men by faith and study to show ourselves approved. When we do we will find out just how amazing God actually is, and how rich is His love for us.

    If you or your audience is interested there is another
    excellent teaching on the birth of Christ from Rabbi Cahn (author of the
    Harbinger) in a series called “End Time Mysteries”. Two of the CD’s
    address the mystery of the star and ties Jesus’ birth to the Jewish
    new year feast day “Nisan One” a Holy day as instituted by God but curiously enough the Jews no longer observe. I have an extra copy Bill, if you are interested in hearing it,
    that is if you haven’t already. Blessings to you and your precious
    family, and Merry Christmas to all.
    Michelle Brown

    • http://www.BillintheBlank.com/ Bill Blankschaen

      So great to hear from you, Michelle! Thanks for passing along the tips. Merry Christmas to all!


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