The Geography of the Christmas Story

Biblical Stories

Nazareth to Bethlehem

Route from Nazareth to Bethlehem

The Bible is filled with stories. They are narratives that don’t take place in a vacuum. For each story of the Bible, there is a cultural context in which it takes place. Many Bible commentators consider the cultural contexts of these stories in order to extract an accurate meaning. There is also an historical-political context to each story. This means paying attention to what took place historically in the region surrounding the events of the story.

“Connecting the Dots”

Additionally, there is also a geographical context to each story. Understanding the geographical surroundings of the story helps the student of the Bible connect the dots between the regions or cities that are part of the narrative. “Connecting the dots” between regions and cities is an integral part of every Israel tour we lead. The Christmas story is one of those narratives where understanding the geographical context sheds light on the amazement of God’s redemptive story.

Nazareth, Israel

The city of Nazareth today

According to the Gospel text, Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth. It is located in the Lower Galilee region (today Nazareth is a city of about 80,000 consisting of primarily Arabs who are citizens of Israel). The town of Nazareth was a small city, so insignificant that it is not even mentioned in the Jewish Talmud. The village consisted of perhaps as few as a dozen families. Located just 4-5 miles away was Sepporis, the primary city in the region.  So in this geographical region of Lower Galilee, Nazareth was insignificant in light of Sepporis.  Yet this was where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary (and later an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream (Matthew 1:18f). Isn’t that just like God, to call, use, and inspire common people from common places for His redemptive purpose!

When the Time Came

When the time came, Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem. The direct distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem is about 60 miles. However, most Jews traveling from the Galilee in the north to Jerusalem and Bethlehem to the south took the Jordan River Valley route.  Intentionally avoiding the region of Samaria, this would have made the trip about 15 miles longer, for a total of about 75 miles.  This route would have taken the young couple through the eastern branch of the Jezreel Valley and past Bethshean before turing south in the Jordan River Valley. This means the journey to Bethlehem would have taken them a good 5-6 days. In regard to Mary’s condition, how about covering this distance while very pregnant? That’s quite impressive actually! Tradition places Mary riding on a donkey led by Joseph walking on foot. However, there is no reason not to believe that she would have walked most of this herself even in her pregnant condition. It was a difficult trip either way!

The Route

Ascent of Adummim

The Ascent of Adummim. This is the route taken by Jospeh and Mary from Jericho to Jerusalem & Bethlehem (credit: Bible Places)

The route would have continued from Jericho, located just north of the Dead Sea, to Jerusalem. This was the ancient “Jericho Road” that ascended about 4,000 feet in elevation up the Ascent of Adummim (the most difficult section of the route) through the Judean Desert to Judea’s capital city in the Judean Hill Country. Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph’s final destination, is located about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. While Bethlehem was probably not as small as Nazareth, it, too, was overshadowed by the awe and glory of Jerusalem. Additionally, located just about 4 miles east of Bethlehem was Herodium, one of Herod the Great’s “palace-fortresses.”  While we can’t specifically place this wicked king residing at Herodium at the precise time of the birth of Christ (he was most likely in his palace in Jerusalem though just 5 miles north), this towering fortress represented something “grand and mighty” in comparison to the humble birth of Jesus.

Now enter the “wise men or Magi. Whoever they were, they traveled from the east quite a distance, crossing the desert region. They must have traveled for months before finally first arriving in Jerusalem and staying there for some time before eventually finding the “house” of Joseph and Mary (Matthew 2:11). The geographical distance these Mede / Persian astronomers would have been at least hundreds of miles, up to 500 miles, depending on where they were from.

Real Places with a Real Reason

Jesus light of the worldWhat does knowing a little about the geography of Christmas do for us?  It helps put into context the remarkable ways that God prepared the scene for the coming of His Son. It places the narrative of Christmas in various and unique geographical regions. Some of these regions are hilly (Lower Galilee), flat (Jezreel Valley, Jordan River Valley), and mountainous (Judean Desert, Hill Country of Judah). Most of all, it places the birth narrative of Jesus in real places with a real reason!

Jesus came “just at the right time” (Gal. 4:4) to provide an answer to sin and its consequences. He came to bring light. He came to be the Light in a dark world!

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Christmas – A Bethlehem Shepherd’s View

Charlie Brown’s Christmas

shepherd in Bethlehem

A shepherd in Bethlehem

Once again this Christmas Season I watched the Charlie Brown’s Christmas. It is an oldie from 1965. Watching it again takes me back not only to my childhood days when we watched the show on an old tube TV with a rabbit ear antenna drawing in the signal (my oh my, have days changed!). But this classic Charles M. Schulz cartoon also takes me back to Israel, specifically to the fields on the outskirts of Bethlehem. This is where the story of all stories took place 2,000 years ago! And shepherds were a big part of the story!

Bethlehem Shepherds

There are many shepherds who live in and around Bethlehem. Located about five miles south of Jerusalem in the Hill Country of Judah, Bethlehem is an historic place. Mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), this was the ancient town connected with people from the Bible (e.g. Rachel, Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz, as well as with David). In the words of the prophet Micah, “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 (Micah 5:2).” This ancient 8th century prophet continues (in 5:4) by mentioning the role of the shepherd. In fact, the one to be born in Bethlehem (Jesus) would be one who would “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.”

Today, Bethlehem is inhabited by about 20,000 Arabs (not counting to two neighboring towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala). Of this population, only about 10-15% are Arab Christians. At the center of the city of Bethlehem is the Church of Nativity and Manger Square. Originally built by the order of Constantine’s mother Helena in the 4th century and later rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in the 530s, the church represents of the centerpieces of the Christian faith, namely, the location of the birth of Jesus!

A Shepherd named Mansour

The region of Bethlehem

The area of Bethlehem

About a year ago I came across this video about one particular Bethlehem shepherd named Mansour. With the help of the wonderful Arab Christian community in Bethlehem (e.g. Bethlehem Bible College, Rev. Danny Awad, and others), this video was produced to bridge the ancient with the present.

In the birth narrative, it were shepherds who were the first to greet the newborn Jesus. Going no doubt to a nearby cave where Jesus as born, these shepherds saw with their own eyes the fulfillment of what Micah the prophet of old mentioned 750 years prior.

In the video you will see modern day Bethlehem. Despite being surrounded with many religious and even political challenges that face them, the Bethlehem Christians you will see and hear in the video still speak of the hope and peace that Christ brings them. Especially powerful are the words spoken by one Arab Christian who says, “I think Jesus is knocking on the doors of the hearts of people. And he ask for anyone open to him to start a new Christmas with him…”

In the words of Mansour the Bethlehem shepherd, “Isa (Jesus) is the Prince of Peace!” This is the message of Christmas!

Is Jesus knocking on the door of your heart this Christmas Season? If so, be sure to let Him in and discover the true joy of Christmas!

 

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September 2017 Israel Tour – Day 8

DAY 8 – SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 10:

Today would be another sunny day, with highs in the 90s (a bit above normal for Jerusalem this time of year). Pulling out of the hotel once again shortly after 7:30, we drove to the excavations of the City of David.

City of David

The City of David

The City of David was previously called Jebus. According to the Bible, David conquered the city (2 Sam. 5). We saw many of the ruins here (walls towers, David’s fortress) dating to biblical times. Walking through Warren’s Shaft we came to the water source of there city, the Gihon Spring. Here is also where some in the group entered Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a 1,720 foot water tunnel carved out of the bedrock. Some in the group walked through the earlier “dry” Canaanite tunnel. Both groups converged at the Siloam Pool where we heard John 9 read in dramatic fashion. Here we celebrated that Jesus continues to open our eyes and hearts, allowing us to see Him.

From here some in the group walked up the Herodian drainage channel up to the south wall excavations of Herod’s Temple, while others took the bus up to this area. Meeting at the SW corner of the Temple, we stood amazed at the remarkable building project of Herod’s temple. Even the disciples made this comment (Mark 13:1-2). Finally, we walked to the southern steps of the Temple, the primary way for commoners to enter the Temple in Jesus’ day. We remembered the stories of many who would have used there steps (Jesus, disciples, Simeon, Peter, Paul, and the apostles, etc…). Before leaving this area, we also entered the Western Wall area.

HEzekiah's tunnel

Hezekiah’s Tunnel

This afternoon we drove south to the area of Bethlehem. First, we enjoyed lunch outside the Shepherds’ Fields before descending down into a cave. Here we considered the role of the shepherds in Jesus’ day and the amazement of God’s redemptive plan! It was “just at the right time that God sent His Son. (Gal. 4:4).” We enjoyed singing a few Christmas carols in the cave as well as in the small chapel.

Further east is Herodium. This was where Herod the Great was buried. The view from the top of this “palace-fortress” was good. We could see Jerusalem to the north, the Dead Sea and Judea Desert to the east, and Bethlehem to the west. We left the site by descending down through the cistern system. We also saw where Herod was buried.

Herodium

Herodium

Our last stop of the day was an olive wood factory and store in Bethlehem. We joined not only seeing how the olive wood items are made, but also some shopping here.

We drove back to the hotel for our farewell dinner. Nearly half in the group are flying home tonight back to the States. Shlomo and David drove these folks to the Ben Gurion Airport for their night-flight home. The other half of the group will enjoy a four more days here in Israel.

DAY 9 – MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 11: ARRIVAL BACK IN THE U.S.A OR BEGINNING OF THE OPTIONAL EXTENSION – SHILOH AND HIKE IN WADI QELT/JUDEAN DESERT

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June 2017 Israel Tour – Day 10 Summary

DAY 10 – WEDNESDAY, JUNE 21:

Jerusalem

Overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem

Today was our first full day in Jerusalem. The weather was sunny but with much cooler temps, with highs around 80. Leaving our hotel around 7:30 again, we drove to the Mt. of Olives. We drove around the western and northern parts of the Old City, and across the Kidron Valley to Gert there. The view from the top was spectacular, providing us a panoramic view of the City of David (to the south), the Old City, and the Temple Mount. Walking down to Palm Sunday path to Dominus Flevit (“the Lord weeps”), we read from Luke 19 and Zechariah 14 about Jesus’ kingship and 2nd Coming. Further down the slope we enjoyed a reflective time in the Garden of Gethsemane in a private garden. We read from Luke 22 and considered the passion of Jesus. Brother Diego warmly greeted us.

Walking into the Old City through the Lion’s Gate (also called St. Stephen’s and Jericho Gate), we visited the Pool of Bethesda (John 5). On the same grounds is St. Anne’s Church. We enjoyed singing in this Crusader church that has an eight second echo. We sounded like a grand choir!

Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane

Walking through the Old City we arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is the traditional location for both the crucifixion and burial of Christ. Going inside we saw a classic “2nd Temple” (New Testament era) niche tomb.

After lunch in the Christian Quarter, we walked out of the Old City through Jaffa Gate where our bus picked us up. We drove about 8 miles southeast to Herodium. This was another of Herod the Great’s “palace-fortresses.” This was also where Herod was buried. We climbed this “artificial” mound and saw the ruins. The view in all directions was very good as well. We could even see the Dead Sea from here. Descending through the cistern system, we saw some frescos as well as the place of Herod’s grave.

Herodium

Herodium

Close by are the Shepherds’ Fields. Descending into a cave, we considered God’s redemptive plan in that “just at the right time God sent His Son (Galatians 4:4).” We sang some Christmas carols both in the cave as well as in the small chapel. The gals who sang sounded angelic!

We ended the day by visiting an olive wood factory and store owned by Arab Christians. Bethlehem is known for the production of olive wood products.

We drove back to our hotel for dinner. An optional walk to Ben Yehuda for a taste of more modern Israeli life followed.

DAY 11 – THURSDAY, JUNE 22: OLD CITY, WESTERN WALL TUNNEL, ISRAEL MUSEUM, YAD VASHEM

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April-May 2017 Israel-Egypt Tour Update: Day 9

DAY 9 – TUESDAY, MAY 2:

Today we left around 7:30 a.m. once again after another great breakfast. The day would be gorgeous, with lots of sun, a few clouds, and temps around 80 again.

Mt. of Olives

Standing on the Mt. of Olives in Jerusalem

Leaving the hotel, we read from Psalm 125 (“As the mountains surround Jerusalem”), we drove around part of the Old City to the top of the Mt. of Olives. Here we enjoyed a breath-taking view of the Temple Mount and Old City below. This included being able to see the City of David (OT Jerusalem), Mt. Zion, and Mt. Moriah (both Solomon built the 1st Temple, 2 Chronicles 3). Today the Dome of the Rock (691-2 AD) stands on the Temple Mount. We read from Luke 19 (about Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance and His weeping over Jerusalem), and Zechariah 14 (about His 2nd coming).

Walking further down the Mt. of Olives, we had special entrance into a private area of the Garden of Gethsemane. Here we read from Luke 22 and spent time in quiet reflection as we considered the passion of Jesus. Father Diego greeted us and shared some thoughtful words with us.

Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane

Walking into the Old City through the St. Stephen’s Gate (also called the Lions and Jericho Gate), we visited the Pool of Bethesda. We read from John 5. On the same grounds is St. Anne’s Church. We enjoyed singing in this Crusader Church. The acoustics in the church were fantastic!

Walking along the Via Dolorosa, we arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was built in 325 AD. We took a quick peak inside before lunch in the Christian Quarter.

Edicule

The Edicule inside the Holy Sepulcher Church in Jerusalem

Walking out of the Jaffa Gate we met our bus and drove to Herodium. Located only a few miles east of Bethlehem, this was one of Herod’s palace-fortresses.” We climbed this “artificial” mountain and saw a great view of Jerusalem to the north, Bethlehem to the west, Tekoa to the south, and the Judean Desert to the east.

From here we drove to the Shepherds’ Fields. Entering a cave, we celebrated the role of the shepherds and the humble birth of Jesus. We considered the words of Paul, “For just at the right time, God sent His Son…” (Galatians 4:4). We also enjoyed singing a few carols, both in the cave and in the Shepherds’ Chapel. A Polish and Argentina group joined us in the singing of Silent Night.

Western Wall

The Western Wall at night!

We ended the day in Bethlehem. We visited an olive wood shop and store owned by Palestinian Christians living here. Here we also celebrated David’s (our bus driver) birthday with a cake and candle.

We drove back to the hotel for dinner, followed by an optional walk to the Western Wall.

DAY 10 – WEDNESDAY, MAY 3: CITY OF DAVID, HEZEKIAH’S TUNNEL, SOUTHERN WALL EXCAVATIONS, FREE AFTERNOON, GARDEN TOMB

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Biblical Israel & Jordan Tour, March 2017 – Day 10 Summary

DAY 10 – WEDNESDAY, MARCH 22:

Temple Mount and Jerusalem

The view of Jerusalem from the Mt. of Olives

Today was our first day in Jerusalem. The weather was overcast in the morning, but with sun and clouds in the afternoon, with temps in the 60s.

Driving around the north part of the Old City of Jerusalem, our first glimpse of the Temple Mount and Old City below was from the Mt. of Olives. Looking across the Kidron Valley we could see almost the entire city from here. Walking down a little further we read from Luke 19 and Zechariah 14 about the Palm Sunday event and the prophecy about Christ’s return. Continuing down the slope we spent about an hour in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was a reflective time of contemplating the passion of Jesus who in this place said, “Not my will be yours be done.”

Garden of Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane, Mt. of Olives

From here we walked into the Old City through the St. Stephen’s (Lion’s / Jericho) gate. Just inside the city was St. Anne’s Church and the Pools of Bethesda. We enjoyed the marvelous “echo” as we sang in the church. We also read John 5.

Walking the Via Dolorosa (mainly shops) to the Holy Sepulcher Church (one possible location for Christ’s crucifixion and burial), we visited the church inside and saw the newly-cleaned chamber that houses the tomb of Jesus.

Following lunch in the Christian Quarter, we walked out the Jaffa Gate and boarded our buses. Driving south and east about 8 miles, we arrived at Herodium. This was one of six “palace-fortresses” of Herod the Great. When he died in Jericho in 4 BC, his body was transported and buried here. It was discovered about 6 years ago. We walked to the top of this archaeological site and saw the towers of the fortress, the bathhouse, the synagogue, and the cistern system. On the way out we got a glance at the recently-revealed frescos that were part of the reception room to the tomb.

Tomb of Christ

The newly-renovated Tomb of Christ within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

Driving to Beit Sahor, we enjoyed a time of singing Christmas carols in a cave in the Shepherds’ Fields. We read from Luke 2 and Galatians 4:4 and celebrated that “just at the right time God sent His Son.” We also sang a few carols in the chapel as well.

We ended the day by stopping at an olive wood factory and store in Bethlehem. Many purchased olive products made here from local olive wood.

We drove back to the hotel for dinner. Following dinner, most in the group enjoyed a special sound and light show at David’s Citadel. We was really well done.

It was a great first day here in Jerusalem!

DAY 11 – THURSDAY, MARCH 23: OLD CITY, WAILING WALL, WESTERN WALL TUNNEL, TEMPLE MOUNT SIFTING PROJECT, ISRAEL MUSEUM, YAD VASHEM

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January 2017 Pastors Israel Tour – Day 7

DAY 7- SUNDAY, JANUARY 29:

Mt. of Olives

The January 2017 Pastor-Spouse group standing on the Mt. of Olives in Jerusalem

We awoke today to a wonderful sunny day. Although the air was cool (high 40s), it provided very clear visibilities. We left the hotel shortly after 7:30. Circling the Old City of Jerusalem (with walls dating to 1537 AD), we drove up the Mt. of Olives. Here we got our first panoramic view of the Old City and Temple Mount. Walking down the western slope of the Mt. of Olives we stopped at the Dominus Flavet chapel. Here we read from Luke 19 about the Palm Sunday event and Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. We also recalled His ascension (Luke 24, Acts 1) as well as His return on the Mt. of Olives (Zech. 14).

Continuing our walk further down the slope we stopped at a special place connection with the Garden of Gethsemane. We read from Luke 22 and enjoyed some quiet time of reflection. It was here where Jesus said, “Not my will but Yours be done.” It was also here where Jesus was betrayed by Judas.

Eastern Gate

The Eastern Gate in Jerusalem (closed since 810 AD)

From here we walked across the Kidron Valley to the St. Stephen’s Gate (also called Lions & Jericho Gate). We saw the Eastern Gate (Ezekiel 44) which has been closed shut since 810 AD. Entering the Old City, we enjoyed singing in a Crusader church called St. Anne’s Church. The acoustics produce an echo of about 8 seconds. On the same grounds is the Pool of Bethesda. We read John 5 about the lame man being healed here.

Walking through the Muslim and Christian Quarters, we arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is one of to suggested places for the crucifixion and burial site of Jesus. Inside we saw an example of a 2nd Temple tomb dating to the time of Christ.

Dead Sea

Incredible view of the Dead Sea from Herodium

After lunch in the Christian Quarter, we walked out of the Jaffa Gate and drove southeast about 8 miles to Herodium. This was where King Herod was buried when he died in 4 BC. Climbing this palace-fortress, we enjoyed a spectacular view of the area. The clear skies enabled us to see Jerusalem to the north, Bethlehem to the east, and the Judean Desert & Dead Sea to the east. We descended down through the cistern system. Through glass, we also were able to see the Herodian frescos.

In Beit Sahour (an eastern suburb of Bethlehem), we enjoyed singing Christmas carols in a cave in the Shepherds’ Fields. We also sang in the Chapel of the Shepherds. We read from Luke 2 and Galatians 4:4 (“for just at the right time God sent His Son…”).

We ended the day in Bethlehem at an olive wood shop and store. This shop and store is owned by Palestinian Christians. We returned to our hotel for dinner and an optional walk to Ben Yehuda to get a taste of some Israeli modern life.

DAY 8 – MONDAY, JANUARY 30: OLD CITY, WAILING WALL, WESTERN WALL TUNNEL, JEWISH QUARTER, ISRAEL MUSEUM, YAD VASHEM

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January 2017 Israel Tour – Day 12

DAY 12 – SATURDAY, JANUARY 21:

The garden tomb

The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem

We left the hotel at 8 a.m. this morning. The day would our coolest day thus far (highs in mid 50s) but with a nice mix of sun and clouds. Our first stop was the Garden Tomb located on the north side of the Old City. Here we had a local guide show us the suggested places of crucifixion (“skull hill”) and the burial of Christ. After seeing and going into the tomb, we enjoyed a time of worship and Scripture. We also observed Communion together as we remembered Jesus’ death and resurrection. He is risen! He is risen indeed!

Driving to West Jerusalem, we visited the Israel Museum. Here we saw three things. First, the 1:50 model of Jerusalem as it looked during the days of Jesus was spectacular! We reviewed the life and ministry of Christ as it took place here in Jerusalem as well as specifically within the Temple. We recalled the words of Mark 12 and Luke 21 about how amazed and impressed the disciples were when they left this remarkable temple of Herod. Next, we walked through the Shrine of the Book. Here we saw some of the Dead Sea Scrolls that were found at Qumran. This included portions of the Temple Scroll found in Cave 11 (that some of us saw a few days ago). Lastly, we were led through the archaeological wing of the museum, seeing highlights of different discoveries at archaeological sites around Israel. This included such finds such as the Dan and Pilate Inscriptions, the Arad High Place, Herod’s coffin, and much more!

1:50 model of Jerusalem

The 1:50 scale Jerusalem Model at the Israel Museum

This afternoon we drove south of Jerusalem to the Bethlehem area. First after lunch in Beit Sahour (more shawarma), we enjoyed singing Christmas carols in one of the caves of the Shepherds’ Fields. We read from Luke 2 and Galatians 4:4 that reminded us that “just at the right time, God sent His Son…” We also enjoyed “Joseph’s Song” sung by one of our tour family. We also sang a few carols in the Chapel of the Shepherds.

Just east a few miles is Herodium. This served as one of King Herod’s fortress-palaces. This was where Herod was buried. Climbing the site provided a great view of the region around. We could clearly see the Dead Sea and Judean Desert to the east, Tekoa to the south, and Jerusalem & the Mt. of Olives to the north. We exited the site through the cistern system.

The region of Bethlehem and Hill country of Judah

The area of Bethlehem and the Hill Country of Judah

To end the day, we stopped at an olive wood factory and store. Bethlehem is famous for quality olive wood. The store is owned by Palestinian Christians.

Leaving Bethlehem, we arrived back to the hotel and ate dinner together. About half in the group then were driven to Ben Yehuda for some “off-traffic” browsing and shopping in a modern part of the city. Walking back, we stopped at the King David hotel to see the famous signatures written on the floor. We also saw Herod’s family tomb, complete with an intact “rolling stone.”

We have one more full day left here in this remarkable city of Jerusalem!

DAY 13 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 22: CITY OF DAVID, HEZEKIAH’S TUNNEL, SILOAM POOL, SOUTHERN EXCAVATIONS, YAD VASHEM

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O Little Town of Bethlehem

Church of nativity

The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem

MERRY CHRISTMAS! Bethlehem during the Christmas season is a festive place to be! Today, the city has a population o 20,000 or so (with adjoining neighboring cites – Beit Sahour and Beit Jaja adding a few more thousand), of which about 80-85% are Arab Muslims, and 15-20% or Arab Christians. There is a small but very strong evangelical presence in Bethlehem. The Bethlehem Bible College has held its own despite the deceasing Christian population. Be sure to continually pray for our Christian Arab brothers and sisters living in this ancient birth-place of Christ!

In this brief blog today, enjoy a video peek of Bethlehem and the Church of Nativity (one of the oldest churches in the world!). Manger Square will be quite active tonight (Christmas Eve) with choirs all over the world performing and services taking place.

Merry Christmas!

VIDEO:

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Christmas from a Bethlehem Shepherd’s Perspective

shepherd in Bethlehem

A shepherd in Bethlehem

There are many shepherds who live in and around Bethlehem. Located about five miles south of Jerusalem in the Hill Country of Judah, Bethlehem is an historic place. Mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), this was the ancient ton connected with people from the Bible such as Rachel, Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz, as well as with David. In the words of the prophet Micah, “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 (Micah 5:2).” This ancient 8th century prophet continues (in 5:4) by mentioning the role of the shepherd. In fact, the one to be born in Bethlehem would be one who would “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.”

Today, Bethlehem is inhabited by about 20,000 Arabs (not counting to two neighboring towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala). Of this population, only about 10-15% are Arab Christians. At the center of the city of Bethlehem is the Church of Nativity and Manger Square. Originally built by Constantine’s mother in the 4th century and later rebuilt by Emperor Justinian in the 530s, the church represents of the centerpieces of the Christian faith, namely, the location of the birth of Jesus!

Bethlehem and church of nativity

Bethlehem the the Church of Nativity at night

I recently came across this video about one particular Bethlehem shepherd named Mansour. With the help of the wonderful Arab Christian community in Bethlehem (e.g. Bethlehem Bible College, Rev. Danny Awad, and others), this video was produced to bridge the ancient with the present.

In the birth narrative, it were shepherds who were the first to greet the newborn Jesus. Going no doubt to a nearby cave where Jesus as born, these shepherds saw with their own eyes the fulfillment of what Micah the prophet of old mentioned 750 years prior.

In the video you will see modern day Bethlehem. Despite being surrounded with many religious and even political challenges that face them, the Bethlehem Christians you will see and hear in the video still speak of the hope and peace that Christ brings them. Especially powerful are the words spoken by one Arab Christian who says, “I think Jesus is knocking on the doors of the hearts of people. And he ask for anyone open to him to start a new Christmas with him…”

In the words of Mansour the Bethlehem shepherd, “Isa (Jesus) is the Prince of Peace!” This is the message of Christmas!

 

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