Though a small town (Micah 5:2), Bethlehem is frequently mentioned in Scripture and considered one of the sacred places to both Jews and Christians. Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, was buried here (Gen 35:20). It was also the hometown of David, the greatest king of Israel ever lived (1 Sam 17:12). The captivating love story of Boaz and Ruth, David’s great grandparents, also took place in Bethlehem (see the book of Ruth).

Commonly referred to as Bethlehem of Judah in Scripture, the name Bethlehem in the Hebrew language originally means “House of Bread.” It is an ancient city with over 3500 years of history, also known biblically as Ephrath (Gen 35:19) and the city of David (Luke 2:4). Located in the hill country of Judah about 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem boasts as a key city between major trade routes that has an altitude of 800 meters. Its fertile land is good for farming and grazing, as Scripture also noted (Ruth 1:22, 2:23, 3:7; 1 Sam 17:15; Luke 2:8, etc.)

Today’s Bethlehem sits within the region of the autonomous Palestinian government, which has a population of 30,000 with 80% Palestinians. Though religious and political unrest occur at times in Bethlehem due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the city itself is still a hotspot for tourists. In 2012, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recognized and listed the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem as a World Heritage Site.

Because Bethlehem is the hometown of King David (1 Sam 16:11), it is also called the city of David (Luke 2:4). When young, David used to shepherd sheep in Bethlehem (1 Sam 16:11, 17:15). When Saul, Israel’s first king, disobeyed God, God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David as the succeeding king (1 Sam 16:13). Despite having traveled places for battle over the years, David still held Bethlehem dearly in his heart and expressed nostalgia when encountering life’s ups and downs (2 Sam 23:14-15).

Later, in 930 B.C., the United Monarchy divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and southern kingdom of Judah. It was during this period when Rehoboam, the king of Judah, fortified the city walls of Bethlehem in defense against the northern kingdom’s attacks (2 Chronicles 11:5-6). Then, in 538 B.C., when the Persian king Cyrus II gave the order for the Israelites in Babylon to return home, a portion of the exiles were actually from Bethlehem originally (Ezra 2:21).

Around 1st century A.D., the Palestine region had already become part of the territory of the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus decreed a census to be taken throughout the empire, requiring all to return to their hometowns to register. At that time the descendant of David, Joseph, lived in Nazareth and brought his fiancé Mary back to Bethlehem. With child through the Holy Spirit, the virgin Mary arrived in Bethlehem when she was almost ready for labor. As all the accommodations were occupied at the time, Mary could only give birth to and wrap Jesus in clothes in a manger (Luke 2:1-7).

The birth of Jesus Christ is arguably one of the most significant events ever happened in Bethlehem. In fact, 700 years prior to His birth, the prophet Micah of Judah had prophesied that one shall come forth from Bethlehem to rule as King of heaven, “whose origin is from of old and the ancient days.” (Micah 5:2) Even apostle Paul once said, “concerning his Son, [Jesus Christ our Lord,] who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead…” (Romans 1:3-4) Because of Jesus Christ’s incarnate life as a man into the world, a new era in history for the humankind began.

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:78-79)

Reference List

John H.Walton, Victor H.Matthews and Mark W.Chavalas.《舊約聖經背景註釋》。李永明、徐成德和黃楓皓譯。校園書房出版社。 2006.7。

John H.Walton.《舊約背景與年代表》(修訂及擴大版)。梁潔瓊譯。華神出版社。 1998 。

白雲曉。 《聖經地名詞典》。北京中央編譯出版社。 2001.12。

馬自毅。 《聖經地理》。上海學林出版社。 2005.7。

梁天樞。 《簡明聖經史地圖解》。上海人民出版社。 2006.11。

蔡錦圖。 《聖經及教會歷史地圖集》。漢語聖經協會。


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