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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Silent Night, O Holy Night

Silent night ChristmasSilent Night is a carol that is used to conclude virtually every Christmas Eve service. The carol was written in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. Just  few years earlier (1816), Mohr had already written the lyrics of the song “Stille Nacht.”  The last verse contains the wonderful message of redemption –

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

Today, the carol has been translated into 140 languages. In fact, one of the special moments on each and every tour is to sing Silent Night in the Chapel of the Shepherds in Beit Sahour outside Bethlehem. Inevitably, there is another group somewhere from Europe or Asia who join us in singing this amazing carol in their own language. It always provides, as we say, “a little taste of heaven” when we sing the same tune together but in our own language. Quite simply, it is a goose-bump moment!

chapel of the shepherds

Inside the “Chapel of the Shepherds” in Beit Sahour

O Holy Night is also a carol used on Christmas Eve. It was composed by Frenchmen Adolphe Adam in 1847. The last three lines of the son are most powerful –

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,

His power and glory evermore proclaim.

His power and glory evermore proclaim.

Enjoy this harmonious and unique version of Silent Night sung by Sam Robson. This gentleman is unique in how he blends his voice into an amazing sound of Christmas!

Enjoy also this harmonious version of O Holy Night:

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Once In David’s Royal City

Bethlehem manger

Bethlehem, David’s royal city (Micah 5:2-4)

One of my favorite carols is an old English hymn called Once In David’s Royal City. The carol was first published in 1848 in Miss Cecil Humphreys’ hymnbook Hymns for little Children. In 1919, the song was used as the processional hymn for the Christmas Eve Service held at the King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.

I love this carol not only because of the beautiful harmony of the tune, but because of the simple but powerful lyrics. The words speak of the birth, the life, and the ministry of Jesus:

Once in royal Davids city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby,
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little Child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.

For He is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us, He grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles, like us He knew;
And He cares when we are sad,
And he shares when we are glad.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above:
And He leads His children on,
To the place where He is gone.

bethlehemchristmasstarrightlandscapeThe carol takes me back to the town of Bethlehem. Today, Bethlehem is more of a city than a town, with about 20,000 residents. But 2000 years ago, this City of David was only a small town. The prophet Micah describes it this way –

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 labor bears a son,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 (Micah 5:2-4).”

The video is produced and performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

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The Coming of Jesus, the “Son of God!”

Jesus son of God

Jesus, the Son of God who came to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29)

Christmas is about the coming of the Messiah. It is about the coming of God’s Son. It is about God coming to earth, born to a virgin named Mary. It is about God literally becoming flesh. Some have asked if this is a pagan concept?  According to the Bible, it is far from being a pagan idea. Rather, it is how God’s redemptive plan not only unfolded but was fulfilled!

On each and every Israel trip, we are surrounded by wonderful Jewish people. Over the years, many have become dear friends. However, their rabbis and scholars would argue for centuries that the concept of God having a son is indeed quite unbiblical. Such a concept even crosses the line into idolatry. The entire concept of God sending His “only begotten Son” (John 3:16) is foreign to Judaism. Even in what is anticipated by our Jewish friends as the first coming of the Messiah in the future, our Jewish friends believe this Messiah will not be divine but rather simply human.

Son of GodYet upon a closer look, did the Jewish community during the time of Jesus expect the Messiah to be the Son of God?  The anwer to this question is a resounding Yes!  In fact, there was a common belief that the Messiah would be one who would heal the sick, give sight to the blind, and demonstrate his power of nature through signs and wonders. Even the Jewish sect called the Essenes at a place called Qumran reveal in the writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls that they were anticipating the Messiah to be the Son of God. This belief comes right out of their understanding of Daniel 7.

Additionally, according to the Jewish Sages and in light of what Isaiah said (7:14 – “a virgin will conceive and bear a son…”), the coming Messiah would have no biological father. Midrash Genesis Rabbah 35 says, “The redeemer whom I will raise up among you will have no father, as it is written, ‘Behold the man whose name is Zemach [branch], and He will branch out of his place; and He also says, ‘For he shall grow up before him a a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground.'”

So this Christmas, we celebrate once again the coming of the Soon of God. His name is Yeshua, for He has come to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

For the full article, go HERE.

Here is the video by a Messianic ministry called One For Israel. Even though it is in Hebrew, it is sub-titled in English!


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In the First Light

In the first light

“In the First Light” (credit:

The Christmas Season offers so many great songs. Which song is your favorite? I am sure that none of us can narrow it down to just a few.

For starters, I personally love the classic Christian carols. Once in Royal David’s City is one of my favorite because of the lyrics and harmony. Also the words of Of the Father’s Love Begotten. That words of this carol goes back to the 4-5th century I believe.

On every trip to Israel, we always enjoy singing the first verse of a few carols as well. We do this while sitting in a cave within the complex called Shepherds’ Fields (located in Beit Sahour, a small village right outside Bethlehem to the east). The blending of harmonies makes it a beautiful time of worship! We also conclude with Silent Night in the small chapel designed by Italian architect, Antonio Barluzzi in the late 1930s. The reliefs in the chapel was very nice!

Chapel in Shepherds' Fields in Beit Sahour

Chapel in Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour

I know this “dates” me, but back in the 1980s, the group called Glad was quite popular in Christian circles. They were known for their accapella harmony. It was one of my favorite groups! I actually went to see them a few times in Minnesota.

I consider one of their songs as one of my favorite Christmas melodies. It’s a song called In the First Light. The songs speaks of not only Christ’s first coming as a baby, but also His second coming yet future. The grand ending of this song causes me to celebrate the completeness of God’s redemptive planFor when Christ returns He will come in glory to rule the earth!

Whether singing carols in your home churchh or in Israel, the message of most every carol has a common denominator: Christ has come to be the light of the world!  He came to be the Savior of the Word. He came to be our personal Savior as we accept Him by faith.

Enjoy this “older” video of the group Glad as they sing “In the First Light.”

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Christmas in Israel

Santa on the Mt. of Olives

Santa on the Mt. of Olives, Jerusalem

Christmas is celebrated around the world. Of the world’s 195 countries or so (depending on how you count a few of them), citizens in the most of these countries celebrate Christmas. This includes Israel.

Christmas is celebrated in Israel, a country where the presence of three faiths are practiced – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Within the Christian church, there are many denominations represented – Protestant (mainly evangelicals), Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian, and Coptic, to name the majority of them. Within each of these denominations are various customs and traditions.

Christmas Tree in Nazareth

Christmas tree in Nazareth

In Bethlehem, a minority of Arab Christians live. Regrettably, over the last 10 years or so, more and more Christian Arabs have moved out of Bethlehem as well as other adjacent towns like Beit Sahor and Beit Jala). Whereas about 50% of Bethlehem was Christian back in 1995, only about 10% are Christian today. This is due primarily because of the intolerance of the Arab Muslim community, including the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Thankfully, the Palestinian brothers and sisters in Bethlehem have stayed strong during this time of persecution. Remember them in your prayers!

Even in Gaza where 2,000 Christians live, their lives are constantly threatened because of Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist organization who rule there. Yet despite the persecution and intolerance, the joy of Christmas in Christian communities is still alive and well!

In Israel, Christmas is openly celebrated without persecution. Among the Israeli Arab communities (e.g Nazareth), seeing Christmas trees and lights is common. Also, with the Jewish Messianic community continuing to grow, celebrating Christ as Messiah is attracting more and more Israeli Jews. This is exciting to see!

Of course Santa appears once in a while all around Israel. The tradition of Santa is a world-wide phenomena regardless of country or religion.

The following 2015 video highlights the Christmas celebration in Israel.

May Jesus, the Savior of the world, be celebrated by more and more in Israel this season!

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The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem

Bethlehem and church of nativity

Bethlehem the the Church of Nativity at night

The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the two oldest churches in Israel. The church goes back to the 4th century AD, specifically around 325 AD. Along with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Church of Nativity was commissioned and built by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. While this church that preserves the traditional place of Christ’s birth is currently undergoing major renovations these last few years, the building still symbolizes the hope and joy of Jesus’ birth. As told in Luke 2, the birth narrative of Jesus is read all over the world. Today the church is controlled by both Greek Orthodox and Armenians, with the Catholic Church having their own sanctuary. For the last few years the church has been going through major renovations.

Church of Nativity

The Church of Nativity inside. The lower mosaic floors date to the 4th century AD

Christmas in Bethlehem is actually a special time. I remember when I was a student in Jerusalem (in 1981-82), a few of us walked from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Our destination was the Church of Nativity and later the traditional Shepherds’ Fields. Following the midnight festivities at Manger Square, our plan was to sleep in the nearby fields. While the first heavy rains of the year prevented us from doing this, it as still a special time (we ended up sleeping with friends in Bethlehem).

On every tour we visit the Shepherds’ Fields. Here in a small cave we sing Christmas carols and read from Luke 2. It is a special time to celebrate that “just at the right time, God sent His Son (Galatians 4:4).” In God’s perfect timing, Jesus stepped into our history to become our salvation!

Church of nativity birth place of Jesus

The “traditional” place (below the front of the church) where Jesus was born

Today, our Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ who live in Bethlehem (as well Christians who live in the adjacent Arab towns of Beit Sahor and Beit Jala) celebrate Jesus’ birth here. Others from all over the world and from many denominations come for this special night. What brings unity at Christmas is our common faith in Jesus, God’s Son born here 2,000 years

Does the Church of Nativity preserve the very place where Jesus was born? We can’t be for certain, but it also doesn’t need to be.  Why? Because we worship the Person and not the place. We worship Jesus who was born humbly in a small town call Bethlehem. He was born to bring God’s salvation for us!

It is our hope and prayer that God provides you the opportunity to travel with us to Israel, the land of the Bible! You will visit and experience Bethlehem firsthand! You will blend your voice with others as we sing and proclaim Jesus as God’s Son and as our Redeemer! Your life will never be the same!

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Emmanuel – Hollowed Manger Ground

In God’s perfect timing, Jesus was sent to our fallen world. He was sent in human flesh, conceived miraculously, born humbly (most likely in a cave), and worshipped for the first time by lowly shepherds. It’s really an amazing story of God’s redemptive plan. As Christians, our faith rests upon God’s sovereign and perfect timing of this redemptive plan that incredibly unfolded in Bethlehem. When one travels to Israel and tours the Bethlehem area and sees firsthand where God became Incarnate, it brings a sense of deepened reality to one’s faith.  There is no way to explain the experience of being where the Savior was born.  While we don’t worship the “place” (e.g. traditional spot where Jesus was born inside … Continue reading

A Christmas “Hallelujah”

Christmas is about a miracle.  Christmas is about the very Incarnate God being born in a quiet Judean village called Bethlehem. Every time I travel into Bethlehem with groups, I causes me to ponder the amazement of God’s perfect timing of His redemptive plan for the fallen world (Galatians 4:4).  It also reminds me of a song from Handel’s Messiah, For Unto Us a Son if Born. It’s a great song from the past that speaks of fulfilled prophecy.  I even had one lady in one of my groups who beautifully sang this song in one of the caves in the Shepherds’ Fields (in Beit Sahor).  The song no doubt paralleled the angelic song shared in the Bethlehem sky 2,000 years ago … Continue reading