The very name Bethlehem immediately awakens thoughts of carol lyrics and the story of Christmas. Yet the tale of that little town reaches far back into history, when the Promised Land was just a promise. The village is first mentioned, almost as a sad footnote, in the itinerary of Jacob’s trip back from Haran with his growing family, only to have his beloved Rachel go into labor just outside Ephrath (Gen 35:16) and die while giving birth to the youngest of the patriarch’s sons, Benjamin. Her burial place is identified as Bethlehem (Gen 35:19).
Fast-forward five hundred years and Bethlehem was the hometown of Elimelech, who became the father-in-law of Ruth the Moabitess. Widowed, she eventually married Boaz and they produced Obed. Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David of Bethlehem the youngest son of Jesse and the eventual great king of Israel (Ruth 4:11-22). In this chapter of the town’s story lies the reason why Joseph of Nazareth and Mary (both with family ties to David’s lineage) had to journey back to Bethlehem for the census ordered by the Roman conquerors, which placed Mary in the town when Jesus was born (Luke 2:1-7).
In geographic terms, Bethlehem is situated in hill country five miles southwest of Jerusalem. Its name means “house [beth] of bread [lehem].” The village was also called Bethlehem Ephrathah (Mic 5:2), Bethlehem-Judah (1 Sam 17:12), and “the city of David” (Luke 2:4 KJV). It is mentioned about forty-five times in the Old Testament and eight times in the New Testament (all in the Gospels).
SMALL BUT SIGNIGICANT
Bethlehem symbolizes how God can use what is seemingly unimportant to make a lasting impact. Never confuse size with significance. Bethlehem’s location is insignificant, just off the major road leading to the Negev. But the events that have happened there changed history. David was born there and anointed as king of Israel (1 Sam 16:4-13); thus it is known as the city of David. Most importantly, Bethlehem is the place where Jesus was born (Matt 2:6; Luke 2:6-7). Jesus arrived, not in the holy city of Jerusalem, not in the major cultural center of Athens, not in Rome, the seat of government, but in the tiny hamlet called Bethlehem.
God had promised that David would always have a descendent on the throne. Before Jesus came that promise impossible. Being born in Bethlehem, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Micah that a ruler of Israel would come from there (Mic 5:2). Jesus was then the newborn and long-awaited King and Messiah. David put Bethlehem on the map, and Jesus made sure it would never be forgotten. The “house of bread” became the place of sustenance first for the Jews with David’s birth and then for all people with Jesus’ birth.
BIRTH AND DEATH
Bethlehem was often associated with death in the Bible. Its first appearance was mentioned in Rachel’s death. Upon hearing of the birth of Jesus (the King of the Jews), Herod the Great ordered the killing of all the male children age two and under in the town and surrounding areas. Yet Jesus’ escape from death was only temporary. The prophecy given by the angel to Joseph would eventually be fulfilled: “She will give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus [He Saves], because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Too often we focus on the baby in the manger, the happy hope that Bethlehem offered, and fail to properly recognize the significance of his death on the cross. The manger led to the cross. Because of his death salvation is made available. Jesus, the Bread of Life, was born in the house of bread so that we might have spiritual bread-eternal life.