Blest “Bethlem” indeed! In all the spiritual topography of the race, no soil is more sacred, no locality more deeply loved. And none could have been more strangely, more variously appropriate for the birthplace of the Saviour of the world.

Whether it be the original name or a Jewish pun upon some older, pagan designation, Bethlehem—“House of Bread”—fitted well the favored village on a fertile hillside, its fields populous with rich flocks of sheep and goats, its lush valleys clothed with wheat and barley, its terraced slopes of almond and olive, fig and pomegranate, rising to the twin summits above the town. Sheltered among the trees were the famous vineyards that made Bethlehem’s wine more choice than Jerusalem’s, only five miles away. Her farmers had always been men of wealth (Ruth 2:1), and to this day “Beit Lahm” remains a “House of Meat.”

But man does not live by bread alone, nor must he labor only for the meat that perishes. Here, to Bethlehem, in the fullness of time and the hunger of the world, came he who was to be for all men the Bread of life, taking upon him, in innocence and beauty, that flesh which he was to give for the life of the world.

The Grave Of Rachel

And what stirring memories lingered in the atmosphere of the little town; what oft-repeated stories of excitement, tragedy, and triumph made up her history. Some were filled with the pathos of ancient sorrows. For here was shown, from earliest days, a weathered stone monument to a great love and a great loss.

Here Jacob’s beloved Rachel, for whom he served “seven years … and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her”—here Rachel died, giving birth to Benjamin, whom with her last cry she named “Son of my sorrow.” “She was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day” (Gen. 35:19b, 20, RSV). The anguish of Jacob’s heart still wrings his dying words to Joseph, years afterward: “When I came from Paddan, Rachel to my sorrow died in the land of Canaan on the way … and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)” (Gen. 48:7).

This eloquent prefiguring of another who would find in childbirth, and at Bethlehem, that “a sword [would] pierce her own soul also” is strangely moving. But there is more.

For the cry of Rachel echoes down the sorrows of Israel. In startling prevision, as the dreaded Babylonian Exile approached, the prophet Jeremiah saw the long line of captives being led northward from Jerusalem past Rachel’s grave and hearing as they passed the Mother of Israel still weeping for her children:

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A voice is heard in Ramah,

Lamentation and bitter weeping.

Rachel is weeping for her children;

she refuses to be comforted for her children,

because they are not [Jer. 31:15].

Although this rests upon another tradition concerning the site of Rachel’s grave, Matthew boldly appropriates it with powerful dramatic effect in picturing the mourning of the mothers of Bethlehem at Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. The quotation is made still more apposite because Jeremiah himself, aged and rejected, captive and helpless, at the very nadir of Israel’s faith and fortunes, was held at Bethlehem before being forcibly carried to his death in Egypt.

It is as though in Bethlehem all the sadness of mankind’s predicament had found expression: personal bereavement and mortality, delayed hope and bitter disappointment, moral conflict and deserved chastisement, national failure and inhuman cruelty, are gathered up in years of travail and tears that herald the coming of him who would bring good tidings to the afflicted and bind up the brokenhearted. There all who “would not be comforted” may find at last the Consolation of Israel—and of the world.

The Home Of Ruth

From Bethlehem’s highest point, 2,550 feet, the land falls steeply eastward to the Dead Sea, and, barely thirty miles away, to the dim outline of the loftier mountains of Moab. As the story of Lot shows, the Moabites were in some sense kin to Israel; through the long history they were alternately friends and foes, but always “heathen.”

To Moab from Bethlehem in one of the friendlier periods in the days of the Judges went Elimelech, a man of Bethlehem, under constraint of famine. With hint went his wife Naomi and two sons, one of whom married Ruth, a Moabitess. After her husband’s death Ruth returned with Naomi to Bethlehem, to adopt a new people and a new faith: “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.…”

Her vow and prayer were more than fulfilled: Ruth found a new home and new happiness at Bethlehem, for she married Boaz and became ancestress of King David, and so of Messiah.

Surely some “field of Boaz” kept alive at Ruth’s adopted home the loveliest religious romance in the world and fed a pure pride in the memory of ancient hospitality to the alien. And a sense of wonder, too, that into the strong hope of the Jewish Messiah should enter this foregleam of wider promise, that tiny Bethlehem should nourish in its own village love-story the hint and hope of Messiah’s universal kingdom. If the men delighted in Davidic lineage, the women must have felt in Ruth’s place in the story at least an equal pleasure.

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The City Of David

But of course the royal splendor outshone all else. Neither Rachel nor Ruth cast such reflected glory on “blest Bethlem” as did the luster of the family of Jesse and the idyll of the Shepherd King.

David’s is one of the great stories of the world, and Bethlehem shares in it to the full. It was the home of his shy youth. “He was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” (1 Sam. 16:12), but he remained tending the sheep when his family, with the elders of the district, welcomed Samuel the prophet-priest in his search for God’s choice of a king. Bethlehem, too, shared in David’s struggles, suffering a Philistine garrison at one point and providing from among the village youths two of the famous “mighty men,” Asahel and Elhanan, among the neighbors devoted to his cause.

In all the tumultuous years that followed, the fame of having been the home of Israel’s greatest king never deserted Bethlehem, and “city of David” became heaven’s own sufficient name for the privileged township in the directions angels sang to shepherds. In the darkest years and afterward, men had come to look to Bethlehem to produce another king, a son of David, to sit upon the throne of Israel, and Micah fed the expectation of whole generations with his clear prophecy that in time made even Herod tremble:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,

who are little to be among the clans of Judah,

from you shall come forth for me

one who is to be ruler in Israel,

whose origin is from of old,

from ancient days.

In the sovereign providence of God, an imperial census-edict from another throne brought Joseph and Mary to the appointed place at the appointed time, and the royal city focused its proud memories and prouder hopes, together, on the King of Kings.

There’s a song in the air, there’s a star in the sky:

There’s a mother’s deep prayer and a Baby’s low cry:

And the star rains its fire where the Beautiful sing,

For the manger at Bethlehem cradles a King.

The Well Of Sacrifice

Even so, bread, and sorrow, the world-horizon, prophecy, and the royal lineage, still leave the Christ-portrait incomplete, and Bethlehem’s story can supply the missing feature.

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For Bethlehem had its well, beside the gate, and the water had a memorable flavor for which David in distress once thirsted with all his soul. Some heard his wish, and though the town was in the possession of the enemy, they broke through the Philistine lines and returned to David with a simple, eloquent token of their readiness to die for him—a goblet of water from the well of home.

David was deeply moved, too deeply affected to drink such nectar. “… he poured it out to the Lord, and said, ‘Far be it from me, O Lord, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at risk of their lives?’ ” (1 Sam. 23:16, 17a).

That, too, was remembered in Bethlehem, and understood: a love that prompts to utmost sacrifice, carried even to death, and the measureless sacredness of life so laid down in love, so that only God himself is worthy of such devotion. And this, also, was to find its unimaginable fulfillment. The cup that seemed to David red with the blood of heroic men, bound to him in a covenant of loyalty, obedience, and love, was to be filled again with the blood of another Sacrifice, sealing a still stronger covenant between the dying King of the Jews and the men he loved till death. But he would pour his own blood out “before the Lord,” and they would drink in loving memory of him.

The oldest church in Christendom now covers the reputed site that made the little town of Bethlehem superb among thousands, and the star the Magi gazed at is now reflected in silver set in a marble pavement over the spot where the manger is thought to have stood. But long before Christian devotion of many kinds from many lands strove to beautify the place He had made peerless, a divine preparation had been at work making it as ready as any place on earth could be to outshine the cities of the world. For:

There fared a mother driven forth

Out of an inn to roam;

In the place where she was homeless

All men are at home.

The crazy stable close at hand

With shaking timber and shifting sand

Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand

Than the square stones of Rome.

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