Bethlehem (Micah 5)

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Illustration: The Church of the Nativity 

Situated eight km south of Jerusalem along the main ridge route, Bethlehem (“house of bread”) was an insignificant town during Old Testament times, except for being the birthplace of David, who was also anointed there by Samuel (1 Samuel 16). The book of Ruth, which deals with David’s parental ancestors, is for the most part set in this village. The Old Testament does record a few other minor historical details about Bethlehem, however. For a time a Philistine garrison controlled the town (2 Samuel 23:14-16). Also, Bethlehem was one of the villages that Rehoboam fortified in his effort to hold on to Judah after the defection of the northern tribes (2 Chronicles 11:5-12). Micah prophesied that the Messiah would come from this otherwise insignificant community (Micah 5:2-5), but it was not unfitting that the Messianic “son of David” should be born in the birthplace of David.

Archaeologically, little is known of ancient Bethlehem. The site was occupied from prehistoric times (some prehistoric flints and split animal bones have been unearthed there). Bethlehem may be mentioned in one of the Amarna Letters, but this reference is disputed. Most archaeological research at Bethlehem, in fact, focuses on the Church of the Nativity and the history of the site through Byzantine, Islamic and Crusader periods.

Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is noted in the two Gospel infancy narratives (Matthew 2:1, Luke 2:4), and the testimony is clear that the Jewish leaders knew of Micah’s prophecy that Messiah should be born there (Matthew 2:4-6, John 7:42). Although the slaughter of the infant and toddler boys of the town by Herod the Great is not attested in other ancient sources, the account fits the character of this paranoid “king”. The small size of the village at the time, clustered as it was on a hillside where the Church of the Nativity was later built, indicates that probably only a few dozen little boys were killed as the result of Herod’s irrational fury. Heinous as this infanticide was, the incident would probably not have attracted the attention of any ancient historians.

Very early church tradition locates Jesus’ birth in a cave in Bethlehem, over which the emperor Hadrian constructed a shrine to a Roman deity. Later, the Christian emperor Constantine erected a church building over the cave. After its partial destruction by the Samaritans in the sixth century A.D., the Church of the Nativity was rebuilt by the emperor Justinian and still stands today as one of the most ancient church buildings in existence.


 

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