In praise of the innkeeper

That poor innkeeper at Bethlehem! For centuries the church has berated him for turning away a woman in labor and making her give birth in a stable. It is possible, though, that the innkeeper actually provided the warmest, safest, and most private place he could for Mary to give birth. Will we show the same level of hospitality for vulnerable persons arriving in our communities?


A modern painting in the chapel at Shepherds Field shows the birth of Jesus in a cave.

Bethlehem was on the highway south from Jerusalem to Hebron and Egypt. Along such a highway there were caravanserai, rustic inns for travelers and their animals, often with minimal privacy and with risk of crime.

Perhaps such an inn at Bethlehem was overbooked, and turned away Joseph and Mary. But when Luke 2:7 refers to the facility where there was “no place” for the visitors from Nazareth, it is not with the word inn (pandokeion). Instead, Luke uses a term (kataluma) meaning guest room or dining room.

Since Joseph had family roots in Bethlehem, it is likely that he and Mary stayed with relatives. Palestinian homes of the era typically consisted of one large room where the entire household lived, dined, and slept. If relatives in addition to Joseph and Mary also arrived needing lodging, the house would have been crowded and inhospitable for childbirth.

Today thousands of pilgrims to Bethlehem stream into Church of the Nativity, the sixth-century structure built where a fourth-century church once stood. Visitors descend into the church’s crypt—in reality, a cave. Here, by ancient tradition, Mary gave birth to Jesus. This is a scenario for how that could have happened:

People of ancient Palestine commonly built their houses against or on top of a cave in the bedrock. Cave rooms were cool in summer and warm in winter, affording safe shelter for people and animals. Mary and Joseph may have planned to stay at such a cave-house at Bethlehem, sleeping in the main room with a gaggle of relatives. But Mary went into labor, and the main room of the house “was no place” for Mary to give birth. Instead, caring hosts took Mary and Joseph into the adjacent cave where there was privacy and animal warmth.

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A woman kneels (lower left) to reach into the spot where, by tradition, Jesus was born. A scrum of pilgrims wait their turn.

It is hard to picture this humble scene when visiting Church of the Nativity today. Pilgrims crowd into the crypt, many so devout and moved by the holy site that they seem to jostle each other out of the way. Walls of the cave are garish with the barnacles of piety—candles, ornaments, precious metals. A silver star that once adorned the floor exactly where Jesus was born was stolen in 1847—a deed that helped trigger the Crimean War (1854-1856)!  

I visit Church of the Nativity whenever I can. But singing carols in a small cave at nearby Shepherd’s Field nurtures me more. Away from the crush of the crypt, I can better picture the unadorned and humble surroundings of Jesus’ birth. My mind turns to immigrants and refugees—millions around the world—who need basic shelter and safety. Will I do my part to show the hospitality that I believe unnamed hosts at Bethlehem showed to the mother of my Lord?

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with

Do you want to be made well?

With cancer in his middle-aged body and the prospect of lifespan shortened, Doug Brewer joined a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2014 while health permitted. Near the start of the Via Dolorosa—the traditional “way of suffering” where Jesus carried his cross through Jerusalem—Doug and fellow pilgrims visited ruins of Bethzatha (Bethesda) Pool. A man who had been sick for thirty-eight years once lay beside that pool until Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6)


At Bethzatha Pool, fellow pilgrims surround Doug Brewer with love and prayers. Others in the picture (clockwise starting with woman in black close to the camera) are Mary Lou Farmer, Hortensia Unternaher, Ruby (local tour guide), Shana Peachey Boshart, Roger Farmer, Martha Yoder, Randy Dalke, Karen Dalke, Helen Lindstrom, and David Boshart (leading the prayer).

Bethzatha Pool was known in ancient times as a place of healing. Some New Testament manuscripts say that “an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well.” The man sick for thirty-eight years must have been paralyzed. “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up,” he said to Jesus. “While I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”

Having others in church or society step ahead of them sometimes happens to persons with illness or physical challenges. “I have no one to put me into the pool” is another way of saying my community ignores me. In some faith communities, those with chronic illness feel judged as lacking faith or willpower, or even as having sin in their lives.

The man at Bethzatha Pool did not have a sustaining community. No one helped him into the water, and religious watchdogs were quick to bark when miraculously and wonderfully he was able to rise and carry his mat—but in violation of strict Sabbath rules (5:10).

Warm hands and heartfelt prayers

Someone in our pilgrim band at Bethzatha Pool asked Doug if he wanted prayer for healing. Soon we surrounded him with warm hands and heartfelt petition to God. No one presumed personal powers to cure; all of us entrusted Doug’s health to a loving Creator.

Two years later I inquired by email about Doug’s well-being. Turns out he was at death’s door in the interval, but survived. “By God’s grace and many prayers, I’m back to normal and feeling really good,” he wrote. “My cancer level has been at 0 for the past several months, so I’m not on any chemo at the moment.”

Praise God! A loving family and community walked with Doug through his own Via Dolorosa. Faith, divine power, and modern medicine converged to restore Doug. We do well to view all healing as a gift from God, without needing to distinguish between miraculous and natural recovery. We also do well to accept that sometimes, even with faith abundant and excellent medical care, we or persons we love remain ill or die.

The author of Sirach (a book the early church considered canonical), writing about 200 BC, gives counsel still good for us today: “When you are ill . . . pray to the Lord, and he will heal you. . . Then give the physician his place, for the Lord created him . . . There may come a time when recovery lies in the hands of physicians, for they too pray to the Lord that he grant them success in diagnosis and in healing” (Sirach 38:9-14).

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Thanks to Doug Brewer for reviewing this blog and giving me permission to publish. For a fascinating article on prayer and healing in an unlikely source, see “Mind over matter,” National Geographic, December 2016, pp. 30–55.

In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with

Whirlwind of betrayal and peacemaking

The whirlwind appeared so suddenly, and came so swiftly toward us on the dusty road at Tel Dothan, that I scarcely had time to take the lens cap off my camera. Then the little twister was upon us, blinding our view and rattling the car. Was the spirit of Elisha—who once famously lodged at Dothan—getting playful with us? After all, Elisha’s prophetic career began when a whirlwind swooped his mentor Elijah to heaven (2 Kings 2)!


Beyond the whirlwind are hills surrounding Dothan that Elisha saw filled with the army of the Lord.

Two fellow pilgrims and I had approached Dothan with an Israeli driver we hired to take us to biblical sites in the West Bank that once were part of ancient Samaria. Dothan today is a sizable tel—an archeological mound where multiple city ruins are layered on top of each other.

Betrayal happened here when the lad Joseph, sent sixty miles from Hebron by his father Jacob, found his brothers tending sheep at Dothan (Genesis 37). Jealous of Joseph’s favored spot in their parents’ hearts, the brothers contemplated killing Joseph. Instead, they sold him to slave traders bound for Egypt.

Reconciling imagination

Dothan appears again in the Bible in a peacemaking story. Israel is at war with Aram (Syria), and the Israelites repeatedly scoop Aramaean military intelligence. Assuming there is an informer in his ranks, the king of Aram angrily demands, “Who among us [is the traitor who] sides with the king of Israel?” (2 Kings 6:11).

One of his officers explains what is happening: Elisha of Israel has prophetic gifts that grant him foreknowledge of Aramaean troop movements. Determined to capture the pesky prophet, the king of Aram sends an army at night to surround the city of Dothan where Elisha is staying. In the morning Elisha’s servant sees that the city is besieged, and is terrified.

“O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see,” Elisha prays. Suddenly the servant has spiritual sight to see that surrounding hills are full of Yahweh’s horses and chariots of fire. The army of the Lord will protect Elisha and his servant!

Elisha asks God to strike the Arameans blind. When the enemy no longer can see, Elisha goes out and mischievously offers to “bring you to the man whom you seek.” The blind Arameans follow Elisha ten miles to Samaria, capital of Israel, where their eyes are opened and they see they are trapped. “Shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” gloats the king of Israel.

“No!” answers Elisha. “Set food and water before them . . . and let them go to their master.” So the king of Israel prepares a great feast for the enemy, then sends them packing—and the Aramaeans “no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.”

Justice concerns at modern Dothan

In the biblical narrative, betrayal and reconciliation swirl around Tel Dothan like a whirlwind. This storied spot could use some reconciliation today. A much-contested Jewish settlement nearby, deemed illegal by Palestinians and much of the international community, announced plans in 2016 to double in size. Houses adjacent to the historic tel now stand empty because of the continuing tension.


Tel Dothan

Our Israeli driver, fearing we could be mistaken as the other either by Palestinians or by Jewish settlers, did not want to linger at Tel Dothan. The whirlwind that engulfed us as we left Dothan seemed an apt metaphor of the continuing conflict. God grant this beautiful land something of Elisha’s reconciling imagination!

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with

A politician behaving badly


This is a view from the top of the “City of David,” a hill immediately south of today’s walled Jerusalem, where King David’s palace likely stood.  From this vantage point the king looked down upon Bathsheba bathing at a nearby house.

Stories of politicians and clergy using positions of power for sexual abuse are painfully familiar, a reminder that no leader is above the need for boundaries and safeguards. I ponder this as I look down on neighboring houses from the top of the City of David, a small spur of mountain immediately south of today’s walled Jerusalem. From this vantage point King David once snooped on beautiful Bathsheba bathing at a house below. David summoned the woman to his palace and took her to bed (2 Sam. 11).

Readers often assume that Bathsheba was naked when David spotted her, but the text does not say that. Over the time that this incident happened, Bathsheba was “purifying herself after her period.” This leads some interpreters to believe that David saw her performing the usual ritual cleansing a Jewish woman undertook after menstruation. Given the way women who survive abuse today sometimes are blamed, it is not surprising that some readers suggest Bathsheba was careless or immodest. But the narrative simply says she was bathing, and that might mean no more than washing hands and feet.

David’s violation takes place in spring, “when kings go out to battle.” David sent an army that “ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah [modern Amman]” (2 Sam. 11:1). Warfare typically is a male activity, and with depressing frequency its predatory character releases aggression that issues in rape. King David was in a conquering mood, and the switch from military assault to sexual conquest appears to have been easy for him. Countless women carry emotional and physical scars from such collateral damage in warfare.

Sexual sin quickly becomes complicated because of the web of relationships affected—spouses of perpetrators or victims, children of participants or children conceived in the union, faith communities or institutions of persons implicated, trust in the judgment of violators who exercise civic or religious authority. The temptation of perpetrators to cover up is overwhelming.

When King David learned that Bathsheba was pregnant, he tried to make it look like Bathsheba’s husband Uriah was the father. Failing at that, he arranged for Uriah to die in battle—a setup that amounted to murder. Lust, adultery, lying, murder—is this the king who wrote all those beautiful psalms?

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51). A superscript attributes these sublime words to David after he was called to account for his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12).

It is right for us to cherish this prayer of contrition. But David was on a steep learning curve if he could say to God, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.” No. David also sinned against Bathsheba, against Uriah, against every person in the kingdom who trusted him. Like anyone, David could receive forgiveness. But even divine pardon makes no one exempt from lasting consequences that sexual violation can have on individuals and family systems. The sword “shall never depart from your house,” God told David. There would be enduring trouble in his family (2 Sam. 12:10, 11).

Such is the sadness of sexual sin, and this story is a cautionary tale for all in positions of leadership and power. Learn to recognize danger zones in relationships. Do not meet in private with someone you find attractive. Adhere to an open door policy. End relationships that become risky. Own up to misconduct. Report abuse if you suspect it. Talk immediately with a qualified counselor if any of this is a struggle.

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

The two Joshuas of Jericho


Tel Jericho has a deep slash across it made by archeologists, exposing a thirty-foot wide stone tower from 8000 BC (bottom center, with a small dark grate over the opening to the internal stairway shaft). In the distance is Mount of Temptation, where by tradition Jesus withstood temptation to seize political/military power.

Anyone who grieves the loss of life through war in Syria today might also lament the slaughter that took place more than three thousand years ago at Jericho when Israelites crossed the Jordan River into Canaan. Israelites “devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (Josh. 6:21).

What remains of biblical Jericho today is a tel—a large sandy mound surrounded by the modern city. This tel is one of dozens of such sites in Israel/Palestine where cites were built, destroyed, and rebuilt—in some cases twenty or thirty times. Such mounds kept attracting residents because water usually was available and ready building materials were in the rubble.

Today a deep excavation ditch slashes across Tel Jericho, exposing a stone fortress tower thirty feet wide and almost as tall, with an internal staircase. Dating to 8000 BC, it is one of the oldest human-built structures on earth, symbolizing strength and culture.

The book of Joshua seems to validate Israelite conquest of Jericho and all of Canaan. God “hardened the hearts” of indigenous people in the region so they would resist conquest and “receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Josh. 11:20). I feel a surge of indignation when I read these words, then remember that I live in Indiana, named for peoples my European forebears slaughtered and displaced.

Uneasy as I am about these accounts of ethnic cleansing, I cannot excise Joshua from the Bible any more than I can delete the story of Indian removal from American history books. Regardless of how I interpret the Joshua story, it is an integral part of the “Shalom Arc” of salvation history that stretches from Creation to New Creation. I need to integrate the whole story of my faith and family heritage into wise and faithful living today.

So when I visit Tel Jericho, I go to a vantage point from which to see reminders of two Joshuas who visited the city. The first Joshua was Moses’ deputy, who took command of the conquest and slaughter. In a vision he personally encountered the divine military commander of the army of the Lord (Josh. 5:13-15). The mighty fortress tower now visible at Tel Jericho—a structure already millennia old when Israelites arrived—reminds me that here “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho.”

Then I lift up my eyes to hills overlooking Jericho, to what long tradition calls Mount of Temptation. There a second Joshua (spelled “Jesus” in the New Testament) resisted the temptation to use political and military power (Luke 4:5-8). The first Joshua came to Jericho with a sword, the second came to heal (Mark 10:46-52) and forgive (Luke 19:1-10).

The first Joshua consulted with a divine military commander before undertaking conquest, the second refused the armies of heaven by telling Peter, “Put your sword back in its place . . . Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:52, 53).

At Jericho two Joshuas wrestle in my imagination. In a world where Syrian armies and many others follow the military and spiritual triumphalism of the first Joshua, am I willing to follow the second into what may be costly love, peacemaking, and forgiveness?

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

In 2018 I plan to lead a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour for people with hiking boots, accessible to non-athletes like myself. Tentative dates are May 15-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and possibly hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls (yes, you can circumnavigate the Old City on top of the walls), trace the Triumphal Entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or with

True worship includes justice

Encased behind heavy glass, a five-foot menorah lampstand made of 24 karat gold stands in a courtyard overlooking the Western Wall and the site of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. The lampstand is ready for use in a theoretical Third Temple on a part of the Temple Mount (or “Noble Sanctuary”) where Dome of the Rock shrine now stands.

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A five-foot golden lampstand in a Jerusalem courtyard, built to Torah specifications.

The First Temple, built by Solomon, was destroyed by Babylonian armies in 586BC. Ezra and other returned exiles built the Second Temple a few generations later, and Herod the Great fabulously enhanced the structure at the time of Jesus. That magnificent temple lay in ruins after the fall of Jerusalem to Roman legions at the end of the Jewish Revolt (AD 66–70).

Both temples had a seven-branch lampstand crafted from pure gold: “The base and the shaft of the lampstand shall be made of hammered work . . . and there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it” (Exod. 25:31-32).

Armies of Babylon carried First Temple lampstands into captivity (Jer. 52:19), but those possibly came back to Jerusalem when Jewish exiles returned (Ezra 1:7–11). Roman soldiers took the Second Temple menorah to Italy. The ancient Arch of Titus in Rome today still depicts that lampstand being displayed in triumphal procession.

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A first-century sculpture of the recently captured Jewish temple menorah  being carried in triumphal procession is still visible today on the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum.

The modern menorah at Jerusalem is beautiful—and troubling. Muslims treasure Dome of the Rock shrine on the Temple Mount (or “Noble Sanctuary”) because it covers exposed bedrock from which Muhammed ascended to heaven. That same rock probably was within the temples of Solomon and Ezra. Building a Third Temple likely would involve destroying Dome of the Rock shrine, one of the holiest sites of Islam.

I am fascinated by utensils for the temple that modern craftsmen build to Torah specifications. But as a follower of the light of the world, I cannot support any project that would destroy the holy site of another faith. Nor do I accept the belief of some Christians that the Jerusalem temple must be rebuilt before Christ can return.

When Jesus was at Jacob’s well and discussed the importance of worship location, he said, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23, 24). Light that Jesus brings includes respect for people of other cultures and religions. True worship includes justice.

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425


Like the first syllable of shiitake

What would it take to make Saint Paul cussing mad? Fellow Jews or Christians maintaining barriers that kept others from full acceptance in the faith community, that would do it. Harsh language about such exclusion in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi makes me consider how easy it is to raise the bar in the church today for people whose background, culture, or life experience are different from mine.

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A Roman era public toilet at ancient Philippi still has two stone seats mounted above skubalon pits, and a trough for fresh water at the feet of users.

Recently I asked a Mennonite genealogist to enter my name into his database and see what emerged. A few days later he delivered an eighty-page notebook with charts and names of hundreds of my Mennonite Swiss and German ancestors. My biological forebears were among early European Anabaptists. It was my ancestor, Hans Reist, who had the dispute with Jakob Ammann in 1693 that led to formation of the Amish church. I am a descendant of Hans Herr, Mennonite patriarch of Pennsylvania whose 1719 house still stands as the oldest in Lancaster County.

Add to this Anabaptist family heritage the fact that I went to a Mennonite college, studied at three seminaries, hail from a long line of church leaders, and am ordained.

The apostle Paul would not be impressed. In his letter to Philippi, Paul rehearses his own religious credentials: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews . . . as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” All this status, of which Paul once was so proud, he now counts as “rubbish” (skubalon, Phil. 3:8).

Actually, Paul’s language is stronger than most modern translations allow. We should render skubalon in English like the first syllable of shiitake mushroom. Paul is frustrated enough to slip in a rude word that appears nowhere else in the Bible and only rarely in ancient literature. He is angry at himself and others whose legalistic or genealogical boundaries exclude Gentiles or make them feel like second-class members of the body of Christ.

Skubalon comes to mind when I find a Roman era public toilet among ruins at ancient Philippi. Relieving oneself apparently was a social occasion in the Roman world: eight or ten stone toilet seats, placed close to one another above skubalon pits, once lined walls of the small room. To clean themselves, users dipped a stick with sponge attached into a little trough flowing with fresh water at their feet.

Skubalon also comes to mind when I find monuments to spiritual pride or legalistic boundaries in my heart or in my church.  Let it be said that I do not look or act like the average Mennonite or average Christian on this planet. Today the median Mennonite in the world is a black African woman, and that is representative of the global Christian church. That reminds me to receive and welcome people into my local congregation who come from the global south or from cultural, educational, or linguistic background different from my own. What binds us together is sins forgiven through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and lives transformed by the power of the Spirit.

As a historian, I find family history fascinating and instructive. I am grateful for education I received. But if I ever start to confuse all of this with status in the church, it is time to review Paul’s words about all the entries in his religous résumé: “I regard them as skubala, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8–9).


© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Join me and others who love the Bible for a Peace Pilgrim tour of Jordan and Palestine on 8-19 September 2016. See