Great Cities of the Bible - Bethlehem

Bethlehem: The Biblical Setting

The little town of Bethlehem first belonged to women. Rachel died in childbirth near there while traveling through Canaan, and Jacob buried her just outside the town (Genesis 35:19). To this day, women of the area go to Rachel's Tomb to mourn for their lost children.

Ruth married into a family from Bethlehem. When her husband died in Moab she went with Naomi back to Bethlehem, where she met the landowner Boaz. The "town gate" where Boaz gained the right to marry Ruth was Bethlehem's business center (Ruth 4:1).

The Lord sent the prophet Samuel to visit a grandson of Ruth and Boaz, Jesse, who had eight sons. One of these would be anointed king of Israel. Samuel passed up the first seven, one by one. They had to send out to the fields to find the youngest, David, who turned out to be the chosen one (1 Samuel 16:1-14). This ruddy shepherd went from wrestling lions and bears in the pastures around Bethlehem to felling Philistines.

Once the Philistines had actually captured Bethlehem and were encamped there. David, hiding out with his small army in caves of the region, grew homesick. "Oh, that someone would get me some good old Bethlehem water," he mused. His three best warriors broke through enemy lines and drew some water for their leader. Shamed by their devotion, David poured it out (2 Samuel 23:13-17).

It was Micah who prophesied that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Messiah (Micah 5:2). The scholars of King Herod's court, centuries later, were well aware of this prophecy and directed the magi to Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem. (In fact, later in Jesus' ministry, some rejected him because they though he was born in Nazareth, and Messiah, by prophecy, should come from Bethlehem—John 7:42).

But Bethlehem will always be remembered as the birthplace of Jesus. Mary felt the pain of Rachel and the devotion of Ruth. And shepherds were minding flocks (in perhaps the same fields where David had run a thousand years earlier) when angels filled the sky and announced that a new king was born (Luke 2:1-20).

Your Great Cities Bible Study

"O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie."

It was just a little town; Micah's prophecy points that out quite clearly. "Though thou be little among the thousands of Judah" (Micah 5:2).

To this little town, a hungry Moabitess names Ruth came seeking bread. She was poor, she was a Gentile, she was a widow. But in the little town of Bethlehem she found much more than she had dreamed.

To this little town, a prophet named Samuel came, searching for a king for Israel. God rejected the obvious candidates and chose young David, whom everyone else had overlooked.

To this little town, Joseph and Mary came, seeking lodging. The inn was full and so Mary brought forth her first-born son in a manger. He was the Bread of Life for whom Ruth searched; the King of kings for whom Samuel searched; the haven of rest for whom Joseph and Mary searched.

It was just an insignificant little town, despised by many, overlooked by others.

Paul says that God often chooses the "low and despised" (see 1 Corinthians 1:28). The prophet Zechariah asks, "Who has despised the day of small things?" (see Zechariah 4:10).

God is not impressed with size. He delights in the wisdom of the ant just as much as the power of the elephant; He enjoys the beauty of the sheltered violet as much as the splendor of the sun-drenched sunflower.

Bethlehem, Ruth, David, Mary—insignificant perhaps—but they were all given splendor because they allowed themselves to be used by God.

Perhaps you fell like a Bethlehem—small, insignificant, overlooked, maybe even despised. Then be prepared, for someone may be coming to you, searching, and God may want to use you even as He used humble Bethlehem to meet those needs.

Of insignificant Bethlehem it is sung:
"The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight."

Though you too may feel yourself to be little among the thousands, may God enable you to meet the hopes and fears of someone this very day.

According to tradition, Mary gave birth to Jesus at the place of where the star is located on the floor. The tradition that the birth was in a cave is one of the oldest Christian traditions. Justin Martyr mentions it in the mid-2nd century, as does the Protoevangelium of James (also 2nd c.). Origen notes that the cave of Jesus' birth was pointed out in his day and no doubt this was the same place where the Byzantine church was erected.

The History and Archaeology of Bethlehem

Bethlehem was founded by Salma, son of Caleb (1 Chronicles 2:51). Its original name was Ephrath (Genesis 35:19); it was often called Bethlehem-Judah or Bethlehem-Ephratha in order to distinguish it from Bethlehem of Zebulun in Galilee. Rachel was buried near Bethlehem and David's ancestors lived there (see the Ruth 1).

After the division of the kingdom (circa 928 BC), Bethlehem was fortified by Rehoboam so that it would protect the southern approaches of Jerusalem. Stripped of inhabitants by the Exile (586 BC), Bethlehem was not re-inhabited after the return and remained a small, unimportant village.

In the New Testament times Bethlehem remained a small town, but the early Christians identified the grotto where Jesus had been born and other holy sites. When Hadrian destroyed Bethlehem in AD 135, however, the locations were completely lost. His destruction was so complete that few archaeological remains from before that time have ever been recovered. The holy sites were re-identified by Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century; any tradition with them today goes back to her identifications.

Although the land was conquered repeatedly in the following centuries, Bethlehem's fate was unusual. Spared by the Persians (AD 614) and the Arabs (AD 636), its citizens welcomed the Crusaders in 1099. It was generally treated benignly by its rulers, although its walls and moat were destroyed in 1489.

The Geography of Bethlehem

Bethlehem sits on a ridge of the Judean hills, just five miles south of Jerusalem. Although it is on the northern edge of the "desert of Judah," its altitude allows cultivation of figs, olives and grapes. On it way from Egypt to Jerusalem the main north-south trade route through central Palestine ran near Bethlehem, along the spine of the Judean hills.


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The Bible Study Hour, Great Cities of the Bible project. Revised 2009.
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