For this week’s Word Nerd Wednesday, Donna digs deep into the rich history of Jesus’ birthplace, Bethlehem.
by Donna M.Z. Hoover
The little town of Bethlehem or “House of Bread” (Hebrew – Bet Lehem) carries a weighty legacy laden with miracles, the birth of the Messiah, and a heinous murder spree. With a population of around 300 at the time of Jesus’ birth, this small town, about six miles southwest of Jerusalem, became a hub of activity after Joseph and Mary ventured there for a census. Ordered by Emperor Augustus, the census of Quirinius required citizens to return to their ancestral homes to register. Joseph was compelled to come as he was a citizen of Bethlehem, thought to possibly have owned property there.
At the time of the proclamation, the birth of the Savior was imminent, and although it meant traveling 100 miles by foot or donkey, Mary and Joseph made the trip together most likely because they would not want to be separated when Mary gave birth.
Most importantly, they were aware that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, thus fulfilling the prophecy given in Micah 5:2:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clansof Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (NIV)
Bethlehem had by that time become a footnote in the annals of history, though having once been known as the City of David, where the prophet Samuel anointed David to be king over Israel. It was now positioned to become a town most revered. The crux of eternity was centered on this tiny village and the events that would soon transpire.
Mary and Joseph made their arduous journey and arrived finally in Bethlehem, and here the story begins.
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”Luke 2:6 & 7 NIV
Nearby, ordinary shepherds were in the fields tending their sheep as they did every night, unsuspecting of the extraordinary, world-altering event that was transpiring in that unassuming town of Bethlehem. All at once, they were roused by a miraculous angelic manifestation.
“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”Luke 2: 9 – 14 NIV
Right there, amidst shepherds and sheep, a choir of angels raised their voices with heavenly hallelujahs proclaiming the deity of the new born king. It was a birthday celebration like no other. The stunned audience needed no further convincing, having been granted divine revelation through this spectacular holy encounter.
After the angels had ascended to heaven, the shepherds went to Bethlehem to witness what the Lord had revealed to them, finding the baby lying in the manger just as they had been told. (Luke 2: 15 & 16)
Attention was also being drawn from the East, where wise men (Magi) had seen the star (an indicator of the birth of the Messiah) and were compelled to come to worship the baby king. They came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:1)
King Herod was deeply disturbed and so he called together all the chief priests and scribes and asked where the Christ was to be born. Upon learning that it was Bethlehem of Judea, he secretly called for the wise men and inquired about the timing of the appearance of the star.
“He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”Matthew 2:8 NIV
After the Magi followed the star and found Jesus, they worshipped him, showering him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were then warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, but to go back to their country by a different way.
Likewise, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream instructing him to take Mary and the child to Egypt until further notice, as Herod was on the rampage, and about to bring great mourning upon Bethlehem and the nearby areas. In a jealous rage, he ordered all of the male children aged two and younger to be put to death.
In this, what the prophet Jeremiah foretold was fulfilled.
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”Matthew 2:18 NIV
Although Herod was unsuccessful in his quest to find the Messiah, he brought unimaginable grief to this small town of Bethlehem. Centuries have passed, but the echoes of loss have not been forgotten.
Today, Bethlehem is surrounded by fertile land, built on an aquifer that yields vineyards, almonds, and fig and olive orchards, and is home to over 25,000 people, known as Bethlehemites. Still, the economy is largely supported by visitors who are drawn to this holy place.
St. Helena, mother of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I, had a church built over the cave that was identified as the Nativity of Jesus between 248 and 328 AD. It was later destroyed and then rebuilt by Emperor Justinian (who reigned from 527-565 AD). The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest Christian churches in existence. Tourists from all over the world travel to see firsthand this hallowed ground where the course of history was altered over 2,000 years ago.
Last year, 15,000 Christians flocked to Bethlehem to Manger Square to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ amongst the revelry of drums and bagpipes on Christmas Eve. The annual celebration includes festive flourishes of a traditional American Christmas, a tree, holiday gifts, food, and merriment. Songs are sung, perhaps none more appropriate than a cherished tribute to this inconspicuous town itself, written a century and a half ago.
In contrast to the lively atmosphere of Bethlehem today, it was a tranquil and reverent Christmas Eve in 1865, that inspired the penning of one of Christians’ most cherished carols, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.’
Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest, traveled on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and was overwhelmed by his experience visiting the humble village that gave the world God’s most precious gift. He wrote the lyrics three years later for a Christmas Sunday school service, and his organist, Lewis Redner added the music. The song in its entirety is heavenly inspired, but the first stanza is a nice summation of the message:
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
Bethlehem has been revered through the ages and holds its place in Christian history as the birthplace of Jesus, the “bread of life” for the world.
“Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”John 6:35 NIV
Donna is just a girl taking notes, picking flowers, and pursuing Jesus. A freelance writer for Vacaville Magazine, she is currently writing her first book about the faithfulness and love of God in hopeless situations. She recently stepped into the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and started singing with a band – she still has to pinch herself to see if she is awake! Donna lives in Northern California with her husband, Steven and her two Ragdoll cats, Boodles and Tiki (AKA Princess Fluffypants).