Joseph and Mary did not travel alone. Mary, quite big in her last month of pregnancy, was accompanied by over a dozen aunts and female cousins. Joseph walked alone in front, followed by all of these women, who were chatting and giggling merrily about babies and ‘motherly’ things… A few minutes later the noisy entourage arrived in Bethlehem and were directed to the ‘sheep pen’ crowded with sheep. Soon Mary started labor. Joseph paced nervously back and forth in front of the stable while the women, several of them midwives, crowded around Mary to help deliver the baby. A short labor ensued, and soon the women all began a high shrill vibrating cry – the typical Ethiopian joy cry that announces the birth of every child in Ethiopia… Hearing the cry, Joseph ran into the sheep pen to see the newborn baby. (Duvall & Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 3rd edn, Zondervan, 2012)
Makes perfect sense… to an Ethiopian. Duvall & Hays explain, “As we in America portray the story, we fill in the silent gaps in the text with an Americanized point of view. In our world we deal primarily with nuclear family units (Mom, Dad, children), and so we have no problem with Joseph and Mary traveling by themselves… We are familiar in our culture with the scene of a young man and his pregnant wife rushing off alone to the hospital by themselves as she starts into labor… The Ethiopians, by contrast, have a different cultural experience with childbirth… The birth of a baby … is an extended family affair. Ethiopian relatives or neighborhood midwives (friends of the family) deliver the baby. To send the young mother on a trip without her female relatives is unthinkable, as is the thought of the young, inexperienced Joseph somehow doubling as an obstetrician.”
This is why I’m committed to doing theological education in places like Africa and India, rather than send emerging global church leaders to seminaries in the West. Because whose story, whose reading of the Bible, should they be taught? Duvall & Hays point out that both Americans and Ethiopians take liberties with the Christmas story to fill in what’s not said in the text with things that make sense in our own cultural context. As we read the Bible we inevitably read it through our own cultural lenses. It's challenging enough to help seminary students learn to separate what the text of God’s Word actually says from their cultural expectations of what it ‘should’ say and mean. But it’s even harder for African and Indian students if they have to grapple with American or European versions of those expectations. So much better to study the Bible against the background of each student’s own culture and the needs of their own Christian community. (And in fact, as Duvall & Hays point out, “Whose culture, do you suppose, is closer to that of the Bible?”)
As you know, after many years teaching in seminaries in Africa and India I’m now to be based with Serge’s team in Dublin, Ireland – the least evangelized English-speaking country in the world – as international Theological Education Specialist traveling out to teach in theological schools and advise in theological training alongside Serge's church planting outreach in Africa, Asia and post-Christian Europe. My passion is to help train emerging church leaders for Christ-centered, biblically-informed missional ministry, growing out of our shared experience of God’s overwhelming grace in our weakness.
No matter how you and others in your own community tell the story of Jesus' birth, may you enjoy the deep blessing of Christmas this year – the hope of rescue, reconciliation, and renewal that that vulnerable yet all-powerful baby brings to this broken world. He is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ (Matt 1:23).