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.
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.
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.
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.
4 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. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 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.
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.
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.
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.
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