By Dr. Philip Sumpter
Perhaps no other town is as strongly associated with Jesus in the Western Christian imagination as the “little town of Bethlehem,” and this despite the fact that Jesus had to be called a “Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23) and had to die in Jerusalem (Luke 13:33). The association is largely generated by the way the Western church celebrates Christmas, which has developed a variety of rituals, songs, and art forms to commemorate the mysterious events of Bethlehem. But what do we discover afresh if we lay aside popular piety for a moment—as valuable as it may be—, turn once again to the plain sense of Scripture, and ask ourselves, “Is the town of Bethlehem itself part of the message? And if so, what does it communicate?”?
As the following will show, a glance at the key texts indicates that Bethlehem does develop a distinctive theological profile within the Bible as a whole. Perhaps the best avenue into the material is to start with the two most famous Bethlehem texts, the birth narratives in Matthew (1:18—2:18) and Luke (2:1-21). There we will identify two distinct perspectives on the meaning of Bethlehem. We will then discover that these two perspectives have their roots in the Old Testament, which provides a broader context for understanding their significance. In the final step, we will attempt to synthesize these two perspectives in order to attain a more adequate, three-dimensional view on the meaning of Bethlehem.
Let us start with Luke and see where he takes us.
Luke: Bethlehem as the City of David
The emphasis of Luke’s opening chapters is on the Davidic lineage of Jesus. He stresses that Joseph is “of the house of David” (1:27); Joseph is forced to register in the Davidic town of Bethlehem because he is “of the house and lineage of David” (2:4). Indeed, Luke first identifies the city as “the city of David” before adding as an afterthought that its name is “Bethlehem” (2:4). It is thus clear that in Luke’s mind the primary significance of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus is that it associates him with the town’s most famous inhabitant and Jesus’ most famous ancestor. But Jesus’ association with David through Bethlehem seems to be more than just a matter of genealogy. As one born “in the house of [God’s] servant David” (Luke 1:69), he did not actually have to be physically born in Bethlehem in order to make a dynastic claim to the Davidic throne (2 Samuel 7:13-14). After all, all of David’s sons after him were born in that other city of David, namely “Jerusalem,” the city that David conquered and in which he established his royal house (2 Samuel 5:7). So why couldn’t Jesus be born there? Why did God have to move a Roman emperor to force his subjects to register in their ancestral homes (Luke 2:1-3) so that Jesus could be born where the story of David began?
The answer is surely that part of Jesus’ mission was not just to ascend the Davidic throne but to relive and re-do what David did, albeit in greater perfection and universality of scope. In other words, Jesus had to retrace David’s steps from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, so that his kingdom in Jerusalem could be more perfectly established. The Davidic patterning of Jesus’ ministry can be seen when the two stories are compared: Both Davids, new and old, were men after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14; 16:7), born in obscurity in Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:11), associated with literal shepherds (David was a shepherd boy; Jesus was visited by shepherds [Luke 2:8-20]) yet called to be shepherds of God’s people; they were secretly anointed in Bethlehem to rule (1 Samuel 16:13), became victorious over Israel’s greatest enemy due to their trust in God (1 Samuel 18), and yet they faced constant conflict with their own people (1 Samuel 19—2 Samuel 1; 12—18); both were rejected, persecuted and exiled before returning to establishing a kingdom of peace, one that has its epicentre in Zion but which extends beyond the borders of Israel (2 Samuel 5—10; 19).
An initial answer to the question of the meaning of Bethlehem, then, is that it marks the place of Davidic beginnings, the opening scene of a narrative plot comprising humility and greatness, faith and victory, rejection and acceptance, a plot that finds its resolution in another city of David, Jerusalem, with the conclusion of redemption for all. Jesus’ birth there casts him as a second David.
Now Jesus’ Davidic identity does not exhaust all that Luke wishes to communicate about who Jesus is. There is another aspect, again presented in terms of genealogy, which casts Jesus not only as a son of David but also the son of a far more ancient ancestor, namely “Adam, the son of God” (3:8).
This connection is made at the end of a long genealogy that spans the entirety of human history, bringing us right back to its roots in the Garden of Eden. And by bringing us to the roots of human history, it also brings us to the root problem of that, humanity’s failure to truly be that Adamic “son of God.” In this connection, Jesus did not just come to do what David did (but better), as a second Adam he came to do what Adam ought to have done but failed.
A review of the Old Testament story from Adam to David (Genesis—Kings/Chronicles) reveals the true nature of the problem and the kind of solution sought by God. Yet at this point we might ask whether we run the risk of leaving our theme behind us, for what does Adam have to do with Bethlehem? Interestingly, quite a lot. For in two sets of stories set at a critical junction of that Old Testament narrative, Bethlehem becomes a stage upon which both the problem and the solution of Adam’s condition are enacted with paradigmatic clarity. So let retrace the story from Eden to Bethlehem:
In Eden we catch a glimpse of the purpose of creation: communion in paradise between God and the human creatures created in his “image” (Genesis 1:26; 3:8). As his creatures they are to love, trust, and depend on him for all things. But something goes wrong: the relationship is undermined when Adam attempts to switch roles and himself become “like God” (3:5) by eating from the tree that promises divine “wisdom” (2:17; 3:22; see Proverbs 8); yet as a creature he cannot take on this role, and so his misplaced wisdom becomes a tool for destruction and alienation. The only solution is to practice his wisdom as a creature, and that means in an attitude grounded in the “fear of the LORD” (Proverbs 1:7).
Rather than destroying his children, God makes provision for them by promising the coming of new offspring, the “seed” of Eve (3:15) created in the likeness of Adam (5:3), a humanity that would reenact the divine-human relationship as it should have been, thereby restoring Adam’s likeness to God (5:1) and thus destroying his satanic accuser (Job 1:9; Genesis 3:15). This new seed is the hope of both humanity and the cosmos.
The ensuing drama of humanity and, in more concentrated form, that of Israel can be read as the story of the tortuous struggle for this “seed” to appear on the stage of history in the face of a nowinherent human impulse to fear anything but the LORD, with disastrous consequences (Genesis 20:11). Generations come and go but their behaviour consistently brings divine judgement followed by God’s merciful granting of new chances (Genesis 6—11). Through the seed of Abraham a particular slice of humanity is carved out, given the task to truly know God through his word and deed and thus respond to him the way that is appropriate (Genesis 12—Deuteronomy). The early career of this new covenant community had its ups (Joshua) and its downs (Judges), but the overall trajectory was so far down that a prophet could summarize the behaviour of these first generations with the following words: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
We here come to that critical juncture in Israel’s history, and thus a step closer to Bethlehem. Given Israel’s failure, a new act of divine intervention was necessary. Israel needed a king (Judges 21:25), someone who would represent the people (as Israel should have represented humanity) and embody the faith and obedience needed to overcome their alienation from God, bringing them back into the fullness of his presence. During this period of the “judges,” Bethlehem is the place where both the failure of Israel and its future hope is dramatized.
In terms of failure, Bethlehem is one of a number of key regions chosen to illustrate in paradigmatic manner the depravity of Israel and thus its distance from becoming the true “seed” of Eve. These stories are bundled together at the end of the book of Judges (17—21). In one, Bethlehem is home to a renegade Levite, a member of an elite tribe charged with teaching and guiding Israel in the truth. He establishes an idolatrous cult in Ephraim and then joins a band of murderous thugs (the tribe of Dan) in order to start a new colony by wiping out an innocent city (Judges 17—18). In another, Bethlehem is the home to a concubine belonging to a man from Ephraim. She flees to her father’s house. After consenting to return, her master delivers her to a gang of rapists from Benjamin who abuse her to death (Judges 19). This triggers a civil war in which Benjamin is almost wiped out, necessitating the kidnapping of more women to stop the tribe becoming extinct (20 — 21). Here Bethlehem provides a snapshot of the “kingdom of Adam” when Adam himself takes on the role of God.
In terms of hope, during this same period (Ruth 1:1) Bethlehem also sets the stage for the emergence of an alternative kingdom—one headed by a second Adam whose life conforms more to his true identity as a creature in the image of God. This development is found in the book of Ruth, a short novella telling a heart-warming story of tragedy and loss reversed by divine providence at work through the loyalty, boldness, and nobility of a Moabite woman, Ruth, and a Bethlehemite farmer, Boaz. In this narrative we see how the divine virtues of Ruth and Boaz redeem the life of the widow Naomi. But their actions have a redemptive significance that goes beyond the life of this one widow. This is made clear by a genealogy that is tacked on to the end of this story (4:18-22). Here we see that the fruit of their marriage union will issue into a future seed who will display the same moral characteristics and thus become God’s vehicle for establishing a kingdom more in line with one original envisioned in the Garden of Eden. This future seed, is of course, David, Bethlehem’s most famous son until the birth of Christ.
But if David is the redeemer, why the prophetic hope that a new David will have to arise? The rest of the history of Israel from the middle of David’s career until the exile and beyond (see the books of Samuel; Kings) make the reason clear: though Israel’s greatest role model (see especially the Psalms and Chronicles), David was not ultimately above grasping at god-like power and usurping the throne of Israel’s true king (the story with Bathsheba is paradigmatic for this: 2 Samuel 11). Almost all of his sons did worse (see the books of Kings and virtually all the prophets). Israel’s prophets saw only one solution: another David would have to arise, one that would truly enact the drama of Eve’s seed and thus as a true Adam more perfectly establish the kingdom of God (e.g. Isaiah 9:7; Jeremiah 30:9; 33:15; Ezekiel 34:23-24).
This brings us back to Bethlehem in the gospel of Luke. Once again a critical juncture in the history of Israel and the world has been reached. The seed of Eve is still waiting to be born and do his work. Bethlehem’s previous inhabitants made a good start, though ultimately failed. In Jesus, the story will be re-enacted and brought to perfection.
Matthew: Bethlehem as the other City of David
There is one last twist to this tale of the emergence of a Seed in Bethlehem. If Luke and the Old Testament texts discussed above highlight the continuity of the seed from Adam and David, Matthew and two key Old Testament prophecies point out the need for discontinuity. In a paradox difficult to grasp, the future redeemer of Israel and the world must be from David but yet, at the same time, not of him… This becomes clearer if we move from prophecy to fulfilment. In the process we will see that the image of the town of Bethlehem is central to the way the message is rendered.
We noted above that the Bible knows of two cities of David: Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The one marks the beginning of David’s career, the latter its climax and resolution. David of Bethlehem saved his people and consolidated his empire by creating Jerusalem as the centre from which he, ideally as God’s vehicle, would rule a kingdom of peace. Jerusalem thus became the source of Israel’s blessings and greatest joy as well as object of greatest hope (e.g. Psalms 68; 122; 128; 147).
But what happens when Jerusalem’s Davidic rulers chronically fail to be what they need to be so that Jerusalem can become what it ought to? What if the problem is located in the genes of the genealogy itself, in the Davidic and Adamic bloodline? We’ve already noted the prophetic promise of a new David to rule on the throne, one different in kind from all the Davids before, one who will have a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19), upon which is written the law of God (Jeremiah 31:31). Two unique prophecies push this element of difference further, making clear that the one to come will have a source both somehow within yet also without David.
The first announcement is made by Isaiah, who talks of God’s complete destruction of the Davidic line. It will be like a tree that has been felled and then burnt for good measure; all that remains is a stump (6:13). And then, miraculously, hope nevertheless sprouts:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit (Isaiah 11:1).
At first glance this may look like a simple reaffirmation of the Davidic covenant, but notice how Isaiah interrupts the linear genealogy of David –> Messiah that the Davidic covenant would lead us to expect (2 Samuel 7:12). Jesse is the father of David, he precedes him genealogically. This is one metaphorical way of saying that the Messianic “branch” will have its source in the historical David but it will also have its source beyond him – or to put it differently, as our next text does, “his coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2; English version [Hebrew 5:1]).
The prophet Micah develops a similar idea using different imagery, the imagery of David’s two cities: Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The logic of their relationship is that of the role they play in David’s career: Bethlehem is the source of the dynasty, Jerusalem its final home. Jerusalem is the city of Israel’s salvation; Bethlehem is the city of the means to get there. In 4:8—5:6 Micah picks up this configuration and re-applies it in his own day, a time when Jerusalem has already long had a Davidic king on its throne but desperately needs a new one from a different stock. His message is packed into a series of juxtaposed messages that, when read together, generate a pattern. This pattern can be summarized as follows:
- The focus is the salvation of Jerusalem (4:8, 10b, 12-13), which matters because Jerusalem is the epicentre of the salvation of “the ends of the earth” (5:4).
- As Micah speaks, however, Jerusalem is in the process of being judged: “Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion, … you shall go to Babylon” (4:10). God’s instrument of judgement are “many nations” which he has brought upon her to lay “siege against” her (4:11; 5:1); Jerusalem’s current Davidic king has been humiliated and rejected (“with a rod they strike the judge of Israel on the cheek,” 5:1; see 2 Kings 25:4-7). The cause is the rebellion against God of both king and nation.
- Yet there is hope. In a mysterious way, Jerusalem’s destruction is actually for its good. The evil empires “do not understand [God’s] plan” (4:12); they “assemble against” her to “defile” her, but through the destruction they wreak they both judge themselves (4:12) and pave the way for the redemption of the city of David (4:13). And so God can address Jerusalem directly with the promise:
“to you shall it come,
the former dominion shall come,
kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem” (4:8).
What was lost shall be restored. But where shall it be restored from?
- The kingship cannot come from the current, humiliated dynasty (5:1) which has been felled like a tree (Isaiah 6:13; see Jeremiah 22:30). Instead, God must go back behind it in order to make a new start. This new king’s source will be “from of old, from ancient days” (5:2), a primordial beginning not symbolized by ancestry, as with Jesse in Isaiah’s prophecy, but by social geography: “Bethlehem Ephrathah” (5:2;), the place of David’s roots from which now a different David will come to replace the current David sitting on the throne.
- This new shepherd will recapitulate a central quality of the original David, and indeed his grandparents Ruth and Boaz, but which was forgotten by his descendants: he will be weak and dependent on God (1 Samuel 16:7, 11; see Genesis 3:5). This quality is symbolized by “Bethlehem Ephrathah” itself, “Ephrathah” referring to the Davidic clan of the Ephrathites, which is “too little to be among the clans of Judah” (5:2). Like other leaders from weak clans chosen by God in the past (Gideon [Judges 6:15]; Saul [1 Samuel 9:21]), this new David will be a true “ruler in Israel” (5:2), precisely because he knows where his true strength lies: outside himself and within his Creator. If we set this image within Biblical story outlined above, we can say that this new David will re-enact the drama of Adam in Eden and succeed in not “grasping” at “equality with God” (Philippians 2:6).
How is this particular version of the Messianic promise taken up in the Gospel of Matthew? In the first instance we can simply note that Micah 5:2 is explicitly cited in Matthew 2:6 as an explanation for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (the changes in wording do not change the message). The immediate function of the prophecy is to provide straightforward evidence of the fulfilment of an ancient promise: the Christ will be born in “Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet …” (2:5). As it was predicted, so it came to pass. At first glance, there seems to be nothing more to it, no symbolism or deeper layers of meaning, just a piece of predicted geography that could be used hundreds of years later by local “Biblical scholars” to guide foreign pilgrims to the Messiah’s expected birthplace.
But when we look at the structure of the birth narrative as a whole in light of the broader context of the prophetic citation (Micah 4:8—5:9), it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that something more is going on than just proof-from-prophecy: as in Micah, the significance of Bethlehem as the place of Jesus’ birth only comes to light through its unique relationship to that other city of David, Jerusalem. In short, Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem not only marks him as the predicted Messiah, as a second or new David, it marks him as an alternative David, one whose mission is to enact judgement on the current ruling dynasty and replace it with something entirely new. Let us unpack the correlations:
For start, as with Micah (4:8), the initial focus of the Christmas story is not on Bethlehem but on Jerusalem. This is where the magi from the East first arrive, and the reason they choose to go to Jerusalem is that the star they had seen portended the birth of a Jewish king. Where else does one
go than Jerusalem if one is looking for the “king of the Jews”? The search for the true king of Jerusalem thus sets the tone for the rest of the narrative.
Upon arrival in this city we encounter another Micah motif: the rebellious nature of its inhabitants. The magi do indeed meet a king of the Jews, “Herod the king” (2:1), but as will become clear in his slaughter of the innocents in order to remain in power (2:16-18), this evil figure is far removed from the figure these Gentiles wished to submit to. And it is not just the king who is the problem, “all Jerusalem” is troubled with him (2:3), including the chief priests and the scribes (2:4), who know their Bible’s well enough to locate the birthplace of their true king yet show no interest in going to see him.
Again, Jesus shares the same context that occasioned Micah’s prophecy: not only is Jerusalem currently in rebellion against God, God’s judgement of the nation is already underway. The occupiers are now the Romans rather than the Assyrians (Micah 5:5) or Babylonians (4:10), but the cause and the effect are the same. Already “the axe is laid to the root” (Matthew 3:10), the final destruction is yet to come (Matthew 24). And yet, of course, there is also hope for Jerusalem, for God has provided her with a true king who will finally bring back “the former dominion… , kingship for Daughter Jerusalem” (Micah 4:8). Yet this king is unlike the current pretender to the Davidic throne. He is of Davidic stock (Matthew 1; Luke 3), yet at the same time his roots go way back before David, they are “from ancient days” (Micah 5:2), indeed they are also located in God himself (Matthew 1:18, 20). And so for this reason the magi cannot remain content with the current order reigning in Jerusalem, they need to go to Bethlehem, the place where the whole history once began and is now about to begin anew, albeit in a different key.
This brings us to a final observation: the character of this new son of David, son of Adam, yet also son of God. We have noted above that since Adam’s attempt to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5), God has sought for a human response that lets God be God. With this new beginning in Bethlehem, he gets what he was looking for. Jesus Christ, precisely as one who was “in the form of God,” “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7). It is through this weakness that he fulfils the promise of a seed to Eve and thus earns to right to bear the name to which every knee will bow (Philippians 2:10). The whole of Matthew’s gospel provides a vivid illustration of what this embodiment looks like in the life of Jesus.
In conclusion, how can we summarize Matthew and Micah’s contribution to a “theology of Bethlehem”? If Luke and the traditions he draws on use Bethlehem to focus on the linear continuity of the seed from Adam through David to Christ, Matthew and Micah use Bethlehem to testify to a deeper problem with the fallen constitution of that seed and the need for vertical divine intervention. The paradox is that both views are true: the Messiah is both of the seed of Eve through Mary yet also born from above through the Holy Spirit. John the Seer captures both aspects in his contradictory image: Jesus is both “the root and the descendant of David” (Revelation 22:16). Bethlehem is used to symbolize both.
The path to Jerusalem still passes through Bethlehem
A final question may be asked: what does this have to do with us today? As is often the case in Biblical theology, the answer as to do with the “already” and the “not-yet.”
In one sense, the Christ of Bethlehem has already completed his entry into Jerusalem, riding on the back of a donkey, where he was greeted with “hosannas!” by the inhabitants (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:29-38; John 12:12-15). Here he waged his decisive battle to claim the throne
of the city and thus the keys of the kingdom. His enemy, however, was not the flesh and blood enemy of Jerusalem’s Jewish inhabitants and Gentile occupiers but the enemy of all humanity, the “ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation
12:9; Genesis 3:1). His battle tactic was to take Jerusalem’s punishment as prophesied by Micah upon himself: it was his cheek that was struck and humiliated; he was the one driven out of the city and caused to descend to his spiritual Babylon. And just as Micah had predicted regarding Jerusalem, this act of defilement of Christ by his enemies turned out to be the means of their own redemption (Micah 4:11-12; Isaiah 53). Only in this way could the gates of Jerusalem be opened for all to enter and find peace.
And yet the pilgrimage of King Jesus’ people to his city has not yet been completed. We are still on the way, waiting to cross the threshold of the heavenly Zion to be fully re-united there with our Lord (Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 21—22). When we arrive, the entry requirements will be the same as those imposed upon Adam and Eve in the garden: do not grasp at equality with God; reflect his image as his creature and entrust your life to him. Or, if you cannot do this (Romans 3:23!), make sure you pass through Bethlehem first and meet the one who did this in your stead. From there he will lead us to his new city, open the gates, and take us through (Psalm 24).