O Jewish Town of Bethlehem

O Holy Night.
Silent Night.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.

This time of year these are the thoughts most often associated with the birth of the Lord Jesus. Pastoral little Bethlehem, in the midst of shepherds and their sheep, peaceful and tranquil before the appearance of the star and the excitement it brought.

So how did the cradle of Christianity become a stronghold of extremist Palestinians who claim Jesus was the first “Palestinian Christian”?

Bethlehem is referred to 38 times in the Bible: 30 times in the Old Testament and eight in the New. Sometimes its district name, Ephrata, or its southern location, Judah, is mentioned to distinguish it from another Bethlehem located north, in the land of the tribe of Zebulon (Josh. 19:15–16).

The Bible first references Bethlehem at the death of Rachel, Jacob’s wife, who died giving birth to Benjamin: “So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)” (Gen. 35:19). In 1841 Sir Moses Montefiore built a domed memorial over the spot believed to be Rachel’s tomb. Today it is considered a holy place, where barren Jewish women go to pray for children.

The account of Ruth’s life in the book of Ruth begins with a famine in the “House of Bread” (the meaning of Bethlehem), a town that belonged to the tribe of Judah (Mic. 5:2). Later it is referred to simply as “the city of David,” Ruth’s great-grandson (Lk. 2:4, 11).

David not only was born in Bethlehem, but 1 Samuel 16 also records that the prophet Samuel anointed him king there. And the Jewish prophet Micah boldly proclaimed that the Messiah would be born there:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting (Mic. 5:2).

Matthew 2 and Luke 2 record Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem as the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy.

Around A.D. 338, Helena, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, had a church built on the site Christian tradition regarded as the exact location of Jesus’ birth. This Church of the Nativity is a place of pilgrimage for millions of Christians even today.

Christianity spread under Roman rule and flourished further when the Empire was divided east and west. Later, under Muslim rule, many Christians suffered, but the Church of the Nativity was respected. In 1099 the Crusaders captured Bethlehem and made it a fortified outpost.

The Crusader presence ended in 1291. In 1517 the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the Holy Land and ruled it as part of the greater Ottoman Empire until 1917, when British General Edmund Allenby conquered the entire region, east and west of the Jordan River, including the little town of Bethlehem, located just five miles south of Jerusalem.

In 1948, after the British left, Jordan seized control of Samaria and Judea (including Bethlehem), and they became known as the West Bank of Jordan. The Six-Day War of 1967 brought Bethlehem back under Jewish control.

In September 1993, U.S. President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo peace accord that transferred Bethlehem from Israeli to PA rule. On December 23, 1995, a huge crowd gathered to witness the transfer. In his official pronouncement from the roof of the Church of the Nativity, Arafat proclaimed, “Welcome to Bethlehem, birthplace of the first Palestinian Christian, Jesus Christ.” Arafat never let the truth get in his way.

Jesus was no more a “Palestinian” than was King David. At Jesus’ birth the area, called Judea, was part of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, Jesus was every inch a Jew—from the tribe of Judah, “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham,” “born under the law” (Mt. 1:1; Gal. 4:4). Had He walked the earth in Hitler’s Germany, He would have worn an armband bearing the yellow Star of David, along with the rest of His Jewish brethren.

When Arafat arrived in Bethlehem on December 23, he professed with great fanfare to bring peace. Yet within a few years, the Christian majority there had fled en masse. Arafat’s Fatah and intelligence network intimidated and persecuted most of them. The London Times reported in December 1997, “Life in Bethlehem has become insufferable for many members of the dwindling Christian minorities….Tensions have left some Christians reluctant to celebrate Christmas in the town at the heart of the story of Christ’s birth.”

One of the saddest events in Bethlehem’s history took place on April 2, 2002, when 200 Palestinian gunmen forced their way into the Church of the Nativity, seized it, and used it as a refuge. Israeli soldiers surrounded the building but were under strict orders to refrain from damaging it. The siege lasted 39 days, finally ending with the deportation of the militants to Cyprus and Gaza.

Yasser Arafat is no longer on this earth, and Bethlehem never saw his promised peace. Yet God promises a future peace, when the Sar Shalom, the Prince of Peace, the Lord Jesus, will return to His home country of Israel. And when He does, He will not be wearing a kaffiyeh.

1 thought on “O Jewish Town of Bethlehem

  1. When was the last time Jews lived in Bethlehem? No one seems to be able to answer that one. I am always surprised that no Jews seem interested in living there and the Israeli government does not seem to encourage settlements there unlike Hebron as it is important to Jewish history as you have pointed out. There have been stories of some Jews living there covertly and babies born there but I don’t know if its true

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