Christ is born in Bethlehem.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 December 2016

Around 5 BC, a crowd of Zoroastrian astrologers came to Jerusalem looking for “the newborn king of Judea,” Mt 2.2 freaking out the province largely because its paranoid king, Herod bar Antipater. Mt 2.3 They knew it was only a matter of time before Herod starting killing people over it. As he later did.

Figuring he oughta learn where Messiah was expected to come from, Herod turned to Jerusalem’s head priests and scribes.

Matthew 2.4-9 KWL
4 Gathering all the head priests and scribes of the people,
Herod was asking them, “Where’s Messiah born?”
5 They told him, “In Bethlehem, Judea. This was written by the prophet:
6 ‘You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are in no way the least of Judah’s rulers:
A leader will come from you who will shepherd my people, Israel.’” Mc 5.2
7 Then Herod, secretly summoning the Zoroastrians, grilled them on the time the star appeared.
8 Sending them to Bethlehem, he said, “Go search carefully for the child.
Once you find him, send news to me so I might also go bow before him.”
9 On hearing the king, they went.

The scribes answered with a loose translation of Micah 5.2, which pinpointed Jerusalem’s suburb of Bethlehem, about 3 kilometers away. The Canaanites called it Efratá/“fruitful,” but by the time Genesis was written the Hebrews had renamed it Beit Lekhém/“bread house.” Ge 35.16, 19 Still, the Hebrews tended to refer to it as “Bethlehem-Efratá” to distinguish it from the other Bethlehem in the tribe of Zebulun. Js 19.15 Don’t mix up your Bethlehems. God didn’t.

Bethlehem was a small settlement; small enough to get skipped in various Old Testament censuses. But it wasn’t unknown. Israel’s judge Ivchán (the one with the 60 kids) was from there, Jg 12.8-10 and King David ben Jesse was from there. 1Sa 17.12 So the town had two great rulers come from it already.

The prophecies of Micah of Moreshét were largely about how the LORD was tired of the evil which went on in Israel, and he was coming down to Jerusalem and Samaria to sort things out. Mc 1.3 Micah figured the LORD was coming to judge—you know, that part of the cycle of history.

But in reading it, you’ll notice Micah wasn’t only talking about the LORD dealing with the issues and worries of the then-present day. The terms he used include a lot about final judgment, not just one judgment among many. Finally sorting out Israel, not just currently sorting things out. Stuff that happens in the last days, not just the usual near-future prophecies.

In other words, Micah includes some prophecies about Messiah and the End Times.

Now when it comes to prophecies of the far future, stuff about Jesus’s first and second comings tended to get mixed together. God didn’t give the prophets any comprehensive timelines, y’know. (And no, he didn’t leave that for the “prophecy scholars” of the present day to figure out.) The predictions are in no particular order.

Generally the end-of-the-age stuff involves Israel driving off its enemies, getting its act together, the people of Israel coming home from exile, and peace and prosperity from then on. But the Messianic stuff has to do with the one who’s gonna lead them in the next age: Messiah, the king of kings who’s gonna rule not just Jerusalem but the world.

This is why Jesus’s first advent confused the people of his day. They expected him to overthrow the Romans and conquer the world. They had no clue there were gonna be two advents: The first to conquer sin, the second to conquer the world.

Bethlehem, Messiah’s birthplace.

One of Micah’s prophecies referred to a ruler who’d sort things out for God. The then-current kings (Yotám, Akház, and Hezekiah Mc 1.1) were getting slapped around by the Assyrian Empire… but God was talking about bringing in a new and mightier ruler. New… and yet at the same time, ancient. You know, kinda like someone who pre-existed. Jn 1.30

Micah 5.1-4 KWL
1 You’re cutting yourself now, soldier’s daughter: Siege is upon us.
They strike Israel’s judge on the jaw with a cane.
2 You! Bethléhem-Efratá! Smallest of Judah’s thousands! Israel’s ruler comes from you, for my sake.
They bring him forth—he who’s from the beginning, from days beyond counting.
3 God gives him till the time she gives birth, gives birth.
The rest of his sisters and brothers can return to Israel’s children.
4 He stands and shepherds with the LORD’s strength, with the excellence of his LORD God’s name.
They abide, for now he is great enough to rule to the ends of the earth.

Yep, here’s where the scribes got Messiah’s birthplace from the Prophets: Micah said Israel’s great ruler would be born in Bethlehem-Efratá.

Some Jews skip this description as hyperbole. Okay, Messiah’s meant to be a great and mighty leader like we read about in legends and myths. Like King David. So some of ’em are pretty sure Micah meant David—that this isn’t a prophecy but a flashback, where Micah’s recalling the glory days of Israel when David kicked so much ass he wore out his sandals. After all, David was from Bethlehem, David shepherded his people with the LORD’s strength, David ruled the world… or at least he coulda ruled the world.

Other Jews figure, same as the rabbis who wrote the Talmud, this is obviously about Messiah. But they don’t believe Jesus is Messiah, and don’t believe Messiah is pre-incarnate. They claim “from the beginning, from days beyond counting” has to do with God sovereignly planning Messiah from the beginning of time; not that Messiah himself comes from the beginning of time.

Certain interpreters take the “for my sake” to mean Micah’s quoting God: The ruler comes from Bethlehem for the LORD’s sake. Me, I figure Micah wasn’t sloppily mixing God-quotes together with his prophecies: The ruler comes for Micah’s sake. And not just his, but everyone’s sake. Your sake. My sake. The ruler comes to help out his people. Not himself, like some politicians.

I tend to interpret verse 3 to mean the time between the first and second comings: While the birthpangs are still going on, Mk 13.8 God’s gathering into his kingdom all the Jews (and gentiles!) who will come to him and be saved. Other Christians assume this has to do with Mary giving birth to Jesus. I figure they’re wrong… but of course Micah was vague, so we both could be wrong.

Seven centuries later.

Christians tend to go gaga about these sorts of prophecies: “Look, God’s prophets knew Messiah’s birthplace 700 years before it happened!” As if God’s limited by distance in any way whatsoever.

Others find it impressive that God arranged the Roman census so that Mary would have to leave Nazareth, go to Bethlehem, and give birth to Jesus in the place Micah prophesied. Me, I don’t think God had anything to do with the Roman census. He just knew where Jesus would be born. If Jesus had been born in Nazareth, Micah’d have said Nazareth. (Tricky, considering Nazareth wouldn’t exist for another 600 years, but again: As if God’s limited.)

Wherever Jesus would be born, Micah’d have said. If in Jerusalem during the Feast of Booths, Micah’d have said Jerusalem. If in Shechem—’cause for some reason his parents got stuck there in mid-journey—Micah’d have said Shechem. And it would’ve horrified the Pharisees, ’cause Shechem was a Samaritan city. Maybe it’d’ve got the Pharisees to behave way nicer to Samaritans. But knowing human nature, more likely it’d’ve provoked them to conquer Shechem. Anyway, you see my point.

Seven centuries after Micah’s prophecy, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And about two years after that, Herod went looking for him there, with horrifying results. Blame the scribes for that one. Bible scholars, man, I tell ya; when you don’t have the Spirit’s fruit, you’re gonna give pearls to pigs Mt 7.6 in just the same way.