Why is Bethlehem so Important to Israel?
Although it is not widely accessible to Israelis today, Bethlehem has always held a special place in the history of the Jewish people. Rachel, wife of Jacob, was buried in Bethlehem. God raised up judges from there. Boaz was from Bethlehem and welcomed in Ruth, a Gentile, into his Jewish family. Israel’s greatest king, David, shepherded sheep in its fields.
And most significantly, the Messiah was prophesied to come from this small village:
As for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity. Micah 5:2
The House of Bread
That is a remarkable amount of influence coming from such a small town that sits in the shadow of Jerusalem, just 5+ miles away. Bethlehem is so close to Jerusalem that on clear days you can see the hills of Bethlehem from atop the Mount of Olives.
In Hebrew, the city’s name is pronounced “Beit-lehem.” “Beit” means house and “Lehem” means bread – together being “House of Bread”. Jesus said at one point, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35;48) and “I am the manna that came down out of heaven…” (John 6:51). He later broke bread and gave to his disciples, saying: “Take, eat; this is My body.” (Matt 26:26). Throughout the Bible, bread carries great literal and symbolic significance.
And why is the “house of bread” (Bethlehem) significant also? In this small town Gentiles were married into the Jewish nation (by the example of Ruth and Boaz), and where the Jewish king and “bread of life” was born for the world to hunger no more. That’s something to chew on for a while.
Jesus Followers in Bethlehem
Today life in Bethlehem is much different. Since the Oslo Accords in the mid 90s, when Israel gave certain areas (including Bethlehem) in Judea and Samaria to the Palestinian Authority, no Jews are allowed to live there and often even visit. Under the Palestinian Authority the Christian population has shrunk from 80% to single digits, some say as low as 3%.
While many think of Bethlehem at this time of year by singing “away in a manger” or “silent night”, brothers and sisters in the Lord continue to struggle there year round. The town that was known for bringing Jew and Gentile together, for starting the Davidic royal dynasty and the prophesied birthplace of the righteous ruler, is now becoming known for hardship and exodus for those that follow Him.
Arab Christians living in the area experience discrimination and persecution from their community, for being Christians and not Muslims. Some feel overlooked by western Christian groups visiting the land, as they are reconnecting to their Jewish roots. Regardless of theological and political differences, the fact remains that these are followers of Jesus. Fortunately, there has been some hope.
Christmas in Bethlehem
In the last couple years, a couple grassroots organizations are getting involved with the needs on the ground. Organizations like the Bethlehem Project seek to foster small business development and leadership training for the struggling Christian population in the House of Bread.
Blessing Bethlehem is an organization spearheaded by Orthodox Jews together with Arab Christians and western Christians. Together, they serve the poor and needy in Bethlehem and surrounding regions.
They do so by providing food for hundreds of families, especially in this coming Christmas season. Despite the hardships and difficulties, God is still doing amazing things in this region and there is even more to look forward to.
A Hopeful Promise
In Isaiah 60, after reading how nations will come to the light of a restored Israel and the nations will bring back the Jewish sons and daughters along with the wealth of the nations, we arrive at verse 6:
“All the flocks of Kedar will be gathered together to you, the rams of Nebaioth will minister to you; They will go up with acceptance on My altar, And I shall glorify My glorious house.”
Nebaioth and Kedar are the first and second born sons of Ishmael. In the light of the current climate, this is a profound promise! At the time that God is restoring the sons and daughters and the wealth of the land, He will also restore the sons of Ishmael. Can you imagine a better way that God could “glorify His glorious house” than for Jew and Arab together in worship of the God of Israel?
God will restore all things, including Bethlehem. He has not forgotten what He has done in the “house of bread”. The “Bread of Life” came from Bethlehem and His desire was to break bread together with His brothers. In very small ways, the dawn is breaking, and the changes have already begun.