This is the second instalment of a series on the Biblical significance of key Christian pilgrimage sites in Israel-Palestine. The first was on Nazareth and can be read here: www.comeandsee.com/view.php?sid=1369. Due to length, this instalment on Bethlehem is divided into two parts. This is the first.
Perhaps no other town is as strongly associated with Jesus in the Western Christian imagination as the “little town of Bethlehem,” and this despite the fact that Jesus had to be called a “Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23) and had to die in Jerusalem (Luke 13:33). The association is largely generated by the way the Western church celebrates Christmas, which has developed a variety of rituals, songs, and art forms to commemorate the mysterious events of Bethlehem. But what do we discover afresh if we lay aside popular piety for a moment—as valuable as it may be—, turn once again to the plain sense of Scripture, and ask ourselves, “Is the town of Bethlehem itself part of the message? And if so, what does it communicate?”?
As the following will show, a glance at the key texts indicates that Bethlehem does develop a distinctive theological profile within the Bible as a whole. Perhaps the best avenue into the material is to start with the two most famous Bethlehem texts, the birth narratives in Matthew (1:18—2:18) and Luke (2:1-21). There we will identify two distinct perspectives on the meaning of Bethlehem. We will then discover that these two perspectives have their roots in the Old Testament, which provides a broader context for understanding their significance. In the final step, we will attempt to synthesize these two perspectives in order to attain a more adequate, three-dimensional view on the meaning of Bethlehem.
Let us start with Luke and see where he takes us.
Luke: Bethlehem as the City of David
The emphasis of Luke’s opening chapters is on the Davidic lineage of Jesus. He stresses that Joseph is “of the house of David” (1:27); Joseph is forced to register in the Davidic town of Bethlehem because he is “of the house and lineage of David” (2:4). Indeed, Luke first identifies the city as “the city of David” before adding as an afterthought that its name is “Bethlehem” (2:4). It is thus clear that in Luke’s mind the primary significance of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus is that it associates him with the town’s most famous inhabitant and Jesus’ most famous ancestor. But Jesus’ association with David through Bethlehem seems to be more than just a matter of genealogy. As one born “in the house of [God’s] servant David” (Luke 1:69), he did not actually have to be physically born in Bethlehem in order to make a dynastic claim to the Davidic throne (2 Samuel 7:13-14). After all, all of David’s sons after him were born in that other city of David, namely “Jerusalem,” the city that David conquered and in which he established his royal house (2 Samuel 5:7). So why couldn’t Jesus be born there? Why did God have to move a Roman emperor to force his subjects to register in their ancestral homes (Luke 2:1-3) so that Jesus could be born where the story of David began?
The answer is surely that part of Jesus’ mission was not just to ascend the Davidic throne but to re-live and re-do what David did, albeit in greater perfection and universality of scope. In other words, Jesus had to retrace David’s steps from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, so that his kingdom in Jerusalem could be more perfectly established. The Davidic patterning of Jesus’ ministry can be seen when the two stories are compared: Both Davids, new and old, were men after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14; 16:7), born in obscurity in Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:11), associated with literal shepherds (David was a shepherd boy; Jesus was visited by shepherds [Luke 2:8-20]) yet called to be shepherds of God’s people; they were secretly anointed in Bethlehem to rule (1 Samuel 16:13), became victorious over Israel’s greatest enemy due to their trust in God (1 Samuel 18), and yet they faced constant conflict with their own people (1 Samuel 19—2 Samuel 1; 12—18); both were rejected, persecuted and exiled before returning to establishing a kingdom of peace, one that has its epicentre in Zion but which extends beyond the borders of Israel (2 Samuel 5—10; 19).
An initial answer to the question of the meaning of Bethlehem, then, is that it marks the place of Davidic beginnings, the opening scene of a narrative plot comprising humility and greatness, faith and victory, rejection and acceptance, a plot that finds its resolution in another city of David, Jerusalem, with the conclusion of redemption for all. Jesus’ birth there casts him as a second David.
Now Jesus’ Davidic identity does not exhaust all that Luke wishes to communicate about who Jesus is. There is another aspect, again presented in terms of genealogy, which casts Jesus not only as a son of David but also the son of a far more ancient ancestor, namely “Adam, the son of God” (3:8). This connection is made at the end of a long genealogy that spans the entirety of human history, bringing us right back to its roots in the Garden of Eden. And by bringing us to the roots of human history, it also brings us to the root problem of that, humanity’s failure to truly be that Adamic “son of God.” In this connection, Jesus did not just come to do what David did (but better), as a second Adam he came to do what Adam ought to have done but failed.
A review of the Old Testament story from Adam to David (Genesis—Kings/Chronicles) reveals the true nature of the problem and the kind of solution sought by God. Yet at this point we might ask whether we run the risk of leaving our theme behind us, for what does Adam have to do with Bethlehem? Interestingly, quite a lot. For in two sets of stories set at a critical junction of that Old Testament narrative, Bethlehem becomes a stage upon which both the problem and the solution of Adam’s condition are enacted with paradigmatic clarity. So let retrace the story from Eden to Bethlehem:
In Eden we catch a glimpse of the purpose of creation: communion in paradise between God and the human creatures created in his “image” (Genesis 1:26; 3:8). As his creatures they are to love, trust, and depend on him for all things. But something goes wrong: the relationship is undermined when Adam attempts to switch roles and himself become “like God” (3:5) by eating from the tree that promises divine “wisdom” (2:17; 3:22; see Proverbs 8); yet as a creature he cannot take on this role, and so his misplaced wisdom becomes a tool for destruction and alienation. The only solution is to practice his wisdom as a creature, and that means in an attitude grounded in the “fear of the LORD” (Proverbs 1:7).
Rather than destroying his children, God makes provision for them by promising the coming of new offspring, the “seed” of Eve (3:15) created in the likeness of Adam (5:3), a humanity that would re-enact the divine-human relationship as it should have been, thereby restoring Adam’s likeness to God (5:1) and thus destroying his satanic accuser (Job 1:9; Genesis 3:15). This new seed is the hope of both humanity and the cosmos.
The ensuing drama of humanity and, in more concentrated form, that of Israel can be read as the story of the tortuous struggle for this “seed” to appear on the stage of history in the face of a now-inherent human impulse to fear anything but the LORD, with disastrous consequences (Genesis 20:11). Generations come and go but their behaviour consistently brings divine judgement followed by God’s merciful granting of new chances (Genesis 6—11). Through the seed of Abraham a particular slice of humanity is carved out, given the task to truly know God through his word and deed and thus respond to him the way that is appropriate (Genesis 12—Deuteronomy). The early career of this new covenant community had its ups (Joshua) and its downs (Judges), but the overall trajectory was so far down that a prophet could summarize the behaviour of these first generations with the following words: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
We here come to that critical juncture in Israel’s history, and thus a step closer to Bethlehem. Given Israel’s failure, a new act of divine intervention was necessary. Israel needed a king (Judges 21:25), someone who would represent the people (as Israel should have represented humanity) and embody the faith and obedience needed to overcome their alienation from God, bringing them back into the fullness of his presence. During this period of the “judges,” Bethlehem is the place where both the failure of Israel and its future hope is dramatized.
In terms of failure, Bethlehem is one of a number of key regions chosen to illustrate in paradigmatic manner the depravity of Israel and thus its distance from becoming the true “seed” of Eve. These stories are bundled together at the end of the book of Judges (17—21). In one, Bethlehem is home to a renegade Levite, a member of an elite tribe charged with teaching and guiding Israel in the truth. He establishes an idolatrous cult in Ephraim and then joins a band of murderous thugs (the tribe of Dan) in order to start a new colony by wiping out an innocent city (Judges 17—18). In another, Bethlehem is the home to a concubine belonging to a man from Ephraim. She flees to her father’s house. After consenting to return, her master delivers her to a gang of rapists from Benjamin who abuse her to death (Judges 19). This triggers a civil war in which Benjamin is almost wiped out, necessitating the kidnapping of more women to stop the tribe becoming extinct (20—21). Here Bethlehem provides a snapshot of the “kingdom of Adam” when Adam himself takes on the role of God.
In terms of hope, during this same period (Ruth 1:1) Bethlehem also sets the stage for the emergence of an alternative kingdom—one headed by a second Adam whose life conforms more to his true identity as a creature in the image of God. This development is found in the book of Ruth, a short novella telling a heart-warming story of tragedy and loss reversed by divine providence at work through the loyalty, boldness, and nobility of a Moabite woman, Ruth, and a Bethlehemite farmer, Boaz. In this narrative we see how the divine virtues of Ruth and Boaz redeem the life of the widow Naomi. But their actions have a redemptive significance that goes beyond the life of this one widow. This is made clear by a genealogy that is tacked on to the end of this story (4:18-22). Here we see that the fruit of their marriage union will issue into a future seed who will display the same moral characteristics and thus become God’s vehicle for establishing a kingdom more in line with one original envisioned in the Garden of Eden. This future seed, is of course, David, Bethlehem’s most famous son until the birth of Christ.
But if David is the redeemer, why the prophetic hope that a new David will have to arise? The rest of the history of Israel from the middle of David’s career until the exile and beyond (see the books of Samuel; Kings) make the reason clear: though Israel’s greatest role model (see especially the Psalms and Chronicles), David was not ultimately above grasping at god-like power and usurping the throne of Israel’s true king (the story with Bathsheba is paradigmatic for this: 2 Samuel 11). Almost all of his sons did worse (see the books of Kings and virtually all the prophets). Israel’s prophets saw only one solution: another David would have to arise, one that would truly enact the drama of Eve’s seed and thus as a true Adam more perfectly establish the kingdom of God (e.g. Isaiah 9:7; Jeremiah 30:9; 33:15; Ezekiel 34:23-24).
This brings us back to Bethlehem in the gospel of Luke. Once again a critical juncture in the history of Israel and the world has been reached. The seed of Eve is still waiting to be born and do his work. Bethlehem’s previous inhabitants made a good start, though ultimately failed. In Jesus, the story will be re-enacted and brought to perfection.
Part 2 on Matthew and Micah’s vision of Bethlehem will appear shortly.