The Memory of Bethlehem
A Christmas Message
By Allen P. Ross
For the pilgrim or the tourist, places become important if something significant happened there, the birth or the death of some important person, some event, tragic or wonderful, or some religious experience that people have had there. This is true on many levels. For example, one of the places that we like to visit in England is the church in East Coker, the place where the poet T. S. Eliot was buried. It was from this place that his family had migrated to America; and it was to this place he returned and was buried. But people all over the world have had similar experiences; whether as casual passers-by or visitors looking for those special places, we do remember places this way–this is the place where Abraham Lincoln was born; here is where Ludwig Beethoven lived; or, this is the city where Martin Luther King died. And people continue to associate the magnitude of the person or the event with the place.
Now in every town people are born, live, and die. And every family remembers where people important to them were born, or where they died and are buried. But the place of the birth or death of someone significant in the historical, cultural, or religious development of a nation receives worldwide attention.
At this time of year the little town of Bethlehem in the land of Israel is in the minds of almost everyone familiar with the Christmas story, even those who do not claim to be believers. Again, people were born, lived, and died in every village and town of ancient Israel. But this little town is remembered because it is the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and that birth reminds us of the cycle of birth and death that characterizes the human experience.
There are four passages of Scripture that develop God’s focus on the town of Bethlehem. The passages are not incidental details in the Bible; they form part of the emerging revelation of the birth of the Savior, the place where God stepped into the human race to live and die as a man. And through his death and resurrection he broke the pattern forever. Let’s look briefly at these four passages.
I. The Birth of Benjamin and the Death of Rachel
The first memorable event that occurred in conjunction with the ancient town of Bethlehem is the birth of Benjamin. In the chapter Jacob and his family, eleven sons and one daughter, had returned to the land promised to him. And on the way from Bethel they had to stop because Rachel went into labor. It was a hard labor, but she had another son, in answer to her prayer when she gave birth to Joseph, saying, “May the Lord add another son.” So in Bethlehem the twelfth son was born to Jacob. It was such a hard childbirth that Rachel in her great pain and sorrow named the child “Ben-Oni,” which means “son of my sorrow.” That would be a sad name for the child to carry, for it would always remind him and others of the great sorrow of Rachel giving birth to her child. And so Jacob called him “Benjamin,” which means “son of the right hand,” a name of power, privilege and blessing.
But Rachel died, and no name change could erase that from the memory of the family. Years later, on his death bed, Rachel’s death was one of the sorrowful memories of Jacob (Gen. 48:7). Her sorrow over her child would always be remembered in Bethlehem, because there they built a tomb for her, called “Rachel’s Tomb” to this day.
The significance of the birth cannot be missed in the story of Genesis. With the birth of Benjamin the family was complete–twelve sons for Jacob. But this was even more important for the fulfillment of the first stage of the covenant promises, the twelve sons were to become the twelve tribes of Israel. And while eleven of the sons were born outside the promised land, Benjamin was born in the land, a sign not only of the completion of the nation but the continued growth of the nation once they received the land. And most significantly for God’s program, this birth took place in a little town called Bethlehem.
But at great cost! It came with sorrow, Rachel weeping for her child; and it came with death, the death of Rachel. A death in the family is always hard to endure, especially of a close member so loved. But the birth of a child at that time revives the hope of the family, for a child brings happiness and joy and hope to the family. Children, in their innocence and spontaneity, can even soften the pain of a funeral. The pain remains; but the hope of life for the future in time replaces the grief. God in his wisdom chose to signal the dawn of redemption with the birth of a child in Bethlehem who would be Christ, the Lord.
II. The Birth of Obed to Ruth and Boaz
The Book of Ruth
There is not enough time in this message to lay out all the details of this wonderful story. But in order to get the context in mind, an overview will be helpful. There was a man named Elimelech who lived in Bethlehem, Judah. During a famine, he took his wife Naomi and his two sons and went east to live in Moab, the land of Israel’s perennial enemies. There his two sons married, one of them marrying Ruth. In time the father and both sons died, and Naomi and Ruth alone returned to Bethlehem, without a hope in the world–they were poor widows, and one was a Moabite. But in time Boaz discovered Ruth and went out of his way to show her kindness as she gleaned in his fields. When the harvest was in, Boaz worked things out so that he could marry Ruth, and eventually they had a child, Obed. But the text then tells us that Obed was the father of Jesse, the father of David–the king. It is the little genealogy at the end of the story that gives the significance: If Boaz had not married Ruth and had Obed, there would have been no David. Thus, the whole book is about the providence of God in bringing two faithful, responsible people together to ensure that the line of Judah would produce the king.
But the book is a book of contrasts. In chapter one there is a famine; in chapter four there is a harvest. In chapter one there is sadness and bitterness; in chapter four there is joy and celebration. In chapter one there is death; in chapter four there is birth. And chapters two and three in between detail in two parallel stories how the great changes came about. In short, two devout believers were living responsibly in the faith and for the family, and God worked through them to bring about his will.
But the story of Ruth is the story of grace and redemption. It teaches that God can change bitterness into sweetness, sorrow into joy, famine into harvest, death into life. This book is a reminder that he can do this for us all. But this event was special! It was an important birth in the line of the royal family! And it happened in Bethlehem, which would later be known as “the city of David.” This was where the family lived. But if Ruth hadn’t come back from Moab, and if she hadn’t gleaned in Boaz’ field, and if Boaz had not treated her with kindness, and if she had not claimed him as her kinsman redeemer–there would have been no David. But God was not leaving this to chance; he had a plan to bring about this birth, and nothing would hinder it.
Bethlehem, like so many towns, saw hard times and good times, deaths and births. But Bethlehem in the Old Testament would forever be remembered as the little town where God restored life to the family of Judah through Ruth. The birth of Obed was a restorer of life to Naomi and the family. The message gives all people hope that no matter what the circumstances may be, poverty, war, famine, or death, God can change all of that–and in the end will change all of that through Christ. Without this hope, people are simply trapped in the cycle of life, which leads to the grave.
III. The Promise of New Life out of the Ashes of Death
Micah 5:2 and Jeremiah 31
Over the course of time the nation of Israel did not retain such faithfulness to the LORD, and in spite of repeated warnings from the prophets, continued to rebel against God by worshiping false gods and disobeying the Law. Gradually, the announcement of doom and destruction on Israel became more immediate, until in 722 B.C. God allowed the armies of the Assyrians (northern Iraq today) to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. But a few years before that the prophet Micah made an amazing prediction: In spite of the death and destruction for the sins of the nation, there would be a glorious future! Chapter five gives us the promise of a new ruler: “But you, Bethlehem Ephratah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will rule over Israel, whose goings are from old, from everlasting” (v. 2). The context of the book is judgment at the hands of the Assyrians; the promise is for a ruler who will bring deliverance from the enemies and re-unite the people under God’s blessing.
Micah does not give the details of how all this would happen. It did not happen in his lifetime, for the Assyrians completely destroyed Israel and even threatened the southern kingdom of Judah. In fact, it did not happen for over 700 years, because this prophecy was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem–as even the court of Herod the Great knew. The timing of the events is God’s business. But what is remarkable is that in a time of death and despair God chose to reveal the good news. And it centered on the birth of a child in an obscure village called Bethlehem.
How could a birth of someone from an insignificant little town change the course of human history? Well, this was to be no ordinary birth. It would be the birth of a king, a ruler, in the city of David; but the one who would be born would be no ordinary child, for as Micah says, “his goings have been from everlasting.” This was a fulfillment of the eternal plan of God. And we as Christians now know that while there was the birth of a baby, God had sent forth his Son into the world, to be born of Mary. Jesus the Messiah was indeed born in Bethlehem; but the Son of God was sent from above–his goings were from everlasting. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.” It is this “son of David, son of God” (Rom. 1:4) who overcame death by his resurrection, and someday will put down all evil and make all things new. Micah’s prophecy focuses on the birth in Bethlehem, but the significance of that birth has not yet fully been realized.
So Micah and his audience had to endure suffering and death at the hands of the Assyrians, while waiting and hoping for the coming of a glorious new age. Over a hundred years later the prophet Jeremiah added to this hope of a new age with the prophecy of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31).
The southern of Judah had learned nothing from the judgment on the northern kingdom of Israel. And so God declared through his prophets that he was about to bring the Babylonians against them in judgment, and they would destroy Jerusalem (586 B.C.). Once again Israelites faced a terrible time of death and destruction for their sins. And when the invasion came, it was a cruel and painful time for the people of the land, for so many were killed or carried off into captivity. Under divine inspiration, Jeremiah noted the great suffering of the people in the towns, finding in the earlier sad experience of Rachel the imagery to express it. He wrote, “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more” (Jer. 31:15). In a twist of irony, the prophet turned the situation around: Rachel had wept and suffered giving birth to Benjamin, and then she died but the child lived. Now the voice of Rachel, probably a poetic way of describing the mothers in Bethlehem, was heard weeping and grieving, because their sons and daughters were killed or carried off. In the oracle Jeremiah specifically focused on Rachel, and Ramah, just south of Jerusalem, to represent the great suffering of the nation.
However, he immediately declared the Word of the LORD that they should not weep or mourn any more, for there was to be a great deliverance and restoration, a glorious new life with all of God’s blessings. How was this possible, since they had broken the covenant? There was to be a New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-37). God in his grace announced this glorious future at the darkest moment for the people of Judah. He chose to do it this way to demonstrate once again that he alone can change gloom and despair into joy and celebration; he can change death into life. The promise of the New Covenant meant that God was not through with his program, even if that generation failed; rather, the New Covenant would show a glorious triumph over all the forces of evil.
So in these two prophetic passages, each of which is concerned with the destruction and death of Israel and Judah, we have two prophecies for a glorious future, one announcing a new ruler who would bring victory, and the other announcing a New Covenant that would bring the blessings of life. And according to the prophets, the sign for the glorious future would come with a birth in Bethlehem, and that birth and what it meant would offset the great sorrow and death of the people, felt the strongest in Bethlehem.
IV. The Birth of Jesus and the Death of the Innocent Children
And now we come to the Gospel, which at this season of the year is on everyone’s lips. And while the birth of a child is a joyful time, a time filled with hope and prospects for the future, the birth of Jesus was not so joyous. This was due in part to the fact that Herod the Great was on the throne, a murderer who was driven by fear and paranoia. But it was also due to the significance of this birth, for the birth of this particular child Satan sought to prevent. Yes, the birth should be celebrated; but we must not forget the deaths of all those innocent children who became the first martyrs for Christ.
The chapter opens with the visit of the wise men to the palace to ask about the birth of the king. The story is wonderful in its own rights; but we must focus on the outcome: The Magi were directed to Bethlehem because that was where the prophet Micah said it would happen (Matt. 2:6). These political and religious leaders knew the Bible that well–but they were spiritually indifferent–they would not go the 4 miles to Bethlehem to see if it was true. But the wise men did, and there they found the child Jesus. They worshiped him and gave their homage to him. Here, at last, was the birth in Bethlehem that would begin to change life in this painful world. And all who have recognized this child as the incarnate Son of God know the significance of his coming into the world, for all who have put their faith in Jesus the Messiah have experienced a new birth.
The Magi did not report back to Herod, being warned in a dream. And so they made their way home, rejoicing in what they had seen, and trying to grasp the significance of it all. In his “Journey of the Magi” T. S. Eliot writes in the words of the wise men,
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Herod, of course, was in a rage when he discovered the Magi had gone. So he ordered that all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under should be killed. He was calculating from when the Magi must have seen the star and made the long journey to Jerusalem. Jesus was not two years old because of this reference; Herod was hoping not to miss him. It is clear that Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Egypt right after the visit of the Magi, and stayed there til Herod died (which was spring, 4 B.C., a few months after the birth of Jesus).
We do not know how many children were slaughtered, but it was a sufficient number to be seen as a barbaric atrocity and cause great pain throughout the region. And so Matthew recalls the words of Jeremiah hundreds of years earlier, when another ruthless army came through and destroyed the children: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18). The passage had become the most appropriate expression for the suffering of innocent people in this world. But God would have an answer for the lamentation; God will someday make things right, for the Book of Revelation portrays the martyrs closest to the throne and heart of God in glory.
This is not one of the fondest memories of the Christmas story. But it is a stark reminder of the cruelty and evil of this world that can so easily destroy innocent people. Not only has death entered the world because of sin, sinners have used death in the most barbaric ways to gain their objectives. Needlessly, scores of children in Bethlehem died; but one survived the slaughter, the one for whom the malice was intended–Jesus, the Messiah. It is his birth that gives us hope, not just for our own salvation, but hope that the cruelty and wickedness of this world will someday come to an end. It is not a hoping against hope, it is faith in the sure Word of God. But the Lord himself would have to die in our place to pay for our sins, and then rise from the dead to gain the victory, before eternal life could become a reality.
When we think of Bethlehem we think of the birth of a baby, and that, of course is right. But when we remember Bethlehem through the pages of Scripture, we are reminded of the human dilemma, the cycle of birth and death, and all the pain that accompanies this life experience. Bethlehem reminds us that God will bring life out of death, and that has been demonstrated again and again; but each event in the cycle foreshadowed the fulfillment of the prophecies about Bethlehem when God sent his Son into the world to be born in Bethlehem so that he might die for the world and open the way to light and life for all who believe in him.
For those who do not believe in Jesus, called the Christ, the prospects are dim. They will live out this life with their share of pain and sorrow; they may look to the future with the birth of children, but they have little to make sense out of their short lives. Those who believe in Christ and worship him have everything to look forward to. They may not be spared the suffering and death of this world, but the suffering and death and the resurrection of Jesus has taken the sting out of it all. What lies ahead because of Bethlehem is a new life in Christ that transcends everything this world can offer and that will ultimately lead to glory.
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