When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
If you’ve been around the church for any length of time, you have probably heard or read these verses many times, especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas. They record the scene in Jerusalem where the magi came to question Herod about the birthplace of the Christ. The religious leaders answered their question by quoting Micah 5:2 in which, more than 700 years earlier, the Lord had revealed the location of Messiah’s birth.
It is interesting that both Micah in his original prophecy and the chief priests and scribes in their quotation mention the relative insignificance of the town of Bethlehem. In fact, Bethlehem was not only a small and relatively obscure place, but its history leaves quite a bit to be desired. Obviously, the Old Testament is not an atlas, so we should not expect to find detailed records of the town in its pages, but what we do find there is quite interesting from both a historical and theological perspective.
The town of Bethlehem was named after the great-grandson of Caleb, one of only two men to survive Israel’s wilderness wandering (1 Chron. 2:50-51). Caleb’s wife, by whom Bethlehem’s grandfather was born was named Ephrath, and her name was joined to his so the town became known as Bethlehem-Ephrathah which means something like “fruitful house of bread.” However, this town did not always live up to its beautiful-sounding name. For instance, the first time it is mentioned in Scripture is in Genesis 35:19 and instead of being a place of fruitful abundance it is the burial place of Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel. So from the beginning this town is associated with death and grief, but that is not all. The next place we find it mentioned is the book of Judges, where the town of Bethlehem plays a role in several accounts.
Ibzan of Bethlehem was one of the judges of Israel during this period of anarchy and rebellion, and his life seems to have been consistent with his times (Judg. 12:8-10). Like most Oriental kings he maintained a large harem which produced his 30 sons and 30 daughters. It also seems that he intended to set himself up as a king in Bethlehem by arranging for his daughters to marry outside of his tribe and bringing in 30 women from other tribes to marry his sons. These political alliances were for the purpose of gaining influence in Israel and establishing a dynasty for his family, and so the town of Bethlehem becomes associated with rebellion against God’s design for marriage and the desire for personal power rather than faithful service.
Two other references in the book of Judges link the town of Bethlehem to an idolatrous priest (17:7-13) and the tragic account of assault and murder leading to civil war and the near-wiping out of the entire tribe of Benjamin (chapters 19-21). Bethlehem’s history was colorful indeed.
Then the book of Ruth once again turns our attention to this town, because Elimelech and Naomi flee their inheritance in favor of the spiritually dark land of Moab due to a severe famine. There is something ironic about the fact that the “fruitful house of bread” became a place with no bread, but it was at this point that the story of Bethlehem takes a turn. In Ruth 1:19 we find Naomi and Ruth returning to the town as the only surviving members of that once promising family, and it is in Bethlehem that God reverses their fortunes, bringing Ruth to the attention of Boaz and producing an heir named Obed. Obed’s son is named Jesse, and Jesse’s 7th son is a young man named David. Out of this ignominious hometown is born the man who will become ancient Israel’s greatest king, surpassed only by Jesus Christ who is a descendant of that same David.
As we consider the significance of God choosing Bethlehem-Ephrathah as the birthplace of David and ultimately the Messiah, we see an illustration of a great principle that Paul states clearly in the letter of 1 Corinthians. He says that God does not call many who are wise or noble to salvation, but instead he has chosen things which are foolish and weak and base and non-existent to put to shame things which are wise and mighty and exalted. God is in the business of choosing things which are lowly and humble, and that includes both towns and people with checkered pasts to serve his will. In fact, every one of us who is saved gives evidence that God doesn’t choose the self-righteous or the self-sufficient, but instead he saves those who confess we are utterly corrupt and unrighteous, and that we have no hope of saving ourselves but instead trust in him alone. God chose Bethlehem-Ephrathah as the Savior’s birthplace, and he chooses to save men and women who are sinful and weak that “no flesh should glory in His presence,” but “he who glories [might] glory in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31).