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Bethlehem before the Birth of Jesus
"Then they moved on from Bethel. While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty. And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth, the midwife said to her, "Don't be afraid, for you have another son. As she breathed her last --for she was dying --she named her son Ben-oni. But his father named him Benjamin. So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel's tomb"(Gen. 35,16-19).
Bethlehem is first mentioned in the Scriptures in connection with the death of Rachel. It is also the backdrop for the idyll of Ruth, the Moabite:
"When Naomi realised that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, "Can this be Naomi?" "Don't call me Naomi, " she told them. "Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me." So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning. Now Naomi had a relative on her husband's side, from the clan of Elimelech, a man of standing, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, "Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour." Naomi said to her, "Go ahead, my daughter." So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters......." (Ruth 1,18 ff.).
In the bible it is called "Bethlehem of Judah" (belonging to the tribe of Judah) to distinguish it from the other Bethlehem which was in the North, in the territory of Zebulon (today Beth-Lehem 12km from Nazareth). It was also the birthplace of King David. When King Saul was rejected by God Samuel went to Bethlehem where he anointed David as king of Israel:
Samuel did what the LORD said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, "Do you come in peace?" Samuel replied, "Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me." Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord's anointed stands here before the LORD." But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, "The Lord has not chosen this one either." Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, "Nor has the Lord chosen this one." Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, "The Lord has not chosen these." So he asked Jesse, "Are these all the sons you have?" "There is still the youngest," Jesse answered, "but he is tending the sheep." Samuel said, "Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives." So he sent and had him brought in. He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the Lord said, "Rise and anoint him; he is the one." So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power. Samuel then went to Ramah." (1Sam 16,4-13).
On the death of Saul, David was acknowledged king by the tribe of Judah, and when Isobeth, the last of the sons of Saul died, all Israel tendered him their allegiance. David had continued the war against the Philistines, and for seven and a half years with Hebron as his capital he was the champion of Israelite unity. Bethlehem itself was garrisoned by the Philistines, as we know from the episode in 2Sam 23, when David wished to drink of the water of the well of Bethlehem:
"At that time David was in the stronghold, and the Philistine garrison was at Bethlehem. David longed for water and said, "Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!" So the three mighty men broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David. But he refused to drink it; instead, he poured it out before the Lord."
After the success of the revolt and his recognition by all the tribes as their King, David looked for a capital. He could well have chosen his town Bethlehem. But cunningly and wittingly he did not want to in order to avoid further division between the tribes. This is when he opted for the city of the Jebusites, Jerusalem, which, although it was in the territory of Judah, did not belong to any of the twelve tribes of Israel.
When David was beyond the Jordan, at the time of the revolt of Absalom, Barzellai, a petty chief of Gilead, had rendered him numerous services. In testimony of his gratitude David brought his son, Chamaan, to Jerusalem, showered benefits upon him and probably gave him part of the land of his native town (2Sam 19,37). To shelter his flocks Chamaan caused an immense caravanserai to be erected, near Bethlehem, and the building was named after him. It was also to serve as an ordinary station for caravans on their way to Egypt. The prophet Jeremiah, in fact, relates that the Jews, having decided to fly for safety to the banks of the Nile after the murder of Godolias, "assembled in the Khan of Chamaan near Bethlehem" (Jer. 41, 17).
In Bethlehem also were born Joab, Abisai and Asael, the three sons of Sarvia, David's sister. Joab was the first to scale the walls of Jebus, for which he was made captain-in-chief of the king's army. Abisai, the inseparable companion of David, once saved the king's life by slaying the Philistine giant Jesbibenot, "the iron of whose spear weighed 300 ounces". Asael, the swiftest runner among David's "valiant men", lost his life in one of the exploits near Gabaon. His companions in arms bore his corpse to Bethlehem to give it honourable sepulchre in the tomb of his ancestors.
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. " Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labour gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace. (Mic 5,2-5)