• Mark Ledbetter

Bethlehem – The House of Bread!

The Gift of Life and Purpose

“But 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 many signs Christmas is approaching include city utility crews decorating light poles; we see or hear a growing number of Christmas ads on TV, the paper, internet, or radio. And there are the traditional, and sometimes not so traditional Christmas Carols.

I recall one year while a young teen our church decided to go Christmas Caroling and so we made our way to a neighborhood behind the church. We sang as we went and would stop before houses and give our best rendition of a Christmas song. We approached one house, began our singing when the front porch light turned on and out stepped Jim Neighbors, a.k.a., Gomer Pyle, who was visiting with family living in the house. He joined in the Christmas singing and now I can tell my grandchildren, “I sang Christmas Carols with a TV Star.” Of course they will say, “Who’s Jim Neighbors?”

No doubt we have heard the annual favorites so often we can sing them by heart. Regardless of whether it is such classical hymns such as “Away in the Manger” or popular tunes such as “Jingle Bell Rock,” the airways are filled with constant reminders that we have entered a special time, the most wonderful time of the year.

Here’s a question for you: Have you ever paid attention to how many songs include Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born? How many can you name? Do the songs “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem,” “A Child is Born in Bethlehem,” or others come to mind?

Though it was the birth place of King David, Bethlehem didn’t occupy a prominent place in the Roman Empire. It wasn’t Jerusalem, Damascus, Alexandria, or Rome, but a quaint, quiet village. Yet it became center stage for one of the most remarkable events destined to change the course of human history.

It is the city of Bethlehem that Jesus was born and lived before Joseph took Mary and the Child to Egypt as refugees from Herod’s threats. While Bethlehem regained its notoriety with the birth of God’s Son, Bethlehem once occupied a valuable economic and political position in the history of Israel, especially Judah.

Bethlehem is located five or six miles south of Jerusalem on the edge of the Negev (desert) to the south and east, and Judean Mountains to the north. It was just off the main road to Hebron and Egypt. The Mediterranean climate tempered by its altitude and nearness to the sea provided the area surrounding Bethlehem with fertile fields suitable for the grazing of sheep and goats while providing a natural habitat for grains, fig and olive orchards and vineyards.

There is some debate on whether the Biblical reference to Ephrathah[1] should be included in connection with Bethlehem. It is suggested by some that they are one and the same and that Ephrathah is the same as Bethlehem (Genesis 48:7), yet others suggest that Bethlehem is a city in the Ephrathah district as Micah’s prophecy suggests. The latter seems likely when we consider the names of both.

The root for Ephrathah[2] means “fruitfulness” and Bethlehem is taken from two words that mean the “House of Bread”.[3] It is conceivable given the natural resources that the area would be a fruitful habitation while the city of Bethlehem known for its bread.

Bethlehem’s Place in History

Bethlehem is first mentioned in Genesis 35:19, "So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrathah (that is, Bethlehem)." Dying in childbirth, Jacob buried Rachel and set up a pillar over her grave (vv. 20)[4] Ephrathah is the location of Rachel’s tomb, the place where Rachel was buried by Jacob after she died giving birth to Benjamin. Rachael became the matriarchal figure of Israel and today a traditional burial spot in Bethlehem and revered by the Jewish people and visited the year round.

Bethlehem’s greater fame as the “City of David” begins with the story of the Moabitess Ruth, who eventually married a citizen of Bethlehem, Boaz.[5] From this union came Jesse, the father of David, and Samuel anointed David to serve as king of Israel.[6] By referring to Bethlehem as the City of David political overtones are ascribed to the city. Judah’s king, Rehoboam, fortified the city to protect Jerusalem from Egyptian advance.[7]

Bethlehem’s strategic location at one time made it both an economic and political center. Its fertile fields provided greatly needed fruit and grains while it stood along the passage way from Jerusalem to Egypt. The natural corridor made Bethlehem a stopover for travelers traveling , or persecuted refugees fleeing to the desert to the east and south or Egypt.[8]

In Bethlehem travelers could seek rest from their journey in an “inn.”[9] Inns were typically square in shape with casement walls, or chambers designed for quartering and protection. The compartments opened into a courtyard that served as lodging for donkeys or camels. There were no furnishings, no food, no utensils, no pool, no TV, no WiFi– just a place to bed down for man or beast.

Bethlehem in Prophecy

As the context of Micah’s prophecy suggests, Bethlehem lost its prominence through the years. Micah addressed Judah at a time of the kingdom’s lowest points. Filled with idolatry and injustice, the prophet witnessed the Assyrian oppression but he saw a day of Judah’s restoration. The prophet wrote to encourage his people with a series of “salvation oracles”[10]

With Micah 5:1-4, the prophet offers a promise of hope from a least expected place:

“Now muster yourselves in troops, daughter of troops; they have laid siege against us; With a rod they will smite the judge of Israel on the cheek. “But 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.” Therefore He will give them up until the time when she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of His brethren will return to the sons of Israel. And He will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they will remain, because at that time He will be great to the ends of the earth.” (emphasis added)

The significance of the unlikelihood of Bethlehem as the origin of the Shepherd-King is found in Micah’s language. Too little comes from a word meaning, “least in significance, privilege, and desirability.”[11]

Out of this obscurity would emerge a “ruler in Israel…from long ago, from the days of eternity.” Viewed in light of Amos 9:11, “In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old…”; the expectation of the “ancient” or the Dynasty of David’s Kingdom being restored emerges upon the forefront of Messianic Expectations.

The woman giving birth is significant: “when she is in labor has borne a child” echoes the sentiments of Isaiah who declares in Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel;” and in Isaiah 9:6-7:

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.

Bethlehem – The House of Bread

Perhaps irony but certainly prophetic fulfillment is the fact that the Bread of Life was born in The House of Bread.

Bread was a staple for the common people, a simple product of the grain they harvested and from it formed the loafs they baked and placed on their tables. Meat was rare and grain was ample and bread became the staple of life.

It also became a symbol of fellowship as families and friends gathered around the table and broke bread together, sharing their life-stories, and in certain setting provided the opportunity for the sages to teach their disciples.[12]

John 6 records one of the “signs” recorded by the Apostle, the feeding of the multitudes through the miraculous provision from five barley loaves and two fish, not nearly enough to feed those who had gathered. Nevertheless, Jesus blessed the bread and the multitude was not only satisfied, 12 baskets of bread fragments were collected afterward.[13]

Later in the narrative we find Jesus in a dialogue about bread, first correcting their understanding about just who provided Manna in the wilderness. The manna was said to be provided by Moses but it was provided by God, bread from heaven. Just as God had provided manna, so Jesus declared He was sent to them by the Father as the “true bread out of heaven,” bread that “comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.”

Their carnal minds understood this in terms of material bread rather than understanding the spiritual nature of Jesus’ words. They were looking for a life-time supply of bread to fill their belly, but then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:35). More exact Jesus is “the bread of the life” (emphasis added).

They could not understand the metaphorical and spiritual nature of Jesus’ words. In fact they were appalled by them.

Jesus expounds upon His meaning: “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” He continues to contrast the manna in the desert with His offering of Himself and the promise of everlasting life. Their fathers ate the manna in the desert and eventually died.

Anyone coming to Jesus in faith, persuaded that He offered them everlasting life, will have eternal life, a life that is sustained not only by His bread, i.e., His word/teachings, but also by His abiding presence. He is the Bread that sustains now and forever.

Emerging from the House of Bread, The Bread of Life shared His life-giving, life-altering, Eternal Life.

Bethlehem and Purpose

While Bethlehem fulfilling prophecy and serving as a setting for the birth of Jesus, its name and place in prophecy is rich in imagery. It was ordained by prophecy that the village would be the birth place of the King of kings. On a personal level Bethlehem’s prophetic fulfillment provides hope for those who would love to serve their King but feel unworthy or ill-equipped.

too little to be among the clans of Judah

Bethlehem was of little regard, yet it was the birth place of the One who changed the course of history, who changes the hearts of men. It was not mighty and noble but an obscure village on the wayside, yet it rose in the splendor and glory of providing service to the King of Glory and Might.

There are believers who think themselves not worthy to serve, who see nothing they can bring to God’s service to serve His purposes in the earth. They would defer to those they perceive are more gifted, more charismatic, more prominent but it is not the way of God to use such people, but to take those who are humble, and teachable, and make themselves available.

It wasn’t the great cities, Nineveh, Babylon, Alexandria, and not even the beloved and revered Jerusalem that served as the birthplace of the King of kings, but lowly, unassuming Bethlehem, and yet it swelled to significance just as the Prophet Micah declared.

In His wisdom that defies the logic and ways of man, the Apostle Paul shares God’s methods of accomplishing His will using anyone feeling they have nothing to offer in service of the king of Kings but willing to offer themselves in service.

My mother-in-law, Alma Bradley, grew up dirt-poor, made a doll out of a pinecone and pine straw, took a sweet potato to school for lunch, and picked cotton with her siblings in order to survive. After the Lord saved her, He called her to preach and when I was able to sit under her ministry as preacher and/or teacher, she was as good or better as any of her contemporaries - male or female.

After retiring, like many other preachers, she began to experience the misery of no longer having an opportunity to serve in the capacity she had been called. In a conversation with her she said, “I feel useless, good for nothing.” Having the words of the Apostle Paul in mind, I replied, “Good, that is just where God wants you.” Later, when I fell sick, she came out of retirement and traveled over an hour to preach in my stead one Sunday morning.

The Apostle understood the significance of God’s thoughts recorded in Isaiah 55:8, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways.” Perhaps Paul had in mind the stutterer, the one slow of speech, Moses, who God used as Israel’s deliverer. Or, perhaps Paul had Jeremiah, who would beg off excusing himself for his youthfulness, yet became a revered Prophet; or David, a shepherd boy who was anointed King of Israel, or Gideon who perceived himself to be the least of his tribe but raised up to be a Judge. when Paul wrote these words:

Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:25-31 (emphasis added)

While we have received the Gift of Life, we can regift our lives to God in service. Our gift to God is the gift of ourselves, surrendered to His purposes, without qualifications, and yet not disregarding our weaknesses, but seize hold of the revelation God gave the Apostle Paul:

"And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me." 2 Corinthians 12:9

In our weakness we become vessels of God’s grace and power. Let us give ourselves unto the Lord as living sacrifices[14] and allow Him to shape us and mold use, fill us and use us for His glory.

It was in humble surroundings that God’s greatest gift emerged, and it is the humblest of people that God is able to use in the most humblest but necessary circumstances and in the lives of others.

This Christmas celebrate the Gift of Life and Purpose.

Merry Christmas!!

[1] See Ruth 4:11; 1 Chronicles 2:50; 4:4; Psalm 132:6 and Micah 5:1. Also known as Ephtrath (see Genesis 35:16; 19; 48:7; 1 Chronicles 2:19). [2] parah (פָּרָה), or “be fruitful”. [3] bet-lechem, בֵּית־לֶחֶם. [4] Today Rachael’s Tomb is described as Judaism’s 3rd holiest site, a special place of prayer. Now under Arab-Palestinian control, the site is also the center of controversy and when Jews make their pilgrimage they often are met with a pelting of stones and violence. On one of the tours of Israel, a time when tourist could visit Bethlehem and Rachel’s Tomb, our bus had to take an alternate route to avoid the riot that broke out. On our return to Jerusalem, you could hear the stones crunching beneath the tires of the bus. [5] The Book of Ruth. [6] 1 Samuel 16:1-13. [7] 2 Chronicles 11:23. [8] See Jeremiah 41:17. [9] malon (מָלֹון), or kahn. See Genesis 42:27; 43:21; Exodus 4:24; etc. [10] Ralph, L. Smith, Micah-Malachi, Word Bible Commentary, Vol. 32 (Waco: Word Books, 1984), 40f. [11]R. Laird Harris, Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, electronic ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980). 773. [12] Consider Acts 2:42, 46, “They [the Disciples] were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer [the prayers]…Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart.” [13] It was customary at Jewish meals to collect what was left over. Pieces of bread were not to be thrown away (b. Ber. 50b), and any food the size of an olive or larger was to be picked up (b. Ber. 52b). [Köstenberger, A. J. (2007). John. In Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament (pp. 443–447). Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos. MT Mas(s)oretic Text (See TEXT AND MSS OF THE OT)] [14] Romans 12:1.

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