Bethlehem PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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The Name
No spring?
Nativity Church

Shepherds' Fields

Between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is a Greek Orthodox monastery named Mar Elias (St. Elijah). A few yards south of it, we depart from the main highway, the water divide, eastward onto a side road skirting Jebel al-Gneim (now the Israeli settlement of Har Homa with apartment buildings) toward an Arab village called Beit Sahour ("Place of the Magi"). Driving south, before reaching the village, one can stop and look at Bethlehem to the west. Below it are terraced slopes, and below them a narrow valley. Behind, to the east, lies the desert.

07102002150855.jpgThis is the best place to view Bethlehem as it would have been seen by nearby shepherds (Luke 2: 1-20). There are three official sites for Shepherds' Fields in Beit Sahour itself (they require modest dress ):

1. The Greek Orthodox church in the valley, east of the main part of town. (Telephone: 02-2773135. Call in advance to assure entry.) The church includes the remnants of a cave with a mosaic floor containing crosses. Since a Byzantine emperor banned crosses on the floor as impious in 427 AD, the mosaic must be earlier. The cave was then enlarged for a chapel. This site has had the longest life of the three, indicating a persistent tradition. See Murphy-O'Connor, pp. 419-20.

2. The Roman Catholic church. (Open 08:00-11:30, 14:00-17:30; Telephone: 02-2772413). The site includes a chapel designed like a tent (built in 1954), as well as a cave; a group can arrange to have Mass in either. Outside are the ruins of a monastery, dating from the 4th century AD to the 7th. This was one of many monasteries in the Judaean desert.

3. The YMCA of Beit Sahour, east of the town center on the north side of the road. Here many Protestants commemorate Shepherds' Fields. There are no ancient remains. There is a grove of pines, a cave, and a view toward Jerusalem and the desert.

Shepherds' Fields

07102002150931.jpgThe area of Judah was famous for two main products: wine and milk. So we read in Jacob's blessing over Judah: Genesis 49:11-12. The wine came from the grapes grown on the mountain, and the milk from the flocks of goats and sheep that grazed in the desert. There must have been a great many flocks and shepherds in the time of Jesus: at each Passover, Jews in Jerusalem would have needed perhaps 30,000 unblemished lambs to sacrifice and eat. Thus the shepherds who raised these lambs heard about the birth of one who would later be called the "lamb of God" - and who would be sacrificed in Jerusalem at Passover. 

Another biblical account can be placed here as well: 

Situated east of the watershed on the desert edge, ancient Bethlehem was a fine, fruitful place in rainy years, but it had no spring and was vulnerable to drought. This is reflected in the Book of Ruth: Because of famine, Naomi and her family leave Bethlehem and settle in Moab, east of the Dead Sea, where her sons marry Moabite women. The family's journey fits the geography: the leeward side of the central range often misses the rain. Flowing down toward the Dead Sea, the air warms, because (other things being equal) the lower an area is, the hotter. Given this heat, the moisture in the air does not condense, which is why there is desert here. On the Moabite side of the Dead Sea, however (Jordan today) the air encounters a cliff. It rises and cools, and its moisture condenses as rain. Thus Moab sometimes gets the rain that Bethlehem misses.

After ten years in Moab, Naomi had lost her husband and both her sons. Hearing that the famine was over in Bethlehem, she decided to return to Judah and bade her daughters-in-law to stay, since she had no more sons to give them. One agreed, but the other, Ruth, replied (Ruth 1:16):

Ruth said, “Don’t entreat me to leave you, and to return from following after you, for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried. Yahweh do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me.” 

They came back to Bethlehem, and being poor, they gleaned in the fields behind the harvesters, who were forbidden to pick up any sheaves they dropped or to reap the corners ( Leviticus 19:9-10 ). At this point comes the story of Ruth and Boaz (Ruth, 2-4). They marry and beget Oved, the father of Jesse, the father of David. Thus David, the great-grandson of a Moabite convert, is born in Bethlehem. Two centuries later, when the prophets foresaw the birth of the Messiah, they harked back to David. Micah, in particular, identified the town of the Messiah's birth with that of David's: Micah 5:1-5.