(This article originally appeared in the December 23, 2007, issue of The Lookout, and subsequently was published in the December 18/25 issue of Christian Standard.)
By David Faust
The first time Bethlehem is mentioned in the Bible, it’s not a birthplace but a burial place. According to Genesis 35:17-19, Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel died while giving birth to their son Benjamin, “and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).” For Jacob, Bethlehem was a place of tears.
For Ruth, it was a place of new beginnings. She and her mother-in-law, Naomi. moved to Bethlehem after their husbands died. There amid the sweat and chaff of the barley harvest, Ruth found a husband. Soon Naomi had a grandson, Obed (the grandfather of David). Their sorrow turned to joy in Bethlehem.
For David, Bethlehem was a place of preparation. Tending sheep in the hills nearby, he learned patience, discipline, and courage—indispensable tools when he served as Israel’s king. More important, his years of obscure service on the farm provided time for uninterrupted prayer and communion with God.
Would David ever have written the 23rd Psalm if he hadn’t spent those long days and nights with the sheep? Some lessons we can learn only when we slow down, scale down, calm down, and quiet down. For David, Bethlehem was the place where God worked behind the scenes to prepare him for leadership.
For Micah, Bethlehem was a mysterious symbol of hope. Out of Bethlehem, he foretold, a “ruler over Israel” would arise to “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,” and “his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth” (Micah 5:2, 4). Jesus’ birth was still seven centuries in the future when Micah gave this prophecy—like predicting today’s events back in the early 1300s. And why single out such a small town for this royal purpose? Shouldn’t the Messiah hail from Jerusalem, the capital city and center of Jewish worship? And yet, the village’s name contains a hint of something special. In Hebrew Bethlehem means “house of bread,” a fitting birthplace for the one who said, “I am the bread of life.”
To Joseph and Mary, Bethlehem was an annoyance. Although they had ancestral ties to the town, they made their home 70 miles away in Nazareth. It was a nuisance to comply with government red tape by traveling to Bethlehem late in Mary’s pregnancy. Then upon arrival at the overcrowded inn, they had to take shelter in less-than-pleasant accommodations and place their baby in a manger—hardly an ideal setting for anyone’s birth, let alone the Son of God.
Bethlehem meant something terrible to King Herod. Troubled by the visit of the Magi, he inquired where the “king of the Jews” would be born. Familiar with Micah’s prophecy, his advisers pointed to Bethlehem, and King Herod instigated a wholesale slaughter of baby boys under age 2. Blood and tears flowed in the region around Bethlehem as one family after another lost an innocent child to the king’s self-protective wrath.
For Jesus, Bethlehem was a place of humility and purpose. “Being in very nature God,” he “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6, 7). The infant in the manger was also the Lord of the cross and the empty tomb. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see. Hail the incarnate Deity!”
Christmas evokes a wide range of emotions. To some it’s a time of deep sadness; to others a time for new beginnings. To some it’s filled with hope and excitement about the future. To others it’s an annoyance; they’re relieved and glad when the holidays are over. Through it all, the marvels of God’s redemptive plan sparkle in the darkness like lights from home on a snowy night.
What does Bethlehem mean to you?
David Faust serves as associate minister with East 91st Street Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana.