Bethlehem – The City of David and The House of Bread
“But you, O Bethlehem Eph'rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” - Micah 5:2
Every year at Christmas time the carol 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' is sung, but how often do we stop to recall the history and importance of the town? Since the earliest times, the small village has been a place a great significance, and is connected to the patriarchal history. Originally the town, located in the hill country of Judah, was called Ephrata; later it was called Ephrata-Bethlehem or simply Bethlehem. The name Bethlehem, a Hebrew word, means House of Bread. It would in time, become the birthplace of Our Lord Jesus, the Bread of Life.
In early biblical times, Rachel, the wife of Jacob died at Bethlehem. This event is the first time the city is mentioned in the bible. She was buried there, near the entrance to the city, and still the spot believed to be her tomb is a destination of pilgrims, particularly for Jews. It is described in Genesis 35:19-20: “So Rachel died, and was buried in the highway that leadeth to Ephrata, this is Bethlehem. And Jacob erected a pillar over her sepulchre: this is the pillar of Rachel's monument, to this day.” and in Gn 48:7: “For, when I came out of Mesopotamia, Rachel died from me in the land of Chanaan in the very journey, and it was spring time: and I was going to Ephrata, and I buried her near the way of Ephrata, which by another name is called Bethlehem.”
The town is also a setting in the Book of Ruth when, after the death of her husband and sons, Naomi and her recently-widowed daughter-in-law Ruth travel to the town. Naomi is of an Israelite family, and upon the death of her husband, her two sons marry Moabite women: Mahlon marries Ruth and Chilion marries Orpah. When both sons had died, Naomi urges the widows to return to their mother's homes and remarry. But Ruth was determined to go with Naomi to Judah from Moab and said "Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you." (Ruth 1:16-17). Once Ruth did arrive in Bethlehem, she married Boaz, a kinsman of Mahlon, and she gave birth to Obed, who would become the grandfather of David.
The great king David was born at Bethlehem, and of the Old Testament references, this detail is probably the best known. It is described in 1 Samuel 16, when the Lord guides Samuel to go to Bethlehem to find Jesse, and to find the one God had provided among Jesse’s sons to succeed as king: “Then Samuel asked Jesse, "Are these all the sons you have?" Jesse replied, "There is still the youngest, who is tending the sheep." Samuel said to Jesse, "Send for him; we will not begin the sacrificial banquet until he arrives here."Jesse sent and had the young man brought to them. He was ruddy, a youth handsome to behold and making a splendid appearance. The LORD said, "There-anoint him, for this is he!" Then Samuel, with the horn of oil in hand, anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and from that day on, the spirit of the LORD rushed upon David” (1 Samuel 16: 11-13).
The city is revisited again in the New Testament, in the gospels of both Luke and Matthew, who detail the nativity story, and the events leading up to the birth of Christ. While the city is not referenced as the birthplace of Jesus in Mark or John (both of these gospels begin with Jesus’ public life and do not describe his conception and birth), it was widely accepted as the place of the Nativity of Our Lord as early as the 2nd century, as indicated by St. Justin Martyr and today remains a popular destination for Christian pilgrims, particularly the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square.