“And you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, little among thousands of Judah, out of you shall come forth to Me a Ruler in Israel whose goings forth are from old, from everlasting…” Micah 5:2
We probably know more Christmas lyrics mentioning the little town of Bethlehem than we know reasons why this biblical place, of all possible places, was in the Mind of the Father that His prophesied Son should be born there. From place to purpose, it told the family story.
Bethlehem was a strategic city, more a town by its size, wilderness to its east and more fertile hills to its north and west, and was a cross over in ancient caravan trade routes, where travelers from the Far East could lodge and head toward the straight route to Egypt or towards the coastal ports. Such a hub was like the southern Beersheva, where Abraham’s well reflected his missional mind to connect the nations passing through there to his vision of One True God. It’s no wonder then that a town like Bet-Lechem, House of Bread, would have an inn, known in the times as the Caravan Inn, and travelers knew where these stopovers were famously located.
So why here was Joseph compelled to register his family in Augustus’ census as the gospel accounts inform us? Matthew and Luke’s first two chapters each give us the relevant details that were more keenly understood by those in the culture and geography of the day.
The family story began in Abraham, from him to Isaac, and to Jacob, whose ‘house’ was built into twelve sons by Rachel and Leah. In Jacob’s return to the Promised Land (where God had directed Abraham) after his years with Laban, he struggled, wrestled, and pursued the Lord but Rachel died on the journey, giving birth to the last son, Benjamin. Jacob buried her in Ephrat, also called Ephratah, an outskirt of Bethelem. There was a well there, and caves that could be secured as burial places. Years later, the young man Joseph would be sold by his brothers ending him up in Egypt, and the children of Israel spent over 400 years enslaved in Egypt… But the twists in the story continue.
When Moses led the tribes out of Egypt into the wilderness and to the edge of Promise, two spies were found faithful among 12 – Joshua (Y’Hoshua) and Caleb (Kelev, Dog, son of a Kenite or Canaanite). These two saw what the Lord wanted to do and believed they could do it. God recognized their faith and gave Joshua the future lead and cited Caleb as one who had wholly followed Him, who would possess his promised land with his descendants. An eternal partnership had been forged through Abraham, the Lord, and the Land…now with Joshua and the children of Israel and with the adopted or engrafted obedient-spirited family of Caleb, who divided and possessed the land. Caleb, in his eighties when he headed out, asked for the most difficult area where the giants had terrorized the other spies, and was granted Hebron. His family conquered and possessed the area to include Bethlehem Ephratah, the ancestral area of Jacob.
And the family tale continues… Ruth’s story in the Judges Era ties the Moabite to Jewish history by her faith and obedience following Naomi back to, you guessed it, Bethlehem, where her beautiful story with Boaz unfolds. At the onset of the new union, the elders in the gate declare to Boaz, “We are witnesses, the Lord make the woman coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, the two which did build the house of Israel; and may you prosper in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem.” (Ruth 4:11)
Boaz and Ruth were parents of Obed, grandparents of Jesse, and great grandparents of David. Bethlehem was birthplace of King David, anointed there by the Prophet Samuel who “…did what the Lord said and went to Bethlehem.” (1 Samuel 16:4) Anointed long before he was crowned, David’s experience with the well there was why he so longed for sweet water of Bethlehem later in battle, such that three of his mighty warriors hazarded their lives to break through the Philistine garrison to get him a drink…but you may recall he poured it out like an offering to God instead. From the well of Bethlehem to his prayer altar before God, David valued his men, those waters, but most highly, his relationship with the mighty and merciful God who'd created the universe.
King David, who united the kingdom ruled both Judah and Israel, and his familial connection to the area is why his descendants Yoseph and Miriyam (Joseph and Mary) had to go to register there when she was about to give birth, in their civil obedience to Augustus Caesar’s directive. Generations after the lost throne and dominance among the nations, Israel had been relegated to Babylon and back, and now dwelt in the shadow of Roman darkness.
But the trade routes of Bethlehem-Ephrat didn’t just cross there because of family lines and geographic and military strategy, it was also the central place where sacrificial sheep were raised for slaughtering in nearby Jerusalem. Levitical ranks that maintained the purity of the offerings worked closely with shepherds (if not shepherds themselves), and night guardians observed from watch towers like the one mentioned again in Micah’s prophecy. “And you, O tower of the flock, the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come…” (Micah 4:8)
‘Tower of the flock’ meant something very specific to those hearers and to shepherds when angels appeared declaring the birth of the Savior in the city of David, a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths in a manger (Luke 2:11-13). They said immediately, “Let’s go to Bethlehem to see this,” understanding how lambs for Temple worship were swaddled and secured like calves for veal, protected, kept clean, in flocks carefully supervised and tended.
Sages of the Far East knew from two years worth of celestial signs and years of study of ancient prophetic texts as to where to find this baby, thus were Bethlehem bound, and when reported to jealous Herod, the tetrarch ordered the slaughter of Bethlehem’s children under age two to stop any progress of a king in Davidic lineage. Now you know why Jeremiah’s prophecy of Bethlehem said, "Rachel weeps for her children..." (Jer. 31:15)
The details are too many to be coincidental, and too specific to covenants with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and the land of Israel to do nothing other than show the intense love and faithfulness of God, to show His mind rich in mercies, a mind full of the remembrances of His Beloved covenant people, and for the Christian, a salvation (Yeshua, Hebrew for Salvation) that is complete, definitive, perfect, and absolute. All these things are the tip of the iceberg as we peer more deeply into the roots of our faith. And which two are you? Do you find your faith and struggles in the passages of Joshua & Caleb, of Ruth & Boaz, of Rachel & Leah, of Mary & Joseph, who had only the divine words to go by? We can find points of identification – not of division - all along this Bethlehem road, revealing a faith that’s not based on lineage alone but a faith in life and in death that there is One True God who unites and rules in a family whose hearts are one with His.
Let’s push back the jingles and the bells of this highly commercialized holiday season that drowns out all true meaning (doesn’t that even sound like a slogan or a line spoken by Cindy Lou-Who!) and spend some time drilling deeper into The Well of Life where the greatest gifts are truly found.
Photo Credit: Bethlehem Sunrise, May 2014, Alexander Gatsenko via Shutterstock.com