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Bethlehem

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2)

The first occasion in which Bethlehem is mentioned in history has been found in the Amarna letters written from tribal kings of Palestine to the Egyptian pharaohs probably sometime between 1400-1360 B.C. The ruler in Jerusalem complains that Bit-Lahmi has deserted to the ‘Apiru people, a word probably referring to the Hebrews. Bethlehem is about 9 kilometres south of Jerusalem just off the main road to Hebron and Egypt. A strategic position perched 750 metres above sea level, the town sprawls out along several limestone ridges like the tentacles of an octopus. To the east lies Beit Sahour which means the Shepherd’s Fields and the barren hills of the Judean desert. To the west are more fertile slopes around Beit Jala where corn and figs, olive fields and vineyards abound.

The town of Bethlehem is mentioned frequently in the Bible. Its location became sacred when Jacob buried his beloved wife Rachel by the road side near the entrance to Bethlehem. (Genesis 35:19; 48:7). It is possible that Salma, the son of Caleb, built the first Jewish settlement there (1 Chronicles 2:51). The town and surrounding fields also feature prominently in the romantic love story of Ruth and Boaz who became the great-grandparents of David (Ruth 1; 2:4; 4:11). The town grew in prominence when Samuel anointed the shepherd boy David, to be king of Israel there (1 Samuel 16:4-13). By New Testament times Bethlehem had come to be known as ‘The town of David’ (Luke 2:4,11).

Around 700 B.C. the prophet Micah predicted that someone greater than David would be born in Bethlehem whose origins, incredibly, would be earlier than his human birth (Micah 5:2). When the Magi came from the East searching for the one to be born king of the Jews, Herod consulted with the chief priests and biblical scholars, who it seems knew full well the significance of Micah’s prophecy (Luke 2:1-8; John 7:42).

Bethlehem is therefore unique. It is the place where Almighty God, the Creator of the universe, entered our world and became a human being. It is hard to comprehend the wonder and enormity of this fact. Words cannot improve on the declaration of the angels to the shepherds, “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11).

Under the Church of the Nativity, probably the oldest church in the world and best authenticated site in the Holy Land, is a simple cave. In the silence of this ancient site, best visited in the early morning, it is possible to pause and worship near the place where the Lord Jesus Christ was born. To enter the church one must first stoop low below the lintel. The tallest must stoop the furthest, only children can enter without bending down. What a lesson in humility.

For many, Bethlehem and the Christmas story is the place where they first begin to experience the meaning of that enigmatic phrase “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men…” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), for here in this place time, eternity and destiny meet in Jesus.

Incidentally, in Hebrew, Bethlehem means ‘The house of bread’. How appropriate that the One who said “I am the Bread of Life” should be born in the house of bread. On another occasion Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” (John 6:54-55). Let us indeed feed on Him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

This chapter is taken from my book, In the Footsteps of Jesus and the Apostles

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