Say the word ‘Bethlehem’ to almost any Christian, and they’ll immediately think happy thoughts of shepherds, a manger, and the birth of Jesus Christ. But Bethlehem wasn’t chosen by God as the location of Jesus’ birth merely on a whim – the town has a rich and tragic Old Testament history which makes it the perfect place for the Saviour to be born.
Can anything good come out of Bethlehem?
Bethlehem’s first appearance in the Bible comes as early as Genesis 35:16. There it is associated not with the birth of Jesus, but of Benjamin. Just as with Jesus’ birth, the event mixes joy and grief – in Benjamin’s case from the death of his mother, Rachel, in childbirth. As Rachel lay dying, she named her son, ‘Ben-oni’ (‘son of my sorrow’) but her husband, Jacob, soon changed his name to ‘Benjamin’ (‘son of the righthand’, Genesis 35:18).
In the book of Judges, Bethlehem takes centre stage in two disturbing stories. Both occur in that portion of Judges where there is no judge, and ‘no king in Israel’ and ‘everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 17:6, 18:1, 19:1). The first story involves a Levite from Bethlehem (Judges 17:7), who rather than serving God in the tabernacle, offers himself as a private priest to the highest-paying bidder (Judges 18:4, 19-20). The unfolding story is both tragic and dispiriting, involving stolen idols and the destruction of a peaceful city (Laish) by those who claim to be worshipping God (Judges 17:1, 18:14-20, 27-28). The text makes a point of telling us that Laish fell because it had no-one to be a deliverer (Judges 18:28). The fallen city is rebuilt and named ‘Dan’, and becomes a centre for idolatrous worship (Judges 18:29-30). In later centuries Dan will continue this idolatry, becoming a centre of pagan worship under King Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:28-29), which led to Israel’s exile and captivity – a parallel that the writer of Judges seems to think is no accident (Judges 18:30).
The second story in Judges involving Bethlehem is an even worse account. This time the Bethlehemite is the unfaithful concubine of another Levite (Judges 19:1-2). While returning from the her family home in Bethlehem, the couple take shelter in the Benjamite city of Gibeah (Judges 19:16-18). In a repeat of the story of Sodom (Genesis 19), they’re rudely awakened by a mob demanding the homeowner bring out the Levite so that they can have sex with him (Judges 19:22). In Sodom, angels rescued the people in a similar situation, but not here. When the old man refuses, the Levite sends his concubine to them, who is then raped and killed (Judges 19:25-26). The story ends with the Levite carving up his concubine’s body and sending a part to each of the twelve Israelite tribes. The result is civil war between the Benjamites and the rest of Israel (Judges 20:13-14), with the tribe of Benjamin almost wiped out.
Around the same time as these stories in Judges, another Bethlehemite family journeys to pagan Moab to escape from a famine (Ruth 1:1-2). There’s an irony here which would not have been lost on the original Hebrew readers – Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’. Yet leaving was the wrong decision – they would have been better to have trusted God and stayed where they were (Ruth 1:6). Both father and sons die in Moab (Ruth 1:3-5), leaving his widow, Naomi, and one of his daughters-in-law, Ruth, to return to Bethlehem many years later.
We know the rest of the story. Ruth the Moabitess meets Boaz the Bethlehemite (Ruth 2:3-4), and through his covenantal love, Ruth (and indeed Naomi) are redeemed. For the first time in the tragic stories involving Bethlehem, a redeemer has stepped in to rescue (Ruth 4:7-11, 14-15).
The result of this covenantal redemption is a new Bethlehemite family: from Boaz to Obed to Jesse, and then to the most famous Old Testament Bethlehemite of all – David (Ruth 4:17, 1 Samuel 17:12).
Bethlehem is mentioned four times in David’s story. It is at his father’s house in Bethlehem that David was anointed king by Samuel at a sacrifice to the Lord (1 Samuel 16:1-2). It was after travelling from Bethlehem to the battlefield that David first encountered Goliath (1 Samuel 17:13-18). Later, David pretends to visit Bethlehem to offer a sacrifice (1 Samuel 20:5-8, 28-30). Through this ruse, God protects his anointed from those who would have him killed.
David last Bethlehem story sees him on the run, hiding in the cave of Adullam while the Philistine enemy have built a garrison in Bethlehem (2 Samuel 23:13-17, 1 Chronicles 11:16-19). David, desperate at Israel’s and his own weakness and the probable consequences of the Philistine invasion at harvest time, longs to be able to drink water from Bethlehem’s well. Without his knowledge, three of his mighty men take a 25-mile round-trip, break through the Philistine lines, and bring him the water he longed for. David, though, refused to drink it, instead pouring it out as an offering to the Lord – such was the risk the men took, David viewed the water as ‘the blood of the men’ (2 Samuel 23:17).
Some 250 years after David’s reign the prophet Micah foretold that out of little Bethlehem a great ruler would come (Micah 5:2-5) – and like David this coming Bethlehemite ruler will be both a king and a shepherd (Micah 5:4). But unlike David, his reign will be one of peace not violence, and it will reach to the ends of the earth (Micah 5:5).
That prophecy in Micah is readily applied to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:6). And Jesus’ family ties to Bethlehem (Luke 2:4, John 7:42) mark him as a son of David, a necessarily qualification for the Messiah.
But we often fail to see how Bethlehem’s pre-Davidic story also prepares us for the coming Christ. Both Rachel and Jacob’s names for their son point us to Jesus. He was both a son of sorrow (Isaiah 53:3), and a son of his father’s right hand (Matthew 26:64).
The story of the Levite-for-hire from Bethlehem shows us our need for a priest that selflessly serves God’s people, not the highest bidder. The consequences of his priestly failure, traced through the history of the city of Dan results in destruction and captivity, while the demolition of Laish, the city without a rescuer, leaves us longing for one who would have rescued those facing destruction.
The story of the Bethlehemite concubine displays similar themes. What has Israel come to that the sin of Sodom is being repeated in its midst? And why – unlike in Sodom – was there no-one to rescue the unfaithful concubine from equally sinful men of Gibeah? Is the writer of Judges correct, that what Israel truly needs is a king to bring righteousness?
It is here that the story of Bethlehem turns a corner as the book of Ruth brings hope. Finally, there is a redeemer from Bethlehem – one who is not only able to redeem the Bethlehemite Naomi, but her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth. In the abundant harvest with which the book ends (not just the grain, but the fruitfulness of the womb, too), the book looks forward to the coming Davidic King.
David’s own Bethlehemite story points to the anointing of a king, the conquest of an undefeatable enemy, the protection of the anointed from those who would murder him, and a blood sacrifice poured out before the Lord.
So no wonder that Micah prophesied that it was out of little Bethlehem that God’s ruler would come. In Bethlehem Jesus can be seen as David’s son in David’s city. But more than that, these Old Testament stories show us that in Bethlehem Jesus is also seen as a better priest, a true redeemer and a righteous king.