The City with an ignoble beginning

Sights and Insights: Bethlehem had a sordid beginning, but prophecy has immortalized it as the birthplace of Messiah.

Bethlehem 311 (photo credit:
Bethlehem 311
(photo credit:
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at
Except for sporadic fistfights among the priests in the Church of the Nativity, we usually picture Bethlehem as a place of serenity.
After all, history reveals the city as the hometown of King David—and the adopted home of godly Ruth. Christians venerate the town as the birthplace of Jesus—an idyllic, quiet place with “silent stars” above it and “deep and dreamless sleep” within its walls. A pleasant picture, for sure.
Photo; Wayne Stiles
Photo; Wayne Stiles
But it wasn’t always so.
Genesis introduces us to Bethlehem as Jacob buries his wife on the way there. The book of Judges mentions Bethlehem in conjunction with a corrupt priest who became a mercenary for idolaters. Another account describes a Bethlehem concubine who, after leaving town, was brutally raped and dismembered. Not a great beginning for the little town of Bethlehem.
But then, the scene shifts. The book of Ruth ushers in the noble characters of Ruth and Boaz. Like lights in the dark days of the judges,this couple honors God with their lives—and makes their home in Bethlehem. Their great-grandson, David, became Israel’s greatest king (Ruth 4:11, 22). Bethlehem became David’s backyard.
The Lord promised David that one of his descendants would sit on his throne and rule over an eternal kingdom (2 Samuel 7:16). The prophet Micah further revealed that this son of David, the Messiah, would be born in ignoble Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). It was this prophecy from Micah that drove the mad King Herod to kill the baby boys in Bethlehem after hearing of the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2:1-16).
Modern Bethlehem enjoys a tourist boom each December as thousands flock to the city in celebration of Christmas. The pilgrims congregate at the Church of the Nativity—the oldest standing church in Israel. At the same time, merchants converge on the tourists with all manner of trinkets for sale.
In the second century, when the Emperor Hadrian imposed his
polytheistic—and overtly anti-Judeo-Christian—changes to Israel, he desecrated a particular cave in Bethlehem by including it in a grove dedicated to the pagan god Tammuz. As early as the second century, this cave was venerated as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth.
After the Emperor Constantine’s mother visited the Holy Land, he built a church over the cave in AD 326. Roughly square in shape, the church covered the grotto with an octagonal apse. The floor featured beautiful mosaics, some of which can still be seen beneath the floor of today’s Church of the Nativity. In the fourth century, Jerome lived in an adjacent cave and translated the Vulgate—the Latin translation of Scripture used by Catholics for centuries.
Destroyed by Samaritans in 529, the church was immediately rebuilt and enlarged by the Emperor Justinian. This structure remains in its essence today. According to tradition, the church escaped destruction by the Persians in AD 614 only because the depictions of the Magi portrayed them in Persian dress.
Over the centuries, the church has fallen into disrepair and has enjoyed and endured many restorative efforts. Most recently, the leaky roof has needed fixing. Last year, officials announced a plan to repair the church—a project that will last several years and cost millions of dollars.
Outside the city lies what is called “The Shepherds Field.” Punctured with caves along its hillsides, the pastoral scene retains a glimpse of what it looked like in century-one Bethlehem. I love this area the most, because I can leave the commercialism of Bethlehem’s merchants and enjoy the location itself.
When I think of my time in Bethlehem, I remember the words Phillips Brooks penned in 1868 after a Christmas Eve visit to the city: “In thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light: the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Although Bethlehem had a sordid beginning, prophecy has immortalized it forever as the birthplace of Messiah.
What to Do There:
Arrive very early and visit the Church of the Nativity. Perhaps you can avoid the long queue and see the Nativity grotto and the ancient mosaics. Before leaving the area, walk a while in the Shepherd’s field (assuming you can access it with all the contested building projects), and read from Micah 5:2 and Matthew 2.
How to Get There:
From Jerusalem, travel south on Route 60.
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at