• Sheperds Field, on the left the new buildings. Photo: Yaakov Nof

Bethlehem – Where it all Began

Yaakov Nof - 26 December 2021

Having not been to Bethlehem for years, we went to visit our ‘neighbours’ again in October 2021. We live in the south of Jerusalem, not far from Bethlehem. It was complicated to enter Bethlehem, as Israelis are not allowed to enter the city. We parked our car just outside the checkpoints, where friends from Bethlehem came to pick us up so that we could drive through the border control with a car displaying a Palestinian number plate.

The city of Bethlehem is, of course, the birthplace of Jesus. That is the main reason for pilgrims to visit the city. Over the years, the city has not changed much. I met many old friends, who were happy to see me. The town looked deserted. The square in front of the Church of the Nativity was almost empty, except for a bored-looking policeman.

“In the book of Joshua, we read about another Bethlehem, a city in the area of the tribe Zebulon”

Church of the Nativity

The Church of the Nativity is in the centre of the city. Millions of tourists go there every year. Before the corona epidemic started, there were long queues of tourists wanting to enter the church. A lot of money has been invested in restoring the old medieval church with its mosaic floor and walls. Where people used to stand in long queues to catch a glimpse of the star indicating the place of birth, only two Franciscan monks stood. This scene was repeated at what is called Shepherds Field, which reminds us of the event in Luke 2:8: “Not far from here the shepherds spent the night in the field…”. We saw four nuns in habits walking out of the place; nobody else was to be seen. The area around Shepherds Field is being built up. The shepherds with their flocks, who pasture here after the first rains, cannot be seen very well.

Cave at the Shepherds Field

Attala Zachariah in his workshop

During our visit to Bethlehem, we visited an olive wood workshop. Attala Zachariah was working alone at his worktable. His workshop was under his house, where piles of olive wood stumps could be seen everywhere in the garden. “We used to sit here with five people working hard to keep up with the demand for olive wood sculptures for visitors to the city. But now I sit here on my own and hope for better times”. The people of Bethlehem make a living out of tourism, and olive wood carvings are something visitors like to take home as souvenirs.

“A famous story from the Old Testament that takes place in Bethlehem is the story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz”

Most people associate Bethlehem with the New Testament and the birth of Jesus. But let us not forget that we read about Bethlehem much earlier in the Old Testament. Bethlehem in Hebrew means house of bread, and in Arabic, house of flesh. In the book of Joshua, we read about another Bethlehem, a city in the area of the tribe Zebulon. “Other cities are Kattat, Nahalal, Simron, Jidala, and Beit-Lechem” (Joshua 19:15). Nahalal and Simron are most likely found in the valley of Jezreel, and we assume that the Bethlehem spoken of by Joshua was on the border of lower Galilee and the valley of Jezreel. Bethlehem in the area of the tribe of Judah, the Bethlehem we know today, is first mentioned in Genesis 35:19 and Genesis 48:7, where we read that Rachel was buried on the way to Ephrat, now Bethlehem. But when we then read Jeremiah 31:15 or 1 Samuel 10:2, archaeologists wonder if the grave is indeed in Bethlehem. Perhaps it is in Ramah, north of present-day Jerusalem, and Rachel weeps over the exile to Babylon? In early biblical times Jerusalem was a small, pagan city that lay north of the great and important Bethlehem.

A famous story from the Old Testament that takes place in Bethlehem is the story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz. Naomi was originally from Bethlehem, and when she returned with Ruth from Moab, they returned to Bethlehem. “So they went on, as far as Bethlehem” (Ruth 1:19). Here Ruth met Boaz. The marriage between Boaz and Ruth makes a connection to the New Testament because King David was born of that lineage, from which, according to the New Testament, Jesus was descended. “Solomon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth” (Matthew. 1:5).

Bethlehem, a city with such a rich history, is definitely worth a visit. After all, this is the place where it all began.

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