Bethlehem – An Amazing Small Town Story

Bethlehem, one of the oldest cities in the world, should be as anonymous, if not forgotten, as nearly all the other small Judean towns of ancient Palestine. But a string of connected events over hundreds of years would not allow that to happen. It became the home town of a king, the subject of a very famous prophecy, and the town where the Gospels say Magi came to worship the child Jesus.

Sometimes called Bethlehem Ephrathah in the Old Testament or Tanakh, Bethlehem means “house of bread” or “the dwelling of bread” while Ephrathah means “fruitful.”[1] Practically a suburb of Jerusalem, it is located just 5 miles to the south.[2] Today’s Bethlehem in many ways seems to be no different than it was while under Roman rule:

“…Bethlehem, today as it was 2,000 years ago, grottoes are used as livestock pens.  Mangers are carved out of rock.  Here, in the bulls-eye of this volatile place, ringed by Jewish settlements, imprisoned within a wall, encircled by refugee camps, hidden amid a forest of minarets, tucked below the floor of an ancient church, is a silver star.  This, it’s believed, is where Jesus was born.” – National Geographic, December, 2007.[3]

By the time Judea came under Roman rule, Bethlehem had already been a town for over a 1000 years.[4]Jacob’s wife, Rachel, died there some 2500 earlier while giving birth to Benjamin, Israel’s 12th son, and was buried in the district of Ephrath just outside of Bethlehem.[5]

Seven generations removed from another of Jacob’s son, Judah, was born Boaz of Bethlehem, famous in Hebrew lore for his story of redemption, a goel.[6] The story involved another Bethlehem resident, Naomi, and her Gentile Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth.

Naomi’s husband and both sons had all died leaving Naomi and Ruth as widows.[7] Boaz discovered Ruth gleaning in his barley field and, through this encounter, Hebrew law allowed Boaz to redeem Naomi’s lost inheritance through marriage to Ruth.[8] To Boaz and Ruth was born Obed who would have a son named Jesse mentioned in two messiah prophecies by the prophet Isaiah.[9]

Samuel, the prophet, some 3000 years ago was sent by God to Jesse’s house in Bethlehem. His mission was to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the king-in-waiting to replace King Saul who had rejected God.[10]

Jesse’s youngest son, David, was anointed as God’s choice to be the next king of Israel. The giant slayer went on to become the most famous king in the nation’s history. Six prophecies by three prophets would say the future Messiah would come from House of David.[11]

Generations after David’s reign Micah, the prophet, would again shine the spotlight on Bethlehem Ephrathah prophesying the future Messiah would come from that little town of the tribe of Judah. Translations of the Micah prophesy in both English and Jewish Bibles are in harmony… 

Micah 5:2 “But thou, Beth-lehem Ephratah,, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be the ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.” – Harkavy Jewish Translation[12]

A 1000 years after King David’s rule, in his royal lineage Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem under bizarre, unforeseen circumstances. His parents were compelled by decree of Roman Caesar Augustus to travel 90 miles on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem just days before his mother was to give birth.

Today, some 2000 years later, the famed little town of Bethlehem is the backdrop for the Christmas Nativity scene where Jesus was born in a stone enclave used as a barn and laid in a manger for his crib, according to the Gospels.

Bethlehem – an unbelievable small town story with a legacy going back three millennia. Home town of King David, the place of a messianic prophesy and the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth, the most controversial personage in human history. An improbable coincidence or a fulfillment of prophecy?

REFERENCES:

[1] Ryrie Study Bible.  Ed. Ryrie Charles C.  Trans. New American Standard.  Moody Press. 1978. Footnote on Micah 5:2.   The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi’s Commentary.  Micah – Chapter 5 commentary.
[2] Map of Israej (untitled)l.  Google Maps.  n.d.  <https://www.google.com/maps/@31.743205,35.21307,13z?hl=en>  Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book VII, Chapter XII. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
[3] Finkel, Michael.  “Bethlehem 2007 A.D.” National Geographic.  December, 2007. 
[4] Matthew 1:5; 1 Chronicles 2:10; Ruth 4:21.
[5] Genesis 35:10; 48:7. “The Story of Abraham.”  The History of Israel.  n.d.  <http://www.israel-a-history-of.com/story-of-abraham.html>  Pratt, John P.  “Divine Calendars Testify of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”   JohnPratt.com. <http://www.johnpratt.com/items/docs/lds/meridian/2003/abraham.html> “Rachel’s Tomb.” Chabad.org. n.d. <http://www.chabad.org/special/israel/points_of_interest_cdo/aid/602502/jewish/Rachels-Tomb.htm
[6] “Salvation” and “Hosanna.”  Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011.  link Isaiah 44:6,  23, 48:20, 52:9, 59:20.   NKJV. Net.bible.org. Ruth 2:20 Hebrew text “wnlagm.” <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=01350>
[7] Ruth chapters 1-4.  Ryrie. “Introduction to the Book of Ruth.” Matthew 1:1-5. 
[8] Net.bible.org..Ruth 2:20 Hebrew text. “goel.” Dictionary.com
[9] Isaiah 11:1-2; 10.
[10] I Sam. 16: 4. 2 Samuel 16:11-13. I Chronicles 2:13.
[11] Isaiah 7:14; 9:6; Jeremiah 23:5; 33:14-17; 33:20-26; Zechariah 12:10-12. 
[12] “Micah 5:2.” Jewish Awareness Ministries. 2012. <http://www.jewishawareness.org/wp-content/uploads/Micah-5-2-notes6.pdf>

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Five Big Promises God Made at Mt. Sinai About “the Place”

Mt. Sinai is famed as the place God gave the 10 Commandments to Moses. What many may not realize is that God also made five big promises at Mt. Sinai about “the place” that were key to the Israelites’ destiny and to the future Messiah.

The place – what were these promises?  God promised to lead the Israelites to the land that He swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as the place for their descendants to possess; the place to establish a kingdom of the nation of Israel; the permanent place for His Name to dwell; the exclusive place for Israel to observe the Passover; and the place for the judgement seat of Israel.[1]

God just didn’t say exactly where the place would be. Great faith in these promises was required for a fledgling nation of people who had just fled the only life they had ever known – slavery in Egypt.

Spies on a recon mission found the land promised to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Canaan to be occupied with many enemies, their kings and their militaries. Moving to that place seemed an impossible task, especially for a ragtag nation of former slaves without a military. In fact, doubts and lack of faith by the Exodus generation at Mt. Sinai would cost them from seeing God’s promised land.[2]

A kingdom required a king and his dominion over a land with boundaries, but the Hebrews were a people isolated in the desert wilderness without a king or a country. Everywhere they would trek, the local inhabitants would go to war to defend their lands to keep out the Israelites. Every kingdom had a seat of the Throne, the monarchy’s base of power, which for security reasons must be located in a fortified city protected by a military. If there was no king, no land, and no fortified city for the Throne, how could there be a kingdom?

For a permanent place for the Name of God to dwell required a temple to replace the temporary Tabernacle tent and its Holy of Holies. A temple also required protection from heathen enemies inside a defensible, centralized city. Fundamental to a theocracy, this temple had to be located in the nation’s capital.

According to the Law, the Passover was to be celebrated at its appointed time requiring the sacrifices to be offered by the priests of God at the central place of worship. For a perpetual place to observe the Passover required a permanent sacrificial alter in close proximity to the Temple with enough open space surrounding it to accommodate tens of thousands of people and priests.

A high court to judge the most important and most complicated cases of the nation in the place God chose, by its definition, was to become the judgement seat of Israel.  As the highest court in a theocratic government, it had to be located in close proximity to the seat of the Throne and the Temple.[3] This highest court was part of the hierarchal judicial system structure previously implemented by Moses.

None of these promises seemed like even the remotest reality to the Israelites who, after 400 years, were starting from scratch after escaping from under the harsh rule of Pharaoh. Yet against all odds over the coming centuries, these five prophetic promises did become a reality.

Israel conquered its enemies and took possession of the land promised by God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, where each of the 12 tribes of the sons of Israel were allotted their own land apportionment. Israel’s now formidable military protected the nation even before the establishment of a kingdom.

A king, the most famous in Hebrew history, was born in Bethlehem in the lineage of Judah fulfilling the royal prophetic blessing of Judah by his own father, Israel. The giant slayer, King David, conquered and occupied the fortified city of Jebus or Salem, soon thereafter called Jerusalem. The city became the seat of the Throne of David over the kingdom of Israel.

King Solomon, son of David, built the Temple still known to this day as the Temple of Solomon, its Western Wall remnants a most holy place for Jews today.[4] This new Temple was consecrated and blessed by Solomon where the first sacrifices offered on its permanent alter were burned by fire sent down from heaven.[5]

The Passover was observed at its appointed time with the sacrifices offered by the priests of God on the permanent altar at the new Temple.[6]Annual pilgrimage to The Passover would resume after the Babylonian captivity at the Second Temple until Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome.

Lastly, the judgement seat of Israel, the highest court in the land for both civil and criminal cases, was established in the capital city of Jerusalem. Civil cases were judged in the Hall of Judgement, initially decided by the famed wisdom of Solomon, on the porch of the King’s palace.[7]

Built into the northern wall of the Temple was the Chamber of Hewn Stone. It served as the meeting place for the 70 elders of Israel, later to become known as the Great Sanhedrin.[8] In a theocratic government where God’s Law serves as the criminal code, the highest level of criminal offenses, including some capital death cases, were judged in this Chamber.[9]

God’s five big promises at Mount Sinai laid the ground work for the appearance of the House of David and the subsequent prophecies of the Messiah tied specifically to its legacy. Once the Throne of David legacy was established, over the coming centuries prophets Isaiah, Zechariah, Jeremiah and Micah would reveal specific prophecies announcing the Messiah would come from the House of David, son of Jesse, of the Tribe of Judah, the son of Jacob.[10]

Isaiah’s prophecy of “My Servant” described a cruel sacrificial-type judgement resulting in a death verdict which, during the period of the Second Temple, could only be rendered in the judgement seat of Israel, Jerusalem.[11] Zechariah’s prophecy predicted God would comfort the descendants of David in the city of Jerusalem as they mourned over the death of the one whom they had pierced, their depth of mourning as for the death of a first born only son.[12]

With 100% accuracy of fulfillment of all five big promises made by God at Mt. Sinai about “the place” – from the Exodus to King Solomon’s reign, which in turn fulfilled the prophetic promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah – what are the odds it was all just a gigantic coincidence?[13]

REFERENCES:
 [1] Genesis 17, 22, 35, 49; Exodus 23, 33; Deuteronomy 12, 16, 17.
[2]  Numbers 14.
 [3] Exodus 18; Deuteronomy 1, 17, 19; Numbers 11.
 [4] 1 Kings 6; 2 Chronicles 3.
 [5] I Chronicles 6; Leviticus 9; Nehemiah 11.
 [6] II Chronicles 8.
 [7] 1 Kings 3, 4, 7.
[8] Exodus 18; Deuteronomy 1, 17; Numbers 11; I Chronicles 19.  Shachter and Freedman.  “Introduction to Sanhedrin.”  Soncino Babylonian Talmud. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/index.html>  Ariel, Yisrael. “The Chamber of the Hewn Stone.” The Temple Institute.  2014.  <https://www.templeinstitute.org/illustrated/hewn_stone_description.htm>  Ariel, Yisrael. “Blueprints for the Holy Temple.”  <http://www.templeinstitute.org/blueprints-for-the-holy-temple.htm
[9]  Schoenberg, Shira. “Ancient Jewish History: The Sanhedrin.” 2017.  <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-sanhedrin>   Shachter, J. and Freedman, H.  “ Sanhedrin.”   
[10] Isaiah 7, 9; 11; Jeremiah 23, 33; Zechariah 3, 6, 12.
[11] Isaiah 52-53. Sanhedrin 16a, 17a. Shachter, J. and Freedman, H.  “Sanhedrin.” Josephus.  Antiquities. Book IV, Chapter VIII.14; Book XX, Chapter IX.4.  “Ancient Jewish History: The Beit Din.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2017.http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-beit-din>
 [12] Zechariah 12.
 [13] 2 Chronicles 6.

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Jerusalem – the Most Improbable City on the World Map

An ancient, world-famous city with no source of natural wealth or strategic value – no harbor, no navigable waterway, no major trade routes, militarily isolated with valleys on all four sides, not even a natural water source within its walls – Jerusalem, an improbable city in the desert.[i] How could Jerusalem play a role in weighing the possibility that Jesus is the Son of God?

Happenings of great religious significance began at the place about 1000 years before the future city would ever come to be called Jerusalem. Its entire existence is based almost solely on its religious heritage. A 2000-year history leading up to the era of Jesus of Nazareth produced a legacy of kings, births, deaths, prophecies, angels, sacrifices, blessings, war, exile and restoration. Were these various happenings somehow leading to a particular point in time?

It began when one day God instructed Abram to move to an unnamed location. By faith, he and his family resettled in a strange land near Salem.[ii] During these years, God blessed Abram, changed his name to Abraham and promised that he would become the father of a great nation.[iii] His miraculous son, Isaac, would be born as the first step in fulfilling God’s promise.

Isaac would pass on his father Abraham’s blessing to his own son, Jacob, in-spite-of his deception to steal the birthright blessing from his older paternal twin brother Esau. Fleeing for his life from Esau, it would not be until 20 years later when Jacob decided to return home near Salem. The night before returning from exile to the land of Abraham, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel.[iv]

Many years later, Israel along with his 11 sons and their families moved to Egypt under the protection of his long lost son, Joseph, who had become the second most powerful man next to Pharaoh. Over the next 400 years the 12 tribes of the Children of Israel became slaves of Egypt.

Meanwhile, during the absence of the clan of Israel, the Jebusites occupied Salem, the city now being known as Jebus.[v]

Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt through the parted Red Sea to Mount Sinai where he received the Law from God. Not just the Law,  it also included prophecies in the form of promises of future blessings, protection from their enemies, and the place. Five big promises in the Law were tied to the place – a new homeland; establishment of a kingdom; a permanent dwelling place for His Name; a permanent place to observe the Feasts; and the judgment seat of Israel. God just didn’t yet say exactly where the place would be.[vi]

As a visual sign of His promise, God sent an angel in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to lead them to the place that He had already chosen for their new homeland. It would be the first of the five big promises that came to be known as “The Promised Land.” Hinting at the specific location of the place, God twice called out the occupants of Salem – the Jebusites:[vii]

EX 23::20, 23 “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.… “For My angel will go before you and bring you in to the land of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites…”(NASB)

EX 33:1-2 “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, “Depart, go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’” I will send an angel before you and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite.” (NASB)

God predicted to Moses the Hebrews would one day want a king to rule them like the other nations. When that time came, God promised to guide Israel in choosing their king from among their own people.  It would become the second of the five big promises tied to the place.[viii]As predicted, centuries later the people did exactly that – they wanted a king like the other nations – but the people chose their own first king, Saul, by casting lots.[ix]

As time would bear out, the people’s choice failed. Saul did not seek God’s guidance and it would cost him the lives of himself and his three sons on the battlefield. With Saul’s failed kingship and death, this time Israel accepted God’s choice anointing as their king, David, son of Jesse of Bethlehem.[x]

Promise of a kingdom for Israel had only been partially fulfilled. David was a king without a throne and he had an eye on Jebus that was still occupied by the Jebusites. Every attempt by the fledgling nation of Israel to defeat the Jebusites up to this point had been unsuccessful.[xi]

David, the giant slayer, had become famous as a skilled warrior while serving in King Saul’s army. He gathered the people of Israel from the surrounding areas to form a large army, went to war with Jebus and took the city. Salem – Jebus – now was called the City of David. Soon thereafter, the city encompassed the Mounts Moriah and Zion and become known as the City of Jerusalem, the throne of David.[xii]Jerusalem, a city with no logical reason for existence became the city of the kingdom of David.

An interwoven trail of blessings, testing of faith, much drama, prophecies made and fulfilled over the course of a millennia climaxed with the glory days of Jerusalem under King David. It would be short lived – the end of David’s reign marked the beginning of the nation’s deterioration that spiraled out of control to the point it would eventually all be lost when Jerusalem was exiled to Babylon.

A comeback for Jerusalem a millennium after David’s reign reached its height of glory under King Herod when Jesus of Nazareth, born of the royal lineage of David, appeared on the scene. Six prophecies by three prophets predicted that the Messiah would come from the House of David.[xiii] Lucky for a charlatan named Jesus or was it part of God’s plan for the Messiah?

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REFERENCES:

[i]“Jerusalem .”  New World Encyclopedia.   “Jerusalem Archaeological Sites: Biblical Water Systems.”  Jewish Virtual Library. 2014. 
[ii]  Genesis 11-15.  “Historical Timeline.” The Biblical Zionist. 2009.  <http://www.biblicalzionist.com/timeline.htm>  Uittenbogaard, Arie. “Salem meaning | Salem etymology.”  <http://www.abarim-publications.com/Meaning/Salem.html#.U5SQqCjyTih>   Josephus.  Wars of the Jews. Book VI, Chapter X.
[iii] Genesis 17.
[iv]  Genesis 32, 35.
[v]I Chronicles 11; Judges 1, 19; Joshua 15; Psalms 76
[vi] Exodus 23, 33; Deuteronomy 12, 17.
[vii]Ryrie Study Bible.  Ed. Ryrie Charles C. “Laws relating to conquests” ref. Ex. 23:20-33.
[viii]Deuteronomy 17
[ix] I Samuel 10
[x] I Chronicles 11
[xi]
I Chronicles 11
[xii]
I Chronicles 17. Josephus, Antiquity of the Jews, Book VII, Chapter III.1-2.
[xiii]
Isaiah 9 & 11. Jeremiah 23 & 33. Zechariah 3 & 6.