On Christmas Eve, December 24, thousands of Christians will gather at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to mark the occasion. Though the town gains prominence anew each Christmas season, the place of Bethlehem in Jewish history is often little remembered.
The Church of the Nativity itself was built in the early Byzantine period (fourth century CE) by Queen Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, and commemorates the birth of Jesus.
But in Jewish history, the town itself has significance.
When the Patriarch Jacob, his wives and family, returned to the Land of Israel after serving Laben, a tragedy occurred on the way to Hebron. Near a place called Efrat, "the same is Bethlehem," Rachel died in childbirth; her son, Binyamin, survived. "And Jacob buried his beloved wife on the way, and placed a monument on her grave."
Revered as a holy site by Jews and even some Muslims, a cenotaph (a large stone structure typical during the Mamluke period, around 800 years ago) was built over the grave. In the mid-19th century Moses Montifore constructed a small domed building there.
After the 1948 War of Independence, the area fell into Jordanian hands. Jews were prohibited from visiting the site, and local Arabs built a cemetery, homes and shops around it.
The shrine returned to Jewish hands in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967. More recently, it has become a flashpoint for Arab violence.
These days a fortress-like building was constructed around the original complex. An IDF unit protects the site; access is by armored buses only.
Despite these difficulties, thousands of Jews continue to visit Rachel's Tomb, and yeshiva students study there during the day. But the nearby town of Bethlehem, now controlled by the Palestinian Authority, is unsafe for Jews.
That's sad, considering that Bethlehem was once a flourishing Jewish village. During biblical times there was a famine in the land, and one of Bethlehem's most prominent families (Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and two sons, Machlon and Kilyon) moved across the Judean desert to the land of Moav (now Jordan). As told in The Book of Ruth, the boys married non-Jewish women (Ruth and Orpah), and soon afterwards all the male members of the family died.
Widowed and alone, Naomi decided to return to her home town. On the way, however, Orpah turned back, while Ruth begged to stay. "Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you stay, I'll stay; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God." (Ruth 1:16)
This powerful declaration of faith identifies Ruth as a source of Jewish inspiration.
Life was not easy for the two widows. They gathered food from the corners of fields left for the poor. But Boaz, a descendent of Perez (from the time of Moses), a Judge and head of the community in Bethlehem, noticed Ruth and fell in love with her. They married and had a son, Oved, who eventually fathered Jesse, who was the father of David.
Jesse lived in Bethlehem during the reign of King Saul. When it became clear to Samuel the Prophet that Saul was no longer an appropriate ruler, he went to Bethlehem to look for a successor. Samuel went to Jesse's house and asked to examine his sons. Jesse proudly displayed seven, each more noble, wise and worthy than the other.
Yet Samuel was not satisfied. "Any more?" he asked. Reluctantly Jesse brought in his youngest son, David, from his work tending sheep. When Samuel saw him, he immediately anointed him heir-apparent in front of his family.
According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will come from the House of David.
Interpreted literally, however, this may explain why the New Testament places Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem. Who comes from Bethlehem?
While rich in Christian history and significance, the town's Jewish roots ought not to be forgotten.
The writer, a former history professor, is now a journalist living in Jerusalem.