Until recently, if you’d have asked me what I imagined the town of Bethlehem to have been like in Bible times, I would have described a pleasant hillside village on a cool evening surrounded by peace and quiet. I assumed the Christmas story takes place in a sort of wholesome US Midwest small farming town, where people are generally friendly and values matter.
It turns out that the Bible paints a startlingly different picture of Bethlehem. The place is first mentioned in Genesis in connection with Rachel, the favorite wife of the patriarch Jacob. She dies in childbirth, naming her son BenOni, which means Son of My Sorrow. Jacob buries Rachel in Bethlehem and sets up a pillar over her tomb as a visible reminder of the sadness associated with this location.
After Genesis, the next two stories with references to Bethlehem come in the book of Judges which records a very dark time in Israel’s history. The first story concerns a citizen in Ephraim who crafts an idol made of silver and then hires a Levite from Bethlehem to be the priest for his false god. It’s a good gig for the Levite until warriors from Dan come and steal the idol. But it all works out because the warriors end up bribing the Levite from Bethlehem to become their priest instead. The second story from Judges concerns another Levite who has a concubine (think: mistress) from Bethlehem. The two are on a journey and overnight in Gibeah. The locals demand to have sex with the traveler, but he offers them his concubine instead. The concubine is gang raped and ends up dying after the ordeal. So what does the Levite do with his deceased concubine from Bethlehem? He takes a knife and cuts up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sends them into all the areas of Israel which then plunges the country into civil war.
After the book of Judges comes the story of Ruth. It begins with a famine in Bethlehem (ironically, the name Bethlehem means House of Bread) that drives Naomi’s family to Moab. Naomi later returns to Bethlehem as a childless, bitter widow.
We learn in 1 Samuel that the great king David is from Bethlehem. But we’re first introduced to him as the youngest son of Jesse who doesn’t bother inviting his boy to the feast when the prophet Samuel asks to meet all of Jesse’s sons. The town is again part of a story in 2 Samuel, but the lines on the map have been redrawn: Israel has lost Bethlehem and it is under the control of the Israelite’s enemies, the Philistines, at this point in history.
We read about Bethlehem once more in the New Testament soon after Jesus’ birth in that town when King Herod goes on a murderous rampage in an effort to destroy “the one who has been born king of the Jews.” The despot kills all children in Bethlehem 2-years-old and younger.
To summarize: Stories in the Bible connected with Bethlehem are filled with grief, idolatry, sexual immorality, war, depression, family dysfunction, military weakness, and infanticide. As Verlyn D. Verbrugge puts it, Bethlehem’s history “is connected with either extreme sadness, unfaithfulness, and seedy or despicable behavior.”
Yet despite its sketchy history, God chooses Bethlehem as the birthplace for His Son! I see in God’s choice of Bethlehem a picture of God’s redemptive purposes – His tendency to rescue the most hopeless of situations.
I head into Christmas fully aware that I do not have the perfect family that people might be inclined to think we have based solely on the smiling faces on our Christmas photo card. Our home is not always a haven but sometimes a place filled with stress and short tempers. There always seem to be temptations vying for my attention and opportunities for me to mess up and hurt others.
Yet I need not despair: If God can bring something (Someone!) good out of Bethlehem (of all places, it turns out!), then God can use me and whatever mess I find myself in. The Good News is that God specializes in redeeming bad places, relationships, and situations.
Which, of course, is why Jesus came to Bethlehem in the first place.