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Saturday, December 01, 2012

Bethlehem of Judah

Modern Hebrew words for Behtlehem are Beyt Leḥem, lit "House of Bread." A fitting name for the place where our Savior, the Bread of Life, was born.

The town of Bethlehem Judah is situated on a prominent limestone ridge in the Hill Country of Judah about five miles south of Jerusalem. At an elevation of 2,500 feet, Bethlehem has a commanding view of the surrounding terrain. The hill has a deep valley on the north and another on the south. On the top, lies the village in a kind of irregular triangle. The fertile hill country surrounding the town supported cereal crops, vineyards and olive orchards, as well as abundant grazing land for sheep. There is a Bethlehem Zebulun but they are not the same.

Bethlehem, located in the "hill country" of Judah, may be the same as the Biblical "Ephrath", which means "fertile", as there is a reference to it in the Book of Micah as Bethlehem Ephratah. It is also known as Beth-Lehem Judah, and "a city of David" because Bethlehem is the city David was from and the location where he was crowned as the king of Israel.

An old photo of Bethlehem's Market Square

Modern Bethlehem

The wall that separates Israel from Palestinians. The Tomb of Rachel is the dome just to the right of the middle of the photo. I have old photos of Rachel's Tomb which will be further down in my post.

Genesis 35:19-20 And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel's grave unto this day.

Genesis 48:7 (Jacob, aka Israel, speaking) And as for me, when I came from Paddan, death overtook Rachel on the way, when we were still some distance from Ephrath; and I put her to rest there on the road to Ephrath, which is Beth-lehem.

Rachel's Tomb, the traditional grave site, stands at the entrance to Bethlehem. But there are 2 other sites that claim to be Rachel's Tomb. At the northern entrance to Bethlehem, the 2nd location has been recorded since 4th-century AD. Although it stands within the built-up area of Bethlehem, the tomb is now enclosed within the Israeli side of the West Bank barrier. Others however suggest that the original location of Rachel's burial was in Benjaminite, not Judean, territory. Evidence for this is confirmed in the Book of Samuel where Saul would "encounter two men at Rachel's grave in the territory of Benjamin" (1 Sam 10:2). Furthermore, Jeremiah talks of the "sound of weeping emanating from Rachel's tomb that could be heard in Ramah" (Jer. 31:15). Ramah is identified with the Arab village north of Jerusalem. This area could be the five stone monuments north of Hizma. Known as Qubur Beni Isra'in, the largest so-called tomb of the group, the function of which is obscure, has the name Qabr Umm beni Isra'in, that is, "tomb of the mother of the descendants of Israel".

Here is an engraving of the traditional Tomb of Rachel with Bethlehem in the background.

Here is an old photo of the traditional Tomb of Rachel with Bethlehem in the background.

Judges 17:1-13 Now there was a man of the hill-country of Ephraim named Micah. (2) And he said to his mother, The eleven hundred shekels of silver which were taken from you, about which you took an oath and said in my hearing, I have given this silver to the Lord from my hand for myself, to make a pictured image and a metal image: see, I have the silver, for I took it: so now I will give it back to you. And his mother said, May the blessing of the Lord be on my son. (3) And he gave back the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, and his mother said, I have made the silver holy to the Lord from me for my son, to make a pictured image and a metal image. (4) So he gave the silver back to his mother. Then his mother took two hundred shekels of silver and gave them to a metal-worker who made a pictured image and a metal image from them: and it was in the house of Micah. (5) And the man Micah had a house of gods; and he made an ephod and family gods and put one of his sons in the position of priest. (6) In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did as seemed right to him. (7) Now there was a young man living in Beth-lehem-judah, of the family of Judah and a Levite, who was not a townsman of the place. (8) And he went away from the town of Beth-lehem-judah, looking for somewhere to make his living-place; and on his journey he came to the hill-country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah. (9) And Micah said to him, Where do you come from? And he said to him, I am a Levite from Beth-lehem-judah, and I am looking for a living-place. (10) Then Micah said to him, Make your living-place with me, and be a father and a priest to me, and I will give you ten shekels of silver a year and your clothing and food. (11) And the Levite said he would make his living-place with the man, and he became to him as one of his sons. (12) And Micah gave the position to the Levite, and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah. (13) Then Micah said, Now I am certain that the Lord will do me good, seeing that the Levite has become my priest.

This story occurs after the death of Joshua and they have no leader or king and therefore no restraint to doing whatever they wanted to do. Micah and his mother are quarrelling. The purpose of the narrative is evidently to set forth the origin of the Danite shrine and priesthood. The son has robbed the mother. The old woman had hoarded a great deal of money, 1100 pieces of silver. It is likely she intended, when she died, to leave it to her son but he didn't want to wait. There is wickedness on both sides because of the love of money. She is miserly and hoards money in such a way that her son is tempted to steal it from her. He wickedly steals from his own mother all that she has saved. The mother has such a fit that she brings down curses upon the thief. It scares him so he gives the money back to her. When he returns the money and apologizes she blesses him. As if the money were not already a god to them both, she decides to take some of the money and have it made into a idol. She doesn't give all her money but gives enough so she thinks she satisfies the gods. In the Ten Commandments, God specifically says we should not make nor worship any graven image or idols. It must not have stopped there because it says Micah "had a house of gods" and mentions his "family gods" (plural). It says he has an ephod and sets one of his own sons up as a priest. Then he invites a Levite to become his priest. This Levite was given much less than he could expect as an obedient servant to the true God. But he evidently was lured because he would be considered the high priest of Micah's religion. Micah was well pleased, as if his building, and endowing this temple authorized him, not only to appoint a priest, but to give orders to the priest which he had no right to give. Now he had his own religion, temple, idols, and priest and he thought this was better because it was of his own invention and under his personal management. I.e. he was in control of his religion. He had set up his own religious system in competition with God and His Ordinances. And he thought he would be blessed because of this. It reminds me of people who also idolize their money and investments. They hire priests (but we call them financial managers, financial planners, stock brokers, bankers) for a fee to knead and manipulate the money into investments that will bring about a good return so we can consider ourselves blessed by our god of money. We like this religion because it's in our control. Don't get me wrong... I don't mean that everyone who saves and has investments are practising idolatry. But there are many who do trust in their money as their savior. They rely on that money and watch the market and call the priest, er, stock broker, to make changes at their own discretion. If anything, including money, is more important to you than the one and only Living God, Jehovah, then it is an idol. If your attention is focused on it, your every thought is how to play with it, your energy, time, talent and money is all directed towards it, then you are practising idolatry whether you call it addiction, investments, hobby, career, relationship, etc. But this story tells of the beginning of idolatry in the new land, the Promised Land.

Later 5 men were sent in quest of new territory by the tribe of the Danites, who had failed to secure a settlement upon their allotment. They visited Micah's shrine, and obtained from his priest a word of encouragement favoring their quest (Judges 18:1-6). They then went on until they reached the town of Laish in the extreme North and they returned to report Laish to their fellow-tribesmen. The Danites at once dispatched thither 600 armed men, accompanied by their families (Judges 18:7-12). Passing Micah's abode, they took his idols and his priest, and when Micah pursued, he was insulted and threatened (Judges 18:13-26). They took Laish, destroyed it with its inhabitants and rebuilt it under the name of Dan. There they established the stolen images, and appointed Micah's Levite, Jonathan, a grandson of Moses, priest of the new sanctuary, which was long famous in Israel (Judges 18:27-31).

In the Book of Ruth, Elimelech and Naomi take their two sons to Moab to escape a famine in the area of Bethlehem. Ruth marries one of their sons. After Elimelech and his two sons die, Naomi wants to return to her homeland of Bethlehem. Ruth decides to stay with Naomi and she goes with her back to Bethlehem. It is there that she gleans from the fields of Boaz and eventually marries and settles down with Boaz.

It is in Bethlehem God has Samuel choose David to be the next King after the failure of King Saul. The Prophet Samuel goes to Bethlehem and anoints David as king.
1 Samuel 16:1-5 And the Lord said to Samuel, How long will you go on sorrowing for Saul, seeing that I have put him from his place as king over Israel? Take oil in your vessel and go; I will send you to Jesse, the Beth-lehemite: for I have got a king for myself among his sons.
And Samuel said, How is it possible for me to go? If Saul gets news of it he will put me to death. And the Lord said, Take a young cow with you and say, I have come to make an offering to the Lord.
And send for Jesse to be present at the offering, and I will make clear to you what you are to do: and you are to put the holy oil on him whose name I give you.
And Samuel did as the Lord said and came to Beth-lehem. And the responsible men of the town came out to him in fear and said, Do you come in peace?
And he said, In peace: I have come to make an offering to the Lord: make yourselves clean and come with me to make the offering. And he made Jesse and his sons clean, and sent for them to be present at the offering.

David loved his home town so much that during a battle with the Philistines he wishes aloud he could have some water from a well in Bethlehem. David's “Three mighty men” “brake through the host of the Philistines, and drew water out of the well of Beth-lehem, that was by the gate, and took it, and brought it to David”. David was so overcome that he had to share it with His God so he poured the precious water out as an offering to God.

2 Samuel 23:10-17 (God) was with David and went on fighting the Philistines till his hand became tired and stiff from gripping his sword: and that day the Lord gave a great salvation, and the people came back after him only to take the goods of the Philistines. (11) After him was Shammah, the son of Ela the Hararite. And the Philistines came together in Lehi, where there was a bit of land full of seed; and the people went in flight from the Philistines. (12) But he kept his place in the middle of the bit of land, and kept back their attack and overcame the Philistines: and the Lord gave a great salvation. (13) And three of the thirty went down at the start of the grain-cutting, and they came to David at the strong place of Adullam; and the band of Philistines had taken up their position in the valley of Rephaim. (14) And at that time David had taken cover in the strong place, and an armed force of the Philistines was in Beth-lehem. (15) And David, moved by a strong desire, said, If only someone would give me a drink of water from the water-hole of Beth-lehem, by the doorway into the town! (16) And the three men, forcing their way through the Philistine army, got water from the water-hole of Beth-lehem, by the doorway into the town, and took it back to David: but he would not take it, but, draining it out, made an offering of it to the Lord. (17) And he said, Far be it from me, O Lord, to do this; how may I take as my drink the life-blood of men who have put their lives in danger? So he would not take it. These things did the three great men of war.

Jeroboam converts Bethlehem into a military stronghold in 2 Chronicles 11:6.

Micah 4:8 And thou, O tower of Eder, Fort of the daughter of Zion, unto thee it cometh, Yea, come in hath the former rule, The kingdom to the daughter of Jerusalem. (Young's Literal Translation)
Micah 4:8 And thou, O tower of the flock, the strong hold of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion; the kingdom shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem. (King James Translation)
Here is a prophesy by Micah that the New Kingdom shall begin at the "Tower of Eder" or "Tower of the Flock". What was the Tower of Eder? This watch tower from ancient times was a military watchtower and was used by the shepherds for protection from their enemies and wild beasts. It was about 4 miles from Jerusalem and on the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. From the tower, they could watch the flocks. It was also the place where ewes were brought to give birth. The shepherds would bring in the ewes which were about to lamb for protection. These special lambs came from a unique flock which were designated for sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem. It's possible that this Tower of Eder (Hebrew was Migdal Edar) was the place where Jesus was born, the Lamb of God. It would be the perfect place for Christ to be born. The birthplace where tens of thousands of sacrificial lambs had been born. Those lambs had symbolized the Lamb of God for centuries. Whether Jesus was born at Migdal Edar or another stable in Bethlehem, doesn't matter. What matters is that He was born as the sacrificial Lamb of God, the one who would carry our sins and be our substitute so that we can be saved. From His birth, He was meant to pay the price for our sins. It was His Father's plan of salvation and Jesus was obedient unto to death to give us forgiveness and eternal life in heaven with Them.

John the Baptist announced, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." in John 1:29

In Micah 5:2 it is prophesied that the Christ shall come forth from Bethlehem, "And you, Beth-lehem Ephrathah, the least among the families of Judah, out of you one will come to me who is to be ruler in Israel; whose going out has been purposed from time past, from the eternal days."

Sure enough, Mary gives birth to Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. Jesus' earthly mother and her husband, Joseph, were also of the royal linage of David and so it is to this city that they return to be counted when Caesar Augustus took a census of the entire Roman world.
Luke 2:1-6 Now it came about in those days that an order went out from Caesar Augustus that there was to be a numbering of all the world. (2) This was the first numbering, which was made when Quirinius was ruler of Syria. (3) And all men went to be numbered, everyone to his town. (4) And Joseph went up from Galilee, out of the town of Nazareth, into Judaea, to Beth-lehem, the town of David, because he was of the house and family of David, (5) To be put on the list with Mary, his future wife, who was about to become a mother. (6) And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.

Is it not proof of the sovereignty of God and the completeness of His Plan and purpose that the One who was born to occupy the throne of David, the Lord Jesus Christ, was born of the line of David in the very same city as was David himself?

Isaiah 9:6-7 "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this"

Matthew 2:1 Now when the birth of Jesus took place in Beth-lehem of Judaea, in the days of Herod the king, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

The Wise Men were warned by God not to return to Jerusalem and notify Herod where the baby Jesus was.

Matthew 2:16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was very angry; and he sent out, and put to death all the male children in Beth-lehem and in all the parts round about it, from two years old and under, acting on the knowledge which he had got with care from the wise men. Then the word of Jeremiah the prophet came true, "In Ramah there was a sound of weeping and great sorrow, Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted for their loss."

King Herod was so angry that instead of sending an executioner for the one child the Wise Men would have told him about, he sent executioners to kill all the male children of 2 yrs old and younger. He was going to make sure there was no further threat from another "King of the Jews". He thought his cruelty would save him from any other rival. It is not known how many boys were killed but thought to be between 20-30 children. How could a man be so brutal? Let's look at a summary of the horrible things he did in his lifetime: Aristobulus, his brother-in-law, the brother of his wife Mariamne, was murdered on his orders when he was just eighteen years of age, because the people of Jerusalem had shown some affection for him. In the seventh year of his reign, he put to death Hyrcanus, grandfather of Mariamne, then 80 years of age, and who had formerly saved Herod’s life. His beloved and beautiful wife, Mariamne, had a public execution, and her mother Alexandra followed soon after - Alexander and Aristobulus, his two sons by Mariamne, were strangled in prison on his orders when they were adults, married, and had children. In his last sickness, a little before he died, he sent orders throughout Judea requiring the presence of all the chief men of the nation at Jericho. His orders were obeyed, for they were enforced with no less penalty than that of death. When they were come to Jericho he had them all shut up in the circus, and calling for his sister Salome and her husband Alexis, he said to them, “My life now is short, I know the Jewish people, and nothing will please them better than my death. You have them now in your custody. As soon as the breath is out of my body, and before my death can be known, do you let in the soldiers upon them and kill them. All Judea, then, and every family, will, though unwillingly, mourn at my death.” Surely there could be no cruelty or barbarity which this man was not capable of.

Between 132–135 AD the city of Bethlehem was occupied by the Romans after its capture during the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Its Jewish residents were expelled by the military orders of Hadrian. While ruling Bethlehem, the Romans built a shrine to the mythical Greek cult figure Adonis on the site of the Nativity. A church was erected on the site of the Nativity in 326 by Helena, the mother of the first Byzantine emperor Constantine when she visited Bethlehem. Constantine was the first Christian Roman emperor.

Emperor Constantine the Great

Scholars debate whether Constantine adopted his mother St. Helena's Christianity in his youth, or whether he adopted it gradually over the course of his life. According to Christian writers, Constantine was over 40 when he finally declared himself a Christian, writing to Christians to make clear that he believed he owed his successes to the protection of the Christian High God alone. Constantine appointed his mother Helen as Augusta Imperatrix, and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate the relics of Judeo-Christian tradition. In 326-28 Helena undertook a trip to the Holy Places in Palestine.


According to Eusebius of Caesarea she was responsible for the construction or beautification of two churches, the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, and the Church on the Mount of Olives, sites of Christ's birth and ascension. The Church of the Nativity is possibly on or near the place of the Tower of Eder (Migdal Edar). It is unknown where the exact place of the Tower of the Flock was but it was in or near Bethlehem.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

The small entrance to the church

The nave. Notice the wooden doors open on the floor? I believe that is where they have views of the original Byzantine tiled floors.

The grotto where it is believed Jesus was born. It looks like a fireplace at the end of this room.

Jerusalem was still rebuilding from the destruction of Emperor Hadrian, who had built a temple dedicated, to Venus or Jupiter over the site of Jesus's tomb near Calvary. According to tradition, Helena ordered the temple torn down and she chose a site to begin excavating, which led to the recovery of three different crosses. Then, the empress had a woman who was already at the point of death brought from Jerusalem. When the woman touched the first and second crosses, her condition did not change, but when she touched the third and final cross she suddenly recovered, and Helena declared that cross to be the True Cross. On the site of discovery, Constantine ordered built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She also found the nails of the crucifixion. To use their miraculous power to aid her son, Helena allegedly had one placed in Constantine's helmet, and another in the bridle of his horse. Helena left Jerusalem and the eastern provinces in 327 to return to Rome, bringing with her large parts of the True Cross and other relics, which were then stored in her palace's private chapel, where they can be still seen today. Her palace was later converted into the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. This has been maintained by Cistercian monks in the monastery which has been attached to the church for centuries. Tradition says that the site of the Vatican Gardens was spread with earth brought from Golgotha by Helena to symbolically unite the blood of Christ with that shed by thousands of early Christians, who died in the persecutions of Nero. According to one tradition, Helena acquired the Holy Tunic on her trip to Jerusalem and sent it to Trier. Several of Saint Helena's treasures are now in Cyprus, where she spent some time. Some of them are a part of Jesus Christ's tunic, pieces of the holy cross and the world's only pieces of the rope to which Jesus was tied with on the Cross. The latter has been held at the Stavrovouni Monastery, which was also founded by Saint Helena.

The entrance to the Church of the Nativiey is a low doorway that has its own legends. One story is that the door was installed by the Muslims during their rule to remind Christians that they were guests in the country and must bow to their hosts. An alternative explanation is that the height of the door was designed to prevent unbelievers from entering the church on horseback. Yet another version holds that it was to protect the Christians from their hostile neighbors.

The church is divided into five naves by four rows of Corinthian pillars with pictures of the apostles on them. The names are written in Greek and Latin and many visitors have carved their own signatures over the centuries. The floor of the nave has a hole that allows you to see what remains of the Byzantine mosaics that covered the original church floor.

The Altar of the Nativity sits below a silver and gold chandelier. Stairways on either side of the main altar lead to a grotto. A fourteen-point silver star embedded in white marble indicates the birthplace of Christ. An inscription reads, Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est ("Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary"). Fifteen lamps burn around the spot. Nearby is the Chapel of the Manger, where Mary placed the baby Jesus. The manger too is of white marble.

The traditional midnight mass celebrated on Christmas Eve is held in St. Catherine's, the Roman Catholic church next door to the Church of the Nativity. This is also the site of several chapels with their own historic and religious significance. The Chapel of St. Jerome is where the Bishop of Bethlehem translated the Old Testament into Latin. The Chapel of the Innocents is devoted to the deaths of the babies killed by Herod. The Chapel of St. Joseph is where an angel appeared to Joseph and commanded him to flee to Egypt.

Not far from Manger Square is the Milk Grotto. According to Christian tradition, this is where Mary spilled some milk while nursing Jesus when she was hiding from Herod's soldiers. The milk turned the rocks of the cave a chalk white color. The rock is believed by some to have healing power and to make nursing easier for women.

Jerome's sepulchre is near; Bethlehem being where he lived for 30 years, and diligently studied the Hebrew Scriptures, to prepare the Vulgate translation.

Bethlehem was sacked by the Samaritans in 529 AD, during their revolt, but was rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. Bethlehem was conquered by the Arab Caliphate of 'Umar ibn al-Khattāb in 637, who guaranteed safety for the city's religious shrines. In 1099, European Crusaders captured and fortified Bethlehem and replaced its Greek Orthodox clergy with a Latin one. The Latin clergy were expelled after the city was captured by Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria. With the coming of the Mamluks in 1250, the city's walls were demolished, and were subsequently rebuilt during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The British wrested control of the city from the Ottomans during World War I and it was to be included in an international zone under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. Jordan annexed the city in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Since 1995, Bethlehem has been governed by the Palestinian National Authority. Bethlehem has a Muslim majority, but is also home to one of the largest Palestinian Christian communities.

1 comment:

TCasteel said...

Interesting. Thank you.
Have a Blessed Christmas.
Theresa (Tangled Trees)

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