“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” Micah 5:2
Bethlehem means “house of bread” in Hebrew. It was first occupied by the Canaanites for farming as early as 1350-1300 BC, the earliest known written reference. Overshadowed by Jerusalem only 10 km away, this small, out of the way village – often known for nothing more than its anonymous farmers and shepherds – would play a major part in Jewish history.
Rachel, the favored wife of the patriarch Jacob (also known as Israel) and mother of Joseph, died there. Joseph would be sold into slavery by his eleven jealous brothers while herding sheep on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Guided by God, Joseph would end up saving Egypt and his family from starvation during a time of famine. His ability to interpret dreams would convince the Pharaoh to store grain for the dark days ahead. After subsequent enslavement in Egypt and forty years of desert wondering sustained by manna, the brothers’ descendants would return as one people, the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Later, Naomi and her gentile daughter-in-law, Ruth, would return to Bethlehem after the death of Naomi’s husband and sons. It was Naomi’s ancestral home and former village. If nothing else, they hoped to survive by gleaning, collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields as allowed by Mosaic Law to show mercy toward the poor. Ruth will meet Boaz amidst the grain fields and a relationship will be forged one night on the threshing room floor. Where there had seemed no hope, love and new life would come.
Their descendants would include a simple shepherd boy, David, who would become a great king. According to Matthew 2 and Luke 2, Bethlehem would eventually become the birthplace of Jesus, descendant of David, Son of God, the Bread of Life.
Bread was the basic food for all Israelites, rich or poor. Thus, it came to be a common metaphor for life and abundance. In the Temple, bread would be used as part of a symbolic offering to God. It wasn’t meant to be a food to God, but it was there as a sign of thanksgiving for the provision of the people with their daily bread. In homes, breaking bread became a sign of hospitality. Bread is not really extraordinary. It’s the ordinary stuff of daily life, and yet it proves also the stuff of miracles. For God is active in the ordinary, blessing us right down to the provision of our homes, clothing and food.
Much as bread and grain woven throughout the Bible, so was Bethlehem. Unremarkable in and of itself, Bethlehem and its ordinary people would become part of an extraordinary story. It’s the story of salvation which ultimately came to a climax through the life of a small and seemingly ordinary baby.
Our congregation might be small. Our lives might prove ordinary. Yet God is here – active amidst the ordinary, making us sacred, opening a way forward to new life. Here, we share in the joys and struggles of life together. Here, hopelessness is transformed into hope. Here, we are being made part of God’s story, one God is still telling. A happy, miraculous ending lies before us.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.
© 2015 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.