Black Bethlehem

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As we continue to tell the story of how the Christ child was born, we need to take into account the story that his birth place had already been telling for centuries. That small town provided the perfect backdrop for the work of redemption that the Messiah was going to accomplish. It would be hard to imagine a better statement of the need for the salvation of all men.

We should begin with the stark fact that Bethlehem has always had what might be called outsized significance. It was a village (John 7:42). And in his famous prophecy, Micah pointed to the fact of its small size—it was little among the clans of Judah (Mic. 5:2).

But Matthew 2:6 cites this as saying that Bethlehem was “by no means least among the rulers of Judah.” We may harmonize this apparent conflict by noting that Bethlehem was always small, and yet Bethlehem was at the same time always important. It comes up in the biblical narrative a lot more than a village that size really had any right to expect—long before David was born there, and long before Jesus was born there.

Now Jerusalem was located in the territory that belonged to Benjamin, and Bethlehem is just a few miles south of Jerusalem, in the territory of Judah. This obviously places Bethlehem right near the boundary of Judah and Benjamin.

It is the place where Rachel died (while giving birth to Benjamin) and so she was buried there. The traditional site of her tomb is pointed out to tourists down to this day (Gen. 35:19; 48:7). Samuel used it as a landmark in his instructions to the future king Saul (1 Samuel 10:2). So the first thing to note about this village is that it is the memorialized place of Jacob’s grief.

A couple of real curiosities with regard to Bethlehem occupy the last part of the book of Judges. In the first half of the book, we have numerous stories about Israel’s judges and how they delivered Israel many different times. But then the last part of the book is dedicated to a couple of horror stories, both of which involved Bethlehem, and which seem odd.

On the reasonable (and ancient) supposition that Judges and Ruth were written by the prophet Samuel, we may well ask why he included these two lengthy stories at the end of Judges. The judges ruled Israel down through Samson (Judges 1-16). Then in Judges 17-18, we have an apparently random story about a man named Micah who stole 1100 pieces of silver from his mother, returned it, and they make an idol. He recruits a Levite named Jonathan from Bethlehem to be a renegade priest, who is subsequently recruited by a roving band of Danites to go off with them (Judg. 18:30). The thing that makes this striking is that this Levite from Bethlehem is Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Moses.

Then we have the appalling story of the rape and murder of another Levite’s concubine, her dismemberment, and the near eradication of the tribe of Benjamin (Judg. 19-21). The concubine was also from Bethlehem, was unfaithful to her husband up north in Ephraim, and then came back to Bethlehem for four months. In this second story, the name of Bethlehem is brought up four times. The concubine was from Bethlehem, David’s village, and her assailants were from Gibeah, which was Saul’s home town. And the resultant war on Benjamin was directed by Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron.

With these two stories, if we are dealing with the grandsons of Moses and Aaron respectively, we have to wonder why these stories are placed at the end of Judges, when they would need to have happened at the very beginning of the period of the judges. If they are chronologically out of order, then it would appear to be in order to highlight some aspect of those stories. And Samuel all but tells us why he included the book of Ruth, a story that takes place almost entirely in Bethlehem. In a very real way, the story of Ruth is about Bethlehem.

“And all the people that were in the gate, and the elders, said, We are witnesses. The LORD make the woman that is come into thine house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel: and do thou worthily in Ephratah, and be famous in Beth-lehem: And let thy house be like the house of Pharez, whom Tamar bare unto Judah, of the seed which the LORD shall give thee of this young woman”

Ruth 4:11–12; vv. 18-22 (KJV)

The wise men that Herod consulted told him that the Messiah was to be from Bethlehem and they cited Micah 5:2 in support. I am suggesting that the birthplace of the Messiah to come was perhaps known as early as the time of Samuel. Peter said that all the prophets, from Samuel on, spoke of the days of the Christ (Acts 3:24). Micah certainly spoke the truth, but I don’t think it was a new truth.

Jeremiah prophesied (Jer. 31:15) that Rachel would be given over to weeping for her children, which was fulfilled when Rachel’s daughters lost their sons to Herod’s cruelty (Matt. 2:18). This was fulfilled by the slaughter of the small boys at Bethlehem, but we should remember that Ramah was just a few miles away.

And so here is the point. Banish from your minds a quaint little Bethlehem, filled with traditional values, holly wreaths, and silver bells, the kind of place that our secular humanists love to make war on. No. Bethlehem means house of bread, but Elimelech took his family away because of famine (Ruth 1:1). The grandson of Moses came from there, and became a priest-for-hire, introducing gross idolatry into Israel. Bethlehem was a place of deep grief—Rachel’s tomb, and centuries later, Rachel refusing to be comforted. A fratricidal civil war swirled around Bethlehem, a war that happened all because a woman from that town was raped and murdered. And then David, clearly under the favor of God, was essentially hidden out by the sheep pens when the prophet Samuel came to anoint the next king of Israel.

So Bethlehem provides a wonderful witness to our desperate need for cleansing and salvation. Without the forgiveness of Christ, we do awful things to one another, whether we dwell in big cities or in small towns, whether it is centuries before Christ or centuries after, whether we are tall or short, male or female, white or black, red or brown.

Wicked Bethlehem, dark Bethlehem, lost Bethlehem, black Bethlehem, broken Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.

There are glimmers of the light to come—Phinehas, Rahab, Boaz, Ruth, Samuel, David. There are glimmers by grace. We do see real covenant loyalty. But we do not see real hope, we do not see true grace rise like the sun on a summer day until Joseph helped Mary to lie down on the straw, so that she might in that place give birth to the desire of nations.

In Bethlehem, of all places.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.

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1 year ago

This made me wish, not for the first time, for a sermon series on Judges.

Lucy Barry
Lucy Barry
1 year ago

Extremely interesting. Good job.