The “Why” Series (by Dr. Kyle Keimer)
This blog series focuses on five biblical sites and considers, why this site? Why was the specific site important? Why was the site important to the biblical author(s) and/or their audience? And, why, or does the site’s significance continue until today? The sites that will be highlighted included: Jerusalem, Shechem, Bethlehem, Capernaum, and Megiddo. Each has a story to tell for us today. As we listen to these stories, it is my hope that we will peek into the mindset, the worldview, and the lived experience of biblical authors and audiences, and that we will better understand our own place in these stories.
Bethlehem, the city of David. A site so familiar from Jesus’ birth narratives in the gospels. But is there a significance to the site beyond the fact that it was where Jesus was born? Or that it was the hometown of David? This is what we will look at today, in our next installment of the “Why” series.
Bethlehem is located about 5 miles South of Jerusalem. It is located along the watershed route that runs through the central Hill Country and is surrounded by rolling hills that were used to grow wheat and barley in antiquity. Until recently the many threshing floors that surrounded the site were still quite visible. The region of Bethlehem was also well watered, with six known springs in the vicinity of the site.
Bethlehem is poorly known from archaeology, and is minimally mentioned in the biblical texts.
Top: View of modern Bethlehem
Bottom: Plan showing the key places of interest in modern Bethlehem
Much of Bethlehem’s history is poorly understood because the modern city is built over the ancient site. Nevertheless, limited excavation has shown that during the Middle Bronze Age (MB; ca. 2000-1550 BC; the period the Patriarchs) there was a substantial necropolis on the slopes of a hill southeast of the hill upon which the ancient site was presumably built. The number of burials indicates that the region was frequented by pastoral nomads and/or that there was a sizeable settlement there. If Bethlehem were a prominent MB site, it would be one of only a handful of other such sites, and would join the company of Jerusalem, Hebron, and Shechem (two of which are sites we’ve already looked at in this series).
The later Iron Age (ca. 1200-500 BC) settlement of Bethlehem is similarly poorly known archaeologically. Again, tombs provide the most accessible materials, but a survey in 1969 did find late Iron Age pottery and tombs south and east of the Church of the Nativity. It would appear that the site David knew was located either below the current location of the Church of the Nativity, or just to the west.
Fast forward to the days of Jesus and we still have a paucity of archaeological remains by which to establish the nature of the settlement. Was it a village, or something else? As with the Iron Age period settlement, the Roman period settlement is covered by the modern Church of the Nativity compound.
Shechem was a central site in Israel’s history, culminating in significance theologically in Jesus’ day, but being of significance at repeated times in Israel’s history.
Top: Plan showing likely locations of ancient Bethlehem under modern Bethlehem. The red circle marks the MB age; the green circle the Iron Age settlement from the days of David.
Bottom: View of Manger Square at night. The Church of the Nativity compound is built over the Roman period site from Jesus’ day.
So, from the archaeology, there is little we can say. But do the biblical texts (or any other ancient Near Eastern texts) give us a better picture of what Bethlehem was like? Well, even here we are actually working with limited data; there are few references to Bethlehem in the Old Testament. Perhaps the most helpful, and most indicative reference comes in the book of Micah where Bethlehem is said to have been quite small. Micah 5:1 [5:2 in English translations] reads:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah…
Of course, the fact that Bethlehem appears to be a small village should not delude us into thinking it is unimportant. Neither should the fact that it is hardly mentioned in the biblical texts. We know that God chose other insignificant sites to play significant roles (e.g., Shiloh, Jerusalem). In fact, He often purposefully chose insignificant sites (and people) as a reminder that it is not the Israelites’ (or our) own prowess or ability that brings things to pass.
Today, as Christians we consider Bethlehem important because that was where Jesus was born (not in an “inn” or a “stable” but, more generally, “the accommodations” where Mary and Joseph were staying. Most likely, this was Joseph’s family’s home in Bethlehem). But, if we come back to the book of Micah and consider the broader context of the passage cited above, then we see much more happening in the text, highlighting Bethlehem’s role in a much grander narrative.
Look at the image above. I’ve highlighted several key textual parallels between Mic 4:1-5:3[5:4]. Also, I’ve structured the text to highlight that there is parallelism going on between Mic 4:1-4:8 and Mic 4:9-5:2; both end by juxtaposing Bethlehem (Migdal Eder is understood to be a site in the region of Bethlehem and is functioning in this passage as a reference to the entire region of Bethlehem) and its favor with Jerusalem and its traditional favor. In other words, something big will happen in Bethlehem. Kingship will shift from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and it will be granted to one from Bethlehem.
This passage from Micah not only hearkens back to several earlier events (Gen 35:16-21; Ex 20-Lev 27; 1 Sam 8), but it also foreshadows what we see developed in Rev 12. Similarly, this last passage leads us back to the flood in Genesis and the problem of sin and purity, topics that are also presently addressed in Mic 4-5. In short, Bethlehem is the site that ties together the old and new covenants by being the place where God’s word is fulfilled in Jesus’ birth. You really can’t ask for a more significant location!
*If you enjoy this brief discussion, consider checking out a longer (multi-part) discussion on the Archaeology of Christmas that I have on my podcast: https://onscript.study/biblicalworld