Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4

Church of the Nativity – an Incredible Structure

A highlight of the tour through Israel (and Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank and under Palestinian rule) was a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church, thought to be the oldest operating church in the world, was originally built by Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great. The first church was dedicated in AD 339.

The original church was destroyed. It was rebuilt in the 6th century by Emporer Justinian (who reigned 527–565) and is largely the same today. The church that covers the cave where Jesus was born is magnificent in size and decor.

The Church of the Nativity is interesting in that it is home to three different religions: Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox. A Muslim holds the black wrought iron key to the church. Originally, Muslims were commissioned to hold the key to keep the peace among the three Christian religions using the church.

Getting ready for the procession. When we arrived, one church service was ending and another was beginning. We had to wait reverently for the services to end before we were allowed to enter the Nativity Grotto.
Notice the Crusader paintings of saints at the top of many of the columns. The red limestone columns were quarried locally all those centuries ago. Trap doors in the floor give glimpses of the mosaic floor of Constantine’s basilica.

As you can see, the Church today features no pews; its interior is mostly dark and cold and huge. You feel quite small when you stand there waiting your turn to go through the 1.2 meters high door that takes you into the cave where Jesus was born. Except for the front of the church, which is quite ornate, the only decorations are Crusader-era paintings on the massive columns, wall mosaics near the ceiling of the massive structure, and the chandeliers that hang along the columns.


The picture above, hopefully, gives you an idea of just how massive the church really is. You can see how tall the pillars are compared to an average human’s size.

I really didn’t notice it while visiting the Church of the Nativity, but it is said that the church has fallen into some disrepair over the years. Apparently, politics from way back during the Ottoman Empire have prevented significant renovations from occurring for over five centuries.

Fortunately, beginning in 2013, $15 million (US) has been invested into fixing the church’s roof to keep it from falling in and to make other needed repairs to the walls and mosaics. Among the repairs is the restoration of the intricate mosaics in the church. The 12th-century mosaics, made of gold and silver leaf with mother of pearl, had been covered with soot and grime accumulated over the centuries. An Italian team was commissioned to painstakingly restore their grandeur a few years ago.

I found it quite sad that some visitors to the Church of the Nativity feel it is appropriate to desecrate it. There is graffiti on many of the stately columns lining the church. I honestly don’t know what is wrong with people.

How sad is it that the church is desecrated by graffiti?

Entering the Grotto of the Nativity

To get to the Grotto of the Nativity, you must descend steep and narrow stairs after bending to enter the doorway that is slightly less than 4 foot high. The only doorway to the Grotto is cut into a massive wall and is purposefully low. It was lowered around the year 1500 to keep looters from driving their carts into the holy spot.

Unfortunately, I did not get many pictures while in the cave. It is only about 39 feet x 10 feet and was very crowded. We were rushed to look and get out. If I ever take another Holy Land tour, I will spend more time celebrating the birth of my Savior while in the Grotto of the Nativity, regardless of how crowded or rushed we are.

Mural over the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born
My friend Sherry is touching the spot where it is said that Mary gave birth to Jesus.
The spot where tradition says Jesus was born is memorialized by the 14-point silver star.
After a serious fire in 1869, the walls of the cave where Jesus was born were covered with heavy leather drapes that are backed with asbestos. On Feast Days, the cave is lit by 48 hanging lamps.

 

Luke 2:4-7

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

We descended a few more steep steps to see where it is believed Jesus was laid in his manger bed. This tiny spot was even more crowded. The pictures below were hastily taken of where the manger where the baby Jesus slept is believed to have been.

I looked so quickly that I don’t even remember much about the manger except that I had to climb down several steep stairs that had no railing and it was very, very crowded.


I found it interesting that a statue of the crucifixion was featured in the manger.

I have read that the rock in the Grotto of the Manger is the original rock from when Jesus was born. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of it and don’t even remember seeing it.

The manger in the Grotto is built to match the dimensions of feeding troughs that were cut into the rock by Bedouins back in Jesus’ day. If you want to see a picture, there is one here.

Last Words about the Grotto fo the Nativity

I have to qualify some of my statements. I believe Jesus may have been born in this cave that we saw beneath the Church of the Nativity. I believe he slept in a manger bed, just as the Bible says He did. I do not personally believe that any of us know exactly where Mary gave birth to Him or exactly where the manger stood. I have a little difficulty honoring exact spots that humans have decided are THE spots where historical events occurred over 2000 years ago.

With that said, it does not matter to me if the spots I saw in Bethlehem are the exact spots where my Savior was born. I’ve even seen some reports that say the Palestinian Bethlehem isn’t even the Bethlehem where Jesus was born. I don’t care. What matters to me is that He was born, He lived, He died on the cross for me and you, and He was resurrected three days later.

Links to the Hope and Survive pages related to my 2019 trip to Israel:
Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1
Journey to Israel – Getting There … and Getting Home … Part 2
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Part 3
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine … Part 5
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6
Journey to Israel … Nazareth … Part 7
Journey to Israel … Caesarea Maritima
Journey to Israel … Mount Carmel
Journey to Israel … Sea of Galilee
Journey to Israel … Ginosar and the “Jesus Boat”
Journey to Israel … St. Peter’s Restaurant

 

Journey to Israel – Getting There … and Getting Home … Part 2

When I decided to make the pilgrimage to Israel, I had never visited any country outside of the United States besides Mexico. And my forays into Mexico were just to border towns like Juarez, back many years ago when you could visit there without worrying about being murdered.

I had always imagined that airlines catered to passengers who were flying long distances, across oceans, to lands far-away.

Oh! How wrong I was.

I met my friend and travel mate (and fellow 6-year lung cancer survivor) in New York City. She was coming from the DC area and I am from the Dallas metroplex. My trip on Delta to JFK International in NYC was an easy one. It was roomier than I remembered Delta being, even though the jet was relatively small.

Packed in like sardines

Unfortunately, the same was not true for the Poland Airlines LOT flight to Warsaw from JFK. If you can afford to fly first class, you have plenty of room, but those of us who are on a more limited budget get packed in like sardines.

 

Seats right on top of seats … nearly

I have never been so surprised in my life! I had always assumed that international flights were quite roomy and luxurious. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I sat in the window seat on the 8+ hour flight to Warsaw. Once the person in front of me leaned their seat all the way back, I felt completely claustrophobic and panicked. I could not move, I could not even bring my purse up off of the floor to get chapstick. It was a horrible feeling.

Counting the minutes to touch down and a chance to stretch.

I dreaded the flight back to America the whole time we were in Israel. I didn’t dwell on it, but the occasional thought of coming home filled me with dread. Fortunately, on the way home, I was lucky enough to sit in an aisle seat.

Get an aisle seat!

Suddenly, I felt that I had much more room because I could lean into the aisle and use that extra space when I needed to get my purse or stretch my legs just a bit. If I ever fly internationally again, I will always try to get in an aisle seat.

We flew the red-eye flight to Warsaw. I think that really helped prevent jet lag. We slept – not much, but a little – on the plane. By the time we finally arrived in Tel Aviv and got to our hotel, it was after 10 PM, their time. So, we went to bed and got up on Tel Aviv time. I never felt jet lag while in Israel.

The same was true for the excursion home. We arrived at JFK at around 9 PM. By the time we got to our hotel, it was 10. We ate dinner and went to bed and got up on USA time. Now, I did sleep more than usual the following day. Whether that was jet lag or just exhaustion from being away from home for 12 days, I am not certain.

On the way to Israel, I packed a lot of things in my backpack. I had several changes of clothes, important soaps and lotions and inhalers, blankets and travel pillows, pills, pajamas, shoes, underwear … I also had my purse and a big travel bag into which my purse fit.

Don’t overpack!

My backpack was heavy. My purse was heavy. And because I felt like I needed to take everything I owned to Israel with me (I am being fictitious, but only slightly), my checked bag was heavy. I took too much. I won’t do that again!

On the way back home, I stuffed my checked bag full and lightened the load in my backpack. It was quite the relief not to be carrying 30 or more pounds on my back!

So, here are the takeaways. Don’t expect to have much room on your international flights. It won’t happen unless you can afford to fly first class, or at least, business class. If you have the money to choose one of these options, do it! I will have to make do with passenger class (is that what it is called?) but I will always try to get an aisle seat. It makes all of the difference in the world as to how cramped you feel.

Secondly, try to pack light!!! It is unnecessary to take everything and the bathroom sink! You will thank yourself for being frugal with regard to baggage weight as you move from plane to plane and hotel to hotel.

Trust me! I learned this the hard way!

Links to the Hope and Survive pages related to my 2019 trip to Israel:
Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1
Journey to Israel – Getting There … and Getting Home … Part 2
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Part 3
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine … Part 5
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6
Journey to Israel … Nazareth … Part 7
Journey to Israel … Caesarea Maritima
Journey to Israel … Mount Carmel
Journey to Israel … Sea of Galilee

 

 

Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6

Our Gate1 tour of Israel took us to Shepherds’ Field, one of three spots believed to be where shepherds learned about the birth of Jesus. Interestingly, Christians have chosen one spot – Shepherds’ Field, while Greek Orthodox believe the shepherds learned of the Savior’s birth in the eastern part of Beit Sahour and Catholics think the Christ child was announced about 400 meters north of the Greek Orthodox site, on the north ridge of Beit Sahour.

While the significance of the Lamb can’t be denied, young and old stood near Shepherds’ Field holding lambs. The hope was that you would stop and speak and maybe pet the lamb or ask for a picture with the lamb for a donation.

My opinion is that it doesn’t really matter which of the three spots is the one where the shepherds got the word that Jesus had been born. What is important is that He was born!

The cave where the Shepherds were keeping their sheep the night the angel told them of Jesus’ birth

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”  Luke 2:6-15

Shepherds’ Field

Shepherds’ Field is east of the Greek Orthodox and Catholic sites. It is also in Beit Sahour, a community southeast of Bethlehem, originally known as the Village of the Shepherds.

The Field of Boaz is visible to the east of Shepherds’ Field. This is where Ruth, grandmother of King David, met and married Boaz.

Field of Boaz, aka Field of Ruth. The plains where Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, the forefather of Jesus, met and married Boaz. Ruth 2, 3

 

It was a cold, wet day in January when we visited Shepherd’s Field. It was amazing how warm and cozy it was when we entered the cave where Christians believe shepherds were tending their sheep the night they learned that the Christ child had been born.

The cave was fairly large, bigger than I would have guessed it would be. The ceiling was black from the fires that kept the shepherds and their flocks warm.

In the Bible study, the ROCK, the ROAD, and the RABBI, with Kathie Lee Gifford and Rabbi Jason Sobel, we learn that it is probable that the shepherds weren’t just your run of the mill sheep tenders. Instead, they were likely Levitical shepherds whose job it was to raise the blemish-free lambs to be sacrificed at the Temple in nearby Jerusalem.

The caves where the shepherds took their ewes before they gave birth to new lambs were necessarily kept in a state of purity since Jewish law required the lambs to be pure. So, the cave where Jesus, the Lamb of God, was born was almost certainly one used by the Levitical shepherds, one that had been purified.

The cave at Shepherd’s Field where Christians believe shepherds were tending their sheep when they learned Jesus was born.
Notice the size of the cave and the black, soot-covered ceilings.
The church at Shepherds’ Field. We were not able to visit the church.
Statue of a Shepherd and his flock outside of the Shepherds’ Field church

Archaeological Ruins of Five Churches Found at Shepherds’ Field

Excavations uncover multiple churches from early centuries

The beautiful Shepherds’ Field church is new. In 1972, the Archimadrite Seraphim, the leader of the Monastery of Saint Savva, decided to build the full-sized church over the cave at Shepherds’ Field.  It was while excavating the foundation for the new church that they found the remains of three additional ancient churches.

There are now the remains of five early-century churches found near Shepherds’ Field:

  • The Natural Cave Church dates to the second half of the 4th century
  • The Cave Church, dating to the 5th century
  • The Roof Chapel, dating to the 5th century
  • The Basilica, from the 6th century
  • The Monastery Church, which dates to the 7th century

 

Links to the Hope and Survive pages related to my 2019 trip to Israel:
Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1
Journey to Israel – Getting There … and Getting Home … Part 2
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Part 3
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine … Part 5
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6
Journey to Israel … Nazareth … Part 7
Journey to Israel … Caesarea Maritima
Journey to Israel … Mount Carmel
Journey to Israel … Sea of Galilee
Journey to Israel … Ginosar and the “Jesus Boat”
Journey to Israel … St Peter’s Restaurant

 

Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1

Making the Decision for a Trip of a Lifetime

In late August 2018, I made the decision to accompany my friend and fellow Stage IV lung cancer survivor on a trip of a lifetime for me – a journey to the land of my Saviour. I have never cared much about overseas travel, but I have always wanted to visit the Holy Land. I couldn’t imagine walking exactly where Jesus walked. When Karen needed a travel partner, I jumped at the opportunity to go with her to Israel.

Mural above the place where Jesus was born

Since I had never traveled overseas, there was much to do, including getting a passport. This task ended up being more difficult than I originally imagined because the passport office required a different type of birth certificate than I had so I had to order another. I was nervous that I wouldn’t get the correct birth certificate and then the passport in time to make the trip, but that was a worry I need not have had. The passport arrived in good shape months before we actually left for our trip in January 2019.

I am not typically a worrier, to say the least, but suddenly I was fretting over everything. What should I take? Do I have the correct bags or should I buy more? What will I wear? What shoes should I take? Karen and my husband Robert both reminded me that there were stores in Israel should I forget anything, but I wanted to be sure I had everything.

Words of hindsight are that, yes, there are plenty of stores in Jerusalem and other sites in Israel, but getting to them is not as easy as you might think. Our tour kept us very busy and didn’t include stopping by shopping malls. Without a walk or a taxi ride, a shopping expedition would not be possible. And, after a full day of touring, this old lady was tired. In other words, my worries about thinking of everything, in my opinion, were justified.

This post is really long. It probably won’t be very interesting to most people, but I wish I had seen something like it when I was preparing for my first-ever trip overseas and to the Holy Land.

Planning for the trip

So, let’s take a look at what I took … and what I didn’t take that I wish I did.

What I wish I had taken:

  • a bathing suit
  • swim shoes

These items would have been useful at the Jordan River (Yardenit) where believers can be baptized and at the Dead Sea where you float, whether you want to or not, because of the high salt content. Because I didn’t take a bathing suit (or, at least, a t-shirt and shorts that I could change out of), I did not partake in the baptism or the Dead Sea adventure. If I go again, I will be sure to pack something to wear for these activities first.

  • A pair of good walking shoes or boots.

I bought new and comfortable shoes (Skechers) that I love, but much of where we walked was uneven. Because it rained a lot while we were in Israel, many of the uneven surfaces were also wet. I wished for tennis shoes or hiking boots that had more structure and more sole than my comfy Skechers afforded.

  • A cane

I have never used a cane in my life and hope it is quite some time before I need one regularly. However, many steep steps, often wet, without the benefit of handrails made me wish for a cane to use as a third leg. They make fold-up canes and if I go again, I will likely take one along. If it never gets used, great! But, it would be a comfort to have it available.

  • A knit hat and scarf and warm gloves

These items wouldn’t take up much room or add much weight, but they sure would come in handy on those days when the temperature dropped into the 20s or 30s and the wind galed.

What I took that I didn’t need:

  • Too many pairs of inadequate shoes. As I noted above, I took comfy Skechers shoes – three pairs of them. I was glad I had two of those pair since one pair got very, very wet in the torrential rain that came the first day we were there. I never took the third pair out of their bag. Again, I wish one of the pair of shoes that I took had been hiking boots or structured tennis shoes.
  • Too many pants and tops. I thought I was going to get really dirty while touring so I insisted on taking a fresh pair of slacks or jeans or leggings for every single day. And then, for good measure, I threw in a couple of extra pair. Since I had them, I wore different pants every day, but that was unnecessary. It added a lot of weight to my suitcases. I could have easily worn the same pair of pants at least twice.

Likewise, I took more tops and covers than needed. I ended up using a multi-colored, warm sweater several different times. I didn’t need t-shirts/blouses that each had their own matching cover or sweater.

Israel in the winter is not unlike Dallas, where I live. Some days it is warm and sunny, where shirt sleeves are all you need. Other days are bitter cold and you need a warm hat, scarf, gloves, and coat. We had both kinds of weather when we were there. So, it is important to take both warm and cool clothes.

  • Bottles of pills – anti-diarrhea, anti-gas, aspirin … I took brand new bottles of all three. They remain unopened. It was nice insurance to have them, but I could have combined several of each into one pill bottle or pill keeper and saved the space taken by three separate bottles.
  • My own metal water bottle. While I enjoyed having my insulated water bottle while traveling to NYC, I never used it again on the trip. It just took up space and added weight to my luggage.
  • A travel pillow and blanket. I bought a nifty memory-foam travel pillow that folds into its own bag. I was really proud of my purchase and was anxious to try it out on the long airplane ride to Tel Aviv. It ended up being too big. I could never get comfortable with it. It was so big and unwieldy that it gave me fits. If I wasn’t such a tightwad, I should have just left it in Israel instead of continuing to drag it around with me. I doubt I will ever try to use it again.

I took a $5 blanket, 50X60, along. I had read that you wouldn’t want to use the blanket provided by the airlines because the cleanliness would be questionable. Well, the blanket and pillow we received to use were in plastic bags and I didn’t worry about their cleanliness. I did cover up with my blanket in the room in Jerusalem, but I could have used the extra blanket in the room and saved my space and weight.

  • Bluetooth keyboard. I took a Bluetooth keyboard for my tablet. I never got it out of the bag. Now, it didn’t take up much space and added minimal weight, so I would likely take it again, but I didn’t ever use it while gone.

The Necessities

What I took that I am glad I had:

  • A raincoat with a hood. This jacket was easy to stuff into small spaces and was worn multiple times, sometimes to keep me dry and sometimes to keep my warm and sometimes for both.
  • An umbrella. I took a very small umbrella that easily fit into my purse. Again, we had quite a bit of rain during our visit to Israel so the umbrella was a handy tool to have available.
  • Compression socks. I am not sure the credit goes to the compression socks I bought and wore for much of the trip, but I had no problem with my legs or ankles or feet swelling while on my trip, including during the very long airplane rides.
  • Comfortable shoes. As I have mentioned, I wish I had taken a pair of hiking boots, but I am also glad that I had a pair of comfy, lightweight Skechers with their memory foam.
  • A warm sweater that blended with nearly everything I wore. I could have left a number of “covers” (sweaters, flannel shirts, etc.) at home and simply used the same sweater again and again. I loved the sweater I took, but I wish it had had pockets. Most of the clothes I took didn’t seem to have pockets and I really missed having them.
  • Short-sleeved and long-sleeved tops. Some days were warm and a short-sleeved top was plenty, especially when topped with the sweater that could easily be taken off if needed. Other days were bitter cold so long sleeves definitely felt good!
  • Slacks, leggings, jeans. I took too many pairs. I enjoyed leggings, especially on the long plane rides. Jeans were nice because they had pockets and were warmer than leggings (even though I took some that were fleece-lined.) I could have gotten by with two or three pairs of leggings (which take up little space and add minimal weight) and a pair or two of jeans. Instead, I took multiple pairs of slacks and jeans.
  • A good camera and lots of batteries and memory cards. I am a picture taker. I take lots and lots and lots of pictures (over 10,000 while I was on my 9-day tour, two of which were simply travel days). I went through three memory cards since I was recording my memories in JPEG and RAW. I took four batteries; two would have been enough.
  • A good adapter to use to charge electronics in the room. I bought one that had four USB ports and the capability of plugging in a separate charger. It worked like a dream.
  • A portable battery charger. I bought one that was perhaps too big and too heavy, but I used it daily to keep my phone charged so that I could take pictures everywhere we went.
  • Earphones. I, unfortunately, lost my over-the-ear earphones I took sometimes during our trip to Israel. I think they fell out of my bag on the plane between JFK and Warsaw. At any rate, while I had them, they were great. They kept out much of the plane noise so I was able to watch the Netflix movies I had downloaded onto my tablet during the very long, very cramped, very boring plane ride across the ocean from America. I really missed having them after losing them and considered buying more at the airport. I decided to suck it up and wait to buy some from Amazon – I don’t need name-brand, expensive earphones like I would have had to buy at the airport.
  • Tablet. I didn’t use my tablet a lot, but I certainly used it enough to justify taking it. I mostly watched movies on it, but I used it to access Facebook or email a time or two. I thought I might use it to take pictures, too, but ended up just using my Sony camera and Samsung Note 8 for that task.
  • Plenty of charging cords! I often had four plugged into the adapter. I charged my phone, tablet, camera, and portable battery all at the same time.
  • A nice travel purse. I bought a nice-sized lightweight purse that had RFID blocking and straps that couldn’t easily be slashed. It had pockets that locked closed and some that didn’t and that were easily accessible. I really fell in love with the purse and will continue to carry it even when I’m not traveling. It has pockets on each side for an umbrella and a water bottle.
  • A bigger bag that the travel purse, jacket, tablet, etc. fits into. I bought a big leather bag that I could stuff everything I might need during the day’s tour into. I always left it on the tour bus but never worried about not having everything I might need while away from the hotel.
  • Prescription meds. I bought small containers at Walmart to carry enough of my prescription medications for the trip.
  • Lotions, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant etc. My skin is very dry so I use special lotion/cream that I took along in small containers. Every hotel where we stayed provided soap, shampoo (and sometimes conditioner), and body lotion. Every hotel provided a hair dryer, too. If you want to take along a curling iron, you will need to get an adapter specifically for high voltage tools. The adapter I bought to charge electronics would not work for a curling iron.

Last words

When and if I ever go again, I will try to keep my rolling, checked bag to a weight of no more than 40 pounds. My backpack, I hope to keep under 20 or 25 pounds.

In my backpack, I put three changes of clothes, pajamas, and necessities. In the event my checked bag had been lost, I would have been situated for several days while, hopefully, my lost bag was found. Leggings and tops didn’t take up much space or add much weight but gave me confidence that I would be okay if my big bag took a while to arrive. As it turns out, all luggage made the same trip I did!

Well, congratulations if you are still reading this! It is quite lengthy, but I tried to cover everything in one spot regarding what to take and what not to take. It was difficult navigating so many different moves with as much weight as I took along. Next time, I will have plenty, but not too much!

Links to the Hope and Survive pages related to my 2019 trip to Israel:
Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1
Journey to Israel – Getting There … and Getting Home … Part 2
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Part 3
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine … Part 5
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6
Journey to Israel … Nazareth … Part 7
Journey to Israel … Caesarea Maritima
Journey to Israel … Mount Carmel
Journey to Israel … Sea of Galilee
Journey to Israel … Ginosar and the “Jesus Boat”
Journey to Israel … St Peter’s Restaurant

 

Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Where It Started … Part 3

Our tour of the Holy Land did not follow the timeline of Jesus’ life. For instance, we didn’t go to Bethlehem, where our Savior was born, until the sixth day of our visit. By the time we went to His birthplace, we had already seen where He was baptized and where He died, was buried, and rose again.

I have decided to try to put as much as I can into chronological order rather than how we saw the landmarks while on our tour. I think it will make more sense that way. Naturally, you can skip around this blog at your convenience and can visit whichever page(s) you desire in the order that pleases you.

Notice the Christmas tree on the left and the Peace Center on the right. (I believe the Peace Center actually may just be a restaurant, but given the political situation, I thought it might be something more significant…)

Bethlehem

It takes someone much smarter than I am to understand how the West Bank and occupied territories all work. I’ve tried to do some research on it all, but I am sorry to say that my mind is left spinning.

So, while I do not purport to understand it all, suffice it to say that Bethlehem is in the West Bank. Our Jewish Israeli tour guide was unable to accompany us into Bethlehem because it is under Palestinian rule.

There is a sign at the border warning Israelis that they could be hurt if they cross over into the West Bank. If I understand correctly, this is because of Israel laws, not Palestinian.

 

Israeli citizens – turn around! You are not allowed here!

Therefore, we were given a Christian Palestinian to guide us through Shepherds’ Field and the Church of the Nativity. I wish I better understood all of the politics of it.

The Names of Bethlehem

Bethlehem plays an important role in both the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible. In Biblical times, it was known as Bethlehem Ephrathah or Bethlehem-Judah. Currently, you may hear it referred to as Bethlehem or by its Arabic name Bayt Laḥm (which translates to “House of Meat”) or its Hebrew name, Bet Leḥem (meaning “House of Bread”).

Getting to Bethlehem

Today, Bethlehem is located in the West Bank. It is only about five miles south of Jerusalem, situated in the Judaean Hills. To get here, though, you have to cross out of Israel and into the West Bank. Fences and warnings abound.

In recent years, tourists quit going to Bethlehem because it was simply deemed to be too dangerous. However, the Palestinians have made great effort to remedy that situation since much of its economy is tourist-driven.

Border security.

Bethlehem in Biblical Times

Bethlehem is important to Christians for many reasons, most especially because it is where our Savior was born over 2,000 years ago. The Church of the Nativity, which stands over the cave where Jesus was born, is one of the oldest Christian churches.

It was initially built by Helena (326-328), mother of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I. The original church was destroyed but it was rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Justinian (reigned 527–565). It remains substantially the same today as it was then.

Luke 2:4-7:

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. 

Bethlehem is important to Christian pilgrims for more reasons than “just” the birth of Christ:

  • Rachel, Jacob’s wife and the mother of Benjamin, died during childbirth on the way to Bethlehem (aka Ephrath). She was buried there. (Genesis 35:16-20)
  • It is where most of the Book of Ruth took place. Ruth married Boaz in Bethlehem. They ultimately became the great-grandparents of the mighty King David.
  • King David was born and raised in Bethlehem. It was there that he was anointed king of Israel by the prophet Samuel (I Samuel 16).
  • King David’s grandson, Rehoboam, who became the first king of Judah (2 Chronicles 11), fortified the town.
  • Shepherds’ Field, where the Angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds tending their sheep and announced the birth of Christ is also near Bethlehem.
  • King Herod assassinated all boys in Bethlehem, ages two and under, in a jealous rage after he heard that Jesus, King of the Jews, was born. He hoped that by killing all young boys he would do away with the Christ-child.

Bethlehem Today

The population of Bethlehem and surrounding villages today is over 220,000 people, including over 20,000 living in three refugee camps (Dheisheh, Aida and Beit Jibrin). While Christians made up most (86%) of the population of Bethlehem in 1950, that is no longer the case. Now, according to Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboun, Christians make up only 12% of the population.

Church in Bethlehem

 

Sadly, Baboun says that the unemployment rate in Bethlehem is a staggering 27%. Part of the reason for this high unemployment is the declining tourism trade. Most tourists, even if they go to Bethlehem, do not stay long and spend little of their money there.

When we were there as part of our tour, we ate lunch in Bethlehem, quickly visited Shepherds’ Field, spent an hour or so at the Church of the Nativity (including waiting to be allowed down to the cave over which the church sits), visited a very commercial, very expensive shop, and left.

Angel carved from Olive wood. Beautiful and expensive.

I personally spent a total of $16 US in Bethlehem, the cost of my lunch. I suspect that was also the case for many of the other people who were on our tour. Unfortunately, we didn’t help Bethlehem’s local economy much by our visit.

Just for Fun

Before I leave this page, I want to leave you with a touch of America that has made it across the ocean to the West Bank. Not only did we pass a number of McDonald’s fast food restaurants during our journeys – some kosher, some not – we saw lots of other American companies represented in the Middle East.

Coffee, anyone? I loved the play on words here. (Although I didn’t see it while in Bethlehem, there is also a Walled Off Hotel … playing off the name of the popular Waldorf Hotel in America.)
KFC, Samsung, Dell … All brands we know and love here in America!
You can find Coca Cola at most restaurants. I didn’t have one so I am not sure if it tastes the same as in the US. Notice, too, our American Santa pushing the product!

 

Links to the Hope and Survive pages related to my 2019 trip to Israel:
Journey to Israel – The Beginning … Part 1
Journey to Israel – Getting There … and Getting Home … Part 2
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Part 3
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of the Nativity … Part 4
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Church of Saint Catherine … Part 5
Journey to Israel … Bethlehem … Shepherds’ Field … Part 6
Journey to Israel … Nazareth … Part 7
Journey to Israel … Caesarea Maritima
Journey to Israel … Mount Carmel
Journey to Israel … Sea of Galilee
Journey to Israel … Ginosar and the “Jesus Boat”
Journey to Israel … St Peter’s Restaurant

 

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