(First line of the Gaither song “Bethlehem, Galilee, Gethsemane.”)
I’ve been curious about Bethlehem lately, meditating and researching the people and the place, both in the past and now in the present. The town sits atop a craggy Judean mountain, 5 to 6 miles uphill (nearly 100 feet higher) from Jerusalem. The countryside in between is still used by shepherds, much like 2000 years ago; this photo was taken by an American couple visiting Israel in 2008. (Courtesy Sara Branstetter.)
What do you know about the little town of Bethlehem? Do you visualize a stable with cows and chickens, donkeys and goats along with a lamb or two? Need to re-think…
This little town was unique. It’s where the sheep for the Temple sacrifices were raised. The Lamb of God was born where the “Lambs of God” were born! These were very special sheep, raised and watched over by very special shepherds. There were few if any “normal” farm animals.
And the stable? Caves in the hillsides, still used by shepherds as shelters for ewes and lambs today. The manger? A hole scooped out in the floor or carved out of large stones.
Many people well-known to us from the Bible made their home in Bethlehem. Jacob’s wife Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin and was buried near the town. (Genesis 35). Naomi was from here, and with her widowed daughter-in-law Ruth she returned to settle here. Her wealthy relative Boaz, who later married Ruth, lived here. (Ruth 4)
They became the grandparents of Jesse – the father of king David. David kept his father’s sheep on those hillsides. (I Samuel 16-17) The little town eventually became known as the City of David. It was in these Judean hills that John the Baptist was born, and where he recognized and proclaimed Jesus as “The Lamb of God.” (Luke 1)
Bethlehem is a fascinating place with a fascinating history. Part of the Palestinian Territories today, the modern town honors the birthplace of Jesus by allowing tourists to visit the grotto (cave) where Jesus was born, now located underneath the Church of the Nativity. It is an especially busy destination during the Christmas season, as you can imagine. (If you are a citizen of Israel, however, you must have special permission to visit the town.)
Here is a closer view of the silver star supposedly marking the exact spot where Jesus was born. Of the fifteen lamps around the star that are continuously kept burning day and night, six belong belong to the Greek Orthodox, five to the Armenian Church and four to the Roman Catholic Church.
I believe God still has a special interest in Bethlehem, as He does in Jerusalem.