Why Bethlehem? The significance of this small ancient city in God’s plan to bring the Messiah
"But you, Bethlehem, Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel. Whose origins are from of old, from ancient times (from the days of eternity). --- Micah 5:2
This passage of scripture provides, perhaps, the most amazing and awesome prophecy in the Hebrew Bible regarding the coming of Messiah.
It identifies the coming of an eternal being who will come forth from an unlikely location. A small and seemingly unimportant city was going to take on deep significance.
During this time of year when the focus turns to Christmas, understanding the significance of Bethlehem is extremely encouraging and worthwhile. This study will consider reasons why God chose this little town as the birthplace for the Messiah and some of the deeper truths about our Lord and Savior.
“He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God and they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace." -- Micah 5:4-5
Micah prophesied in Judah and as a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, they both prophesied around 740-700 B.C.E. Their particular Messianic predictions offered Israel hope by reminding them that a redeemer was coming. Isaiah spoke of Immanuel (God with us), and a special son in the lineage of David who would rule on the throne of David forever (Isaiah 9:7-9). Isaiah specified that Messiah’s ministry would take place in Galilee (Isaiah 9:1-6). Micah specifies the selection of Bethlehem in Judah as the location from which the Messiah would originate.
Bethlehem Ephratah. There were actually two Bethlehem's in Israel: one in the North in Galilee and one in the Southern region, which is the one, identified here as Bethlehem, located in the hill country of Judah. Ephrath means “fertile”. This was a very ancient city characterized by rolling hills.It was a little town just six miles outside of Jerusalem to the south known primarily for raising sheep and particularly sheep that would later be led to the temple to be sacrificed.
“Out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.” This is a rather unique prediction since no other King of Israel came from this small town other than David. Unlike Jerusalem where all the Kings of Israel were born, it was considered a humble town. Micah contrasts this aspect with the greatness of the person who will come from there. Jewish religious leaders of the first century clearly understood this section of Micah 5:1-5 as a reference to the birthplace of a person of great significance. The Jewish teachers and experts of the day connected Bethlehem with the birthplace of the Messiah (Matthew 2). The following passage also shows that many Jews commonly accepted Bethlehem, as the identity of Messiah’s birthplace.
" Does not the Scripture say that the Messiah (Christ) will come from David's family and from Bethlehem the town where David lived?" (John 7:42)
The Biblical Significance of Bethlehem
Bethlehem means " house of Bread" It is made up of two words : ("Beit") "house" and ("Lechem") “Bread". Bethlehem was first mentioned in Genesis 35:19-20 as the place where Rachel, the wife of Jacob, died while giving birth to her son Benjamin.
"So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel's tomb."
Bethlehem in The Book of Ruth
The small town of Bethlehem served as the location for the book of Ruth, a touching story of a young Moabite woman who married a Jewish man from Bethlehem. Her husband died while they were living in Moab (a country outside of Canaan) and Ruth, although a gentile, decided to leave her Moabite people in order to move to Bethlehem to take care of her bereaved Jewish stepmother, Naomi. While there, the Lord blessed her to find a "Kinsman Redeemer" in order to redeem her husband’s lineage. According to Jewish law, an unmarried relative of a widow could marry the widow and keep the deceased relatives name alive. Ruth and Naomi went from grief to joy as their relative Boaz decided to marry Ruth and ultimately provided a grandson for Naomi. "And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David." (Ruth 4:17) The story of Ruth is not only an interesting love story but also gives us look into the unique heritage of King David's lineage. It provides a small but significant piece of background history on how, once again, the seed line that would bring the Messiah was preserved from extinction. It holds tremendous Messianic significance both from its message about the Kinsmen Redeemer and its insight into the Gentile influences involved in David’s lineage.
Bethlehem as the City of David
Bethlehem was the birthplace of David and thus it was referred to as the "City of David". David was called a Bethlemite and was raised there as a shepherd. There he was chosen and anointed by the prophet Samuel to become King of Israel (I Samuel 16:1-13). Interestingly, under his rule as a shepherd boy, the nation of Israel became a preeminently powerful nation. From David's dynasty came the royal line of Judean kings. Except for David, however, all of the kings were born in the palace in Jerusalem. The prophecy in Micah 5 is interesting because it says another king like David would also be born in the humble setting of Bethlehem. Although Jewish religious experts saw this as a prophecy of the Messiah, it was clear that this future king, Israel's Messiah, would be born in Bethlehem. Throughout Israel's history kings were born from the royal line of David but none were born in Bethlehem except David and the one described in Micah 5.
Bethlehem the Birthplace of Jesus
After Micah prophesied, over seven hundred years went by before Bethlehem was mentioned again. The New Testament opens up with the story of a young Jewish couple, both of which were of the house and lineage of David, making a trip from Nazareth to this small town. Luke's gospel account shows the unique circumstances that made it possible for Jesus to actually be born in Bethlehem although his parents were actually from Galilee. It took a decree of Rome to fulfill this scripture and get this couple to travel approximately one hundred miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son." Luke 2:1-7
The humbling circumstances of the birth. There in Bethlehem, their first-born son was delivered outside in the cold because there was no room in the inn and after he was born he was placed in an animal-feeding trough. Note the lack of fanfare or specialized medical care for Mary. On the contrary, it was a very low profile event. The birth went unnoticed except for some shepherds who were invited to see the newborn child. There, in the middle of the night shepherds were told that a king had been born.
" But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Messiah (Christ) the Lord." (Luke 2:10-11)
One other individual that expressed keen interest in this birth in Bethlehem was King Herod.
"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? (Matthew 2:1)
When the news of the arrival of a newborn king reached the ears of King Herod, he immediately became alarmed. We read in Matthew's account that Herod was extremely concerned about the rumor of a potential rival king in his region.
"When King Herod heard this he was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the peoples, chief priest, and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah (Christ) was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written: ‘"But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel." (Matthew 2:3-6 / Micah 5:2)
Josephus, a Jewish historian of that time, tells us that Herod was notorious for his depraved and murderous actions. He had his own wife and sons murdered and was known for his eccentric actions whenever he felt his position was threatened. After being advised by Jewish scribes that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod sought to exterminate any child living in Bethlehem two years old and under. His attempt to kill this special child was unsuccessful.
From the prophecy in Micah 5 we learn several important things about the Messiah and reasons God chose Bethlehem for the birthplace of the long awaited Anointed One.
1. His coming would be marked by humility. Matthew’s Gospel account places a lot of emphasis on Jesus as the fulfillment of the long awaited Jewish Messiah. We are accustomed to hearing of royalty being born in magnificent palaces. For someone so great to come forth from such a humble location was unique. Mary (her Hebrew name was Miriam) and Joseph were both direct descendants of King David. Joseph in fact, was in the lineage of the royal line (descendant of Solomon according to Matthew 1:7). However, they were not wealthy and in fact were actually quite poor. Bethlehem was a lowly town. To face giving birth outside in a cold dark setting far away from home made his birth even more humble.
2. His life would be associated with Sheep and Shepherds. Bethlehem was known primarily for being a place for sheep and shepherds. The fact that shepherds would be invited to hear the news of Messiah's birth is fitting since the role of the Messiah is described as a shepherd as well as a ruler. Micah alludes to a shepherd king like David who would rule more like a shepherd than a political monarch. David, who wrote Psalm 23, describes as an expert shepherd, what it is like to be both a sheep and what it means to be a shepherd. Later on Micah uses this imagery to describe the heart and role of the Messiah. In contrast to a military warrior type of messiah, he would be known as a ruler who is a Shepherd of his people.
It also seems fitting that shepherds received word of the birth of this newborn “lamb of God”. Shepherds were often present during the birth of a lamb. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus would be called the Lamb of God and also refer to himself as the Good Shepherd who came to give life and life to the full (John 1:29; 10:1-10). One of the mysteries of the coming Messiah was how he would fulfill dual roles: both priest and King, both the sacrifice and the priest, both lamb and the shepherd
3. Messiah would be divine. How the Messiah could be both man and God was another mystery for the rabbis to figure out. Clearly from this prophecy in Micah, the attribute of Deity is ascribed to him ("His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity"). Only God can be described as someone from the "ancient of days".
4. He would bring peace (shalom). This Shepherd King would bring Peace. "He will be their Peace,” echoes the same description as Isaiah's "Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6)." Many misunderstand that the peace described here is not necessarily national peace, absence of war or conflict, but rather a much deeper type of peace. Peace with God and peace with oneself will translate into peaceful relationships with others and that is the only way there can be peace on earth.
Only through the cross of Christ could mankind be reconciled to God and to one another as expressed so beautifully in Ephesians 2:14-18.
5. Messiah would come to fill the deepest needs of People. Bethlehem means "House of Bread". What a fitting place for He who claimed to be "the Bread of Life" to be born - in a city that means the "House of Bread". Even more symbolic would be his being placed in a manger, which means a placewhere animals would feed. This could be considered a foreshadow of how so he would feed the inner hungers of all peoples everywhere. What truly sustains us? Not material things, our jobs or accomplishments, nor even our earthly friendships and families can truly fill the emptiness and craving of our souls. Our need for deep fulfillment and sustenance can be satisfied only when our relationship with God is real and growing. Experiencing forgiveness, meaning and purpose, knowing ones eternal destiny, being loved and loving others, comes from partaking of the Bread of Life. As someone has wisely pointed out, “Why settle for crumbs when you can have the bread of life?”
6. His impact would be worldwide. According to the prophecy, " His greatness would reach to the ends of the earth." In Bethlehem, God became mankind’s Kinsmen Redeemer. We all, Jews and Gentiles, were cursed and barren spiritually because of our sin. In order to bring Messiah into the world, God by-passed Joseph’s line which was also cursed (Jeremiah 22:28-30) to bring about the virgin conception through Mary resulting in the birth of Jesus. He who would become man’s redeemer was born. Like a lamb born to become a substitutionary sacrifice, so also Jesus was born in Bethlehem in order to die to become mankind’s sin offering. No other birth has stirred as much controversy nor has evoked as much praise, worship and hope for mankind. No other birth has been surrounded with so much mystery and majesty as the birth of this little Jewish baby boy to this poor young Jewish couple in this obscure town. One must wonder if he is not the Messiah, then why has it impacted the world in the way it has? Certainly no other Jewish individual could be described as one who is both “the hope of Israel and a light to the Gentiles.” (Luke 2:29-32)
7. Bethlehem is another demonstration of God’s way of turning things upside down. Bethlehem is the way God. God often chooses to work through the least likely subjects. He delights to use that which is unimpressive to confound the worldly wise. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength…He chose the lowly things of this world and the despise things –and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him.” (I Corinthians 1:24-29). So it was with God’s choice of Bethlehem. On that night when Jesus was born God caught the world off guard. The greatest event in history occurred in an obscure little Jewish town. The most magnificent event in history, God coming into our dimension, dwelling among us as a human being, the Creator of the universe residing in a helpless infant, all took place with little fanfare. However, today that event is universally recognized as the most celebrated day of the year and Bethlehem has become very well known. God chose Bethlehem for its humility, historical significance and low profile. Its prophetic significance should not be taken for granted.
Micah’s prophecy should be shared more often as an evidence for the inspiration of the Bible and its Jewish connection to the Christmas story. Its deepest significance goes unappreciated for those who neglect to earnestly search the Scriptures. Each year tourists flock to Bethlehem during the Christmas season in order to visit the Church of the Nativity as if that’s where Jesus was born (in a church)! The Jewish significance of this location continues to get overlooked. Consequently, most Jews perceive little or no Jewishness in the Christmas story. Imagine if the Christmas story could be retold through Jewish lenses. Perhaps more Jews would recognize that their promised deliver has indeed showed up.
Micah 5:1-5 and its message about Bethlehem remains one of the most remarkable of Messianic prophecies. The one who will be reigning on David’s throne was also going to be born in David’s hometown. The New Testament opens up with the birth of Yeshua and it is no accident that it takes place in Bethlehem. The unique circumstances surrounding Jesus birth in Bethlehem stand out as direct fulfillment of the Scriptures. No one came to be born in Bethlehem of Judea before then or since then that could even be considered the Messiah other than Jesus. Bethlehem today is under Palestinian control and it remains unlikely that any significant Jewish person will be coming forth from there in the future. Reflecting on the wonder of that event, it is not surprising that this event has historically evoked greater celebration in music and traditions than the birth of any other human being. We can only conclude that the words of this prophecy have wondrously been fulfilled as expressed in the beautiful words of this poem by Phillip Brooks written in 1868:
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep the angels keep
Their watch of wond'ring love.
O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth!
-- Phillip Lester,