During the Christmas season, we are inundated with images of Bethlehem from Christmas cards or Sunday School material that depicts somebody's imagination of what Bethlehem looked like 2,000 years ago. Some Christmas cards depict Bethlehem as an oasis in the Sahara Desert with domed houses surrounded by palm trees. However, the first century BC/AD reality may be shockingly different from our traditional images of Bethlehem.
In 1985, while working on the Lachish excavation in Israel, I took a group of "diggers" to Bethlehem for a tour on one of our free afternoons. We hopped on the Arab bus #22 at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem and rode the seven miles to Bethlehem. When we disembarked at Manger Square, we were greeted with the hustle and bustle of the crowded market place. One of our diggers, Tina, a fourteen-year-old girl who came to dig with her grandfather, stood stunned and in a state of shock. She blurted out, "This isn't the little town of Bethlehem!" That's right, Tina; much has changed in the last 2,000 years.
The first century village of Bethlehem was located just east of the main north-south road running along the spine of the Hill Country of Judah. The road was called the "Patriarchal Highway" because Abraham, Isaac and Jacob traveled on it. The village was situated in a transitional zone between the fertile farmland in the hill country and the pasture lands of the Wilderness of Judah to the east of Bethlehem. The two agricultural ways of life met in Bethlehem, the farmer and the shepherd.
Bethlehem is first mentioned in the Bible during the period of the Judges. This well-known story is found in the book of Ruth. Famine struck the area and the family of Elimelech and Naomi migrated to the Land of Moab to the east of the Dead Sea. In due time, Elimelech and his two sons died. When Naomi heard that the Lord had visited Bethlehem and blessed the fields with an abundant harvest, she and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, returned to Bethlehem. In order to make ends meet, Ruth enrolled in God's "workfare" program and went into the barley and wheat fields to glean the grain that was left by the harvesters. The owner of one of the fields, Boaz, inquired about the identity of this new woman. When he found out she was related to a relative of his, he arranged for Ruth to work in his fields. This touching love-story ends with Boaz redeeming Ruth in the gates of Bethlehem, marrying her and having a child names Obed. The last verses of the book of Ruth lists the genealogy of part of the tribe of Judah, from Perez down to David, the first legitimate king of Israel.
Bethlehem is mentioned several times in the life of David. It was here that Samuel anointed David king of Israel for the first time (I Sam. 16:1–13). Later, when David fled from Saul, he was hiding in a cave at Adullam. While there, he desired water from the well by the city gate of Bethlehem. One problem—the city was under the control of the Philistines. This was no problem for three of David's "mighty men," who broke through the Philistine line and drew water from the well for David. Yet David, realizing these men had risked their lives in order to get this water, poured out the water before the LORD (II Sam. 23:13–17).
Toward the end of the eighth century BC, the superpower Assyria was threatening the Kingdom of Judah. The prophet Micah prophesied,
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting (5:2).
There are three points in this prophecy that should be noted. First, Micah singles out the place where the Messiah would be born, Bethlehem in Judah. At this time in Israel, there were two other Bethlehems in the land of Israel. One was in Lower Galilee in the tribal territory of Zebulun (Josh. 19:15). The other was in the territory of Benjamin, just north of Jerusalem. It was near this Bethlehem that Rachel was buried (Neh. 7:26; Gen. 35:16,19; 48:7; I Sam. 10:2; Jer. 13:4–7; 18:23; Hareuveni 1991:64–71). Second, Micah describes God's purpose for the Messiah. He shall be a ruler in Israel. There is a day coming when the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, shall sit on the throne of His father David and reign over the House of Jacob forever (Luke 1:32,33, cf. II Sam. 7:12–17; Ps. 110). Third, Micah describes the person of the Messiah. He was from of old, from everlasting. John begins his gospel with the eternality of the Lord Jesus (John 1:1–3,14).
The Lord Jesus was conceived in the virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit in Nazareth (Luke 1:35). In order for this prophecy to be fulfilled, Mary would have to go to Bethlehem. God, in His sovereignty, moved the heart of Caesar Augustus in Rome to declare a census in which all residents had to be enrolled in their own city (Prov. 21:1; Luke 2:1–3). Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, had ancestral roots in Bethlehem. Micah's prophecy was marvelously fulfilled when Joseph returned with Mary to his ancestral home.
Bethlehem means "House of Bread." On the night when Jesus was born, the village lived up to its name. The "Bread of Life" came down from heaven to enter human history in the "House of Bread" (John 6:35,51).
That night, an angel of the LORD announced to the shepherds, "for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11). These shepherds were the ones who provided lambs and goats for the Temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. They knew the importance of the shedding of blood for the atonement of sins. I wonder if they knew what John the Baptizer would say some thirty years later? "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The reason the Lord Jesus, the eternal Son of God, came to earth was to die and pay for all our sins, be buried and raised from the dead. He offers His righteousness and a home in heaven to all who would put their trust in Him alone for their salvation (John 3:16; 6:47; 10:11–18; Eph. 2:8,9; Phil. 3:9).
Yes, Tina, there once was a little town of Bethlehem, and you can still sing, "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!"