Micah 5:1-4 Matthew 1:18-25 & 2:1-6
O Little Town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by….
Such peaceful imagery! But Bethlehem did not always have that reputation. Throughout the Old Testament, before the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem conjured up other images. Images of death and brutality, of famine and warfare.
Birth & Death
The little town is first mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Jacob is traveling from Syria to his ancestral home in Palestine. When they arrive close to Bethlehem, Rachel his wife goes into labour. In Bethlehem, Benjamin is born, but it is at that birthing that Rachel dies in childbirth. She is buried on the road leading to Bethlehem. The little town of Bethlehem was a place of birth and a place of death at the very same moment. (Genesis 35:19, 48:7)
The Dark Ages
The town of Bethlehem is not mentioned again for several hundred years. But in the dark ages of Israel’s history, described in the book of Judges, when anarchy dominated life, the town of Bethlehem resurfaces to our attention. The Book of Judges drops a phrase repeatedly to explain the times “In those days there was no king in Israel, everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” And then it tells the story of a renegade Levite from Bethlehem. This Levite hires himself out as priest to the highest bidder. (17:6-9) The story is told to describe the collapse of faith in the religious leaders of the age. The priesthood was an embarrassment, Religion was bankrupt, and a story about a man from Bethlehem is used to illustrate the point.
Violence & Civil War
The Book of Judges tells another Bethlehem story. It is introduced with the same words, “In those days when there was no king in Israel, a Levite took a concubine from Bethlehem. (19:1) And because the story is so ugly it is hardly readable at a season such as this, I will not retell the story. But the story ends up with gang rape, and mutilation and civil war and the decimation of an entire tribe. Bethlehem is painted as a place of pain and evil. It is a microcosm of the nation as a whole. Bethlehem in its first one thousand years is only associated with tragedy, spiritual decline, and physical debauchery.
The Book of Ruth
The next time the town is mentioned is in the book of Ruth. That little book begins with the fateful words, “in the days when the Judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem went away to Moab to live.”
Bethlehem was undergoing a famine. How strange. For the word Bethlehem means “The house of bread.” Bethlehem was surrounded by fields where grain was grown, which was then ground to make flour, with which to make bread. There was probably a major grindstone in the village that was used by the surrounding farms and other nearby villages, and received its name from its central significance. And in this place where bread was normally provided, there was a famine. And the family described in the book of Ruth became refugees fleeing from Bethlehem because it could not sustain life. What a sad image.
The Turn around
But wait. That is not the end of the story. In its beginning, it is the story of death. But in its ending it is the story of life. For the story places focus upon the birth of a child in Bethlehem to Ruth and Boaz. That child proves to be the beginning of a change of fortune for the whole nation. A baby is born in Bethlehem who will be the Grandfather of King David. And Bethlehem begins to shake off its terrible past, and becomes known as the place where the Kingdom of David and the rebirth of a nation began again.
The Birth of Christ
Then for a thousand years nothing; until another child is born. It too was a turning point. But this time not only for a village, not only for a nation, but for the entire planet.
In Bethlehem another child was born. Born into a world of Roman occupation, of terrible and cruel taxation, of violent and debauching evil. The Caesars tyrannized the world by force of arms, the Herods governed in the political arena with cruelty and greed, and the Pharisees & Sadducees ruled in the religious sphere.
There was a famine in the land of truth and virtue and compassion. Religious leaders caused a famine of the bread that nourishes faith. The nation was on the verge of a civil war erupting all over Palestine. The whole world was a Bethlehem. “In those days there was no king in Israel, everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That is, there was no true King.
And then a baby is born in the village of Bethlehem. And the world begins to change. The night got shorter and the light stayed longer. Faith in the few became faith in the many. The age old hunger began to be fed with fresh bread. Conquest turned into compassion, and love replaced lust as the dominating force in life’s relationships.
And this is the reason as we enter the season of Advent we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ. For he is the bread of life, born in Bethlehem, the house of bread.
And when, during this advent season, we take Holy Communion, we will take bread, and thank God for such a gift, and we shall be asking God to nourish our lives for the days ahead.