At the time of Jesus birth, Bethlehem was a little town of about 300 people, built onto a hillside on the edge of the Judean wilderness, just 6 miles south of Jerusalem. Bethlehem means House of Bread, and we know that going as far back as the time of Ruth, over 1000 years before Christ, that there were farmers around Bethlehem that grew wheat and barley. They thrashed the grain there, ground it, milled it, and then probably baked bread there which was then taken to be sold in the big city of Jerusalem. Thus ... House of Bread.
So as the House of Bread, we know that Bethlehem was home to farmers, millers, and bakers.
We also know that there were shepherds living around Bethlehem on the surrounding hillsides. David and his father Jesse and his whole family were all shepherds from Bethlehem. Even today, you will find Bedouin shepherds leading their flocks on the hills around the outskirts of Bethlehem. Interestingly, I recently found out that most of the sheep around Bethlehem in Judea were destined for temple sacrifice in Jerusalem. This gives a whole extra level of meaning to the story, and actually connects the Christmas and Easter Story together. We remember the words of John the Baptist - "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."
So Bethlehem at that time would have been just a small town built onto a hillside. Today it's basically a suburb of Jerusalem, with 25,000 people living in the town proper, with around 100,000 people living all over the hills and valleys in the area.
As the hometown of King David, Bethlehem was known as the City of David, along with a portion of the old city in Jerusalem where David's palace once stood, which is also known as the "City of David."
And although this is where the Prince of Peace was born, you don't get a real peaceful easy feeling when you enter into Bethlehem today. Now you have to go through a security checkpoint, through a gate in the separation wall, erected to protect the Israelis from Muslim terror threats. Unfortunately the group of people stuck in the middle there are the Palestinian Christians, who are 30% of the population of Bethlehem.
We met quite a number of these Christians when we stayed in Bethlehem, and they are really warm and wonderful people. When most people hear Palestinian they think Muslim - but that's not necessarily the case. There are plenty of Palestinian Christians around, but they don't get many of the headlines. With Jewish and Christian and Muslim populations all vying for the same land, there is trouble and turmoil always simmering below the surface, and it sometimes spills out into the streets.
You can almost hear the echo of Jesus words as He looks out and mourns over the city before He enters it on Palm Sunday, "O Jerusalem Jerusalem ..."
King Herod, or Herod the Great, was the king at the time of Jesus birth in Bethlehem. He had been the king for about 30 years. He really liked being the king - it's good to be the king when you are King Herod. But no matter how big he became, he always seemed to have an inferiority complex about him. He wanted people to like him - he wanted a bigger kingdom - he wanted to be a king like David - he wanted to be remembered for doing great things. Well, he got his wish in a sense - since he's now known as Herod the Great. But he is called that because of all of his many impressive building projects - not because of his great character or sparkling personality. He is also known today for his great cruelty and paranoia. He had wives, sons, and so called friends put to death when there was even an inkling that they were out to get his throne. He had more enemies than Saddam Hussein did back in the day! He knew this, of course, and he also knew that no one would mourn his death, so he ordered his men to kill 100 of Israel's priests on the day that he died, just so that there would be mourning in the streets that day. He was a madman - a brilliant builder and politician - but a madman nonetheless.
What a stark contrast between King Herod the Great in Jerusalem, and the tiny little baby born in Bethlehem. This young prince was born in a cattle stall and placed in a manger filled with straw by his peasant parents. There was no room for his family in the inn or the guest house, so the birth of this prince took place in a humble sheep pen. And yet, for all of His apparent humility and weakness, this little baby boy was actually the king of the universe.
This king wasn't born in the house of royalty, riches, or celebrity. He was not born in Jerusalem, in Rome, in Athens or Alexandria. He was not born in a politically or socially significant city of the day. When the Old Testament prophet Micah foretold the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, he emphasized its lack of significance to the world. "But you, Bethlehem Ephratha, though you be small among the clans of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth one that is to be ruler in Israel: one who is from old, from ancient times." (Micah 5:2)
The birth of the Son of God was to plain peasant parents and took place in a lowly stable. It was announced to shepherds, common men, working folks, not to King Herod or Caesar Augustus or any other dignitaries. This king has come to us. This king has come for us. There is no one so poor and lowly as to be outside the reach of God's love in Jesus Christ.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, "The House of Bread", to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the world. Just as God through the prophet Moses fed the children of Israel with manna in the wilderness, so now God feeds his people through the greater Moses, Jesus Christ the Lord.
"I am the Bread of Life; he who come to me will never hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst." - John 6