The manger was really a water trough carved from stone.
In modern times, most people have become used to picturing biblical events in terms of the society and material culture they know from North America or Europe, or even elsewhere. To a certain extent, they create the Bible stories in their own image in their mind, in their art, in their drama, in their music, and even in their literature. The result of that imaginative license is, in the case of the Christmas story, the familiar image of a wooden manger.
In the ancient Land of Israel, however, animal troughs were not made of wooden planks or poles lashed together. Limestone was much more plentiful in ancient Israel than lumber (as it also is today in modern Israel). Everything that could be made of that limestone was made of it. Buildings, from the private house to the king's palace, were built of the white stone. Most furniture was fashioned, in whole or part, of such stone. And as far as archaeological research has been able to determine, animal troughs were almost exclusively carved out of Israel's abundant white limestone.
Quite a few limestone animal troughs have been found by archaeologists excavating in Israel. The stone manger pictured in photograph #1 above is typical of the average design and dimensions. They were usually block-like in shape, standing between twelve and thirty inches high. The shallow basin in the top of the trough was only about six to eight inches deep, generally carved as a neat rectangular depression with a flat or slightly concave bottom. These troughs were used for watering animals.
The manger in which Jesus was laid, and which served as a sign for the shepherds to find him, was almost surely such a trough for water. This is because in ancient Israel there was no need for a feed box filled with hay. Domestic animals were able to feed on the plentiful grass that grew in the rocky hills of Judea. Grass was available all year long.
From January to April the natural grasses were green and lush. The grass became a golden color after it dried in the late spring heat, but was just as nutritious and available all summer and fall. When winter rains began in November and December, new green grasses were again generated. It snowed only rarely in most of ancient Israel, and snow generally melted within a day of falling, so grass was never covered for long. It was not necessary to grow fields of hay or straw to be stored for animals to feed on. Whether people owned donkeys, sheep, goats, or milk cows, all year long they simply grazed their animals on the plentiful grass around their towns and villages.
If a limestone water trough was meant for use by sheep, it was short, around twelve to fifteen inches high. This allowed sheep and goats to drink without straining their necks too far up or down. A donkey could also reach down to drink from such a trough. But if a man owned no sheep or goats, the trough for his donkey might be taller, as much as twenty-four to thirty inches high, providing an easier drink for the animal.
So the basin in which the newborn Jesus was laid, and which served as a sign for the shepherds to find him, was a water trough carved from limestone, like the one pictured in photograph #1. There would not have been any hay or straw in it, nor strewn round about it, for animals were not fed in that manner. In fact, other than a donkey, and perhaps a single goat, there were probably no animals present at all when Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Another thing about that manger which may come as a surprise is that it was a new trough, one that Joseph made himself. He cut and shaped the manger out of a large piece of Judean limestone right after he and Mary arrived at Bethlehem, so that his donkey could have water to drink. Contrary to popular tradition, Joseph was not a wood carpenter. He was a stone mason.
Watch for the next installment of The Stone Manger tomorrow on Meridian.