Journeys of Jesus: Nazareth to Bethlehem

Last week we looked at Jesus’ first journey — from Nazareth to Judah — when his mother visited her relative Elizabeth while Jesus was still in the womb.

After three months (Luke 1:56), Mary (and Jesus) returned to Nazareth.

Now in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to enroll themselves, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to David’s city, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David; to enroll himself with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him as wife, being pregnant. (Luke 2:1-5)

Jesus’ second journey, still in Mary’s womb, was from Nazareth to Bethlehem. As with last week’s journey, this was a relatively long one. Nazareth is in the north, in Galilee, and Bethlehem is in the south, in Judaea. According to Google Maps, the distance is about 160 km (or almost 100 miles) and would take 33 hours on foot on today’s modern paths and roads.

It is also a hilly journey. Nazareth is located in a range at 1145 feet above sea level. Bethlehem, like Jerusalem, is in the hill country of Judea with an elevation of 2556 feet. In between the two, the travelers would have come down into the valleys and crossed the Plain of Esdraelon (or Valley of Jezreel) before crossing the highlands of Samaria, and then ascending again into the hill country of Judah. For example, they likely passed near modern Mizra (elevation 341 feet) in the Plain of Esdraelon just 5 miles south of Nazareth, and near modern Nablus (elevation 1768 feet) in the Samaritan highlands. (So 1145 ft -> 341 ft -> 1768 ft -> 2556 ft.)

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, being small among the clans of Judah, out of you one will come out to me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings out are from of old, from ancient times. (Micah 5:2)

Last week we learned that Nazareth was small and obscure in Jesus’ day. Bethlehem, even though small, had appeared several times in the Old Testament from the earliest days of the patriarchs.

In Genesis (35:19 and 48:7) we read that Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel died giving birth to their youngest son, Benjamin, on the way to Bethlehem.

Much of the beautiful book of Ruth is also set in and around Bethlehem.

So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, with her, who returned out of the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem in the beginning of barley harvest. (Ruth 1:22)

But, it was Ruth and Boaz’s great-grandson who truly made Bethlehem famous.

Yahweh said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided a king for myself among his sons.” (1 Samuel 16:1)

David, the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons, was a humble shepherd tending the sheep in the fields around Bethlehem when he was called home and anointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel.

Mary’s Joseph was descended from this David and so it was that, in response to Caesar Augustus’ decree, Joseph brought his young family to Bethlehem and it is here that Jesus was born.

That glorious event was announced to shepherds watching their flocks in the nearby fields, similar to how David had once spent his nights.

There were shepherds in the same country staying in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. Behold, an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be to all the people. For there is born to you today, in David’s city, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This is the sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feeding trough.” Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:8-14)

When we read the Bible, there are many things we don’t know or understand. Sometimes it’s because God just hasn’t given us all the details in His Word (for example, from last week’s story, the name of Elizabeth’s town). Other things we probably misunderstand because the way people lived in Israel over 2000 years ago was very different from how we live today.

For example, we are told: She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

When we read this, it is hard for us not to imagine something like a modern hotel and something like a modern barn or stable. But that is not likely what Joseph and Mary encountered in Bethlehem.

The earliest historical description of a specific birthplace is from Origin in 248 AD who describes a cave in Bethlehem with a manger that is pointed out to visitors as where Christ was born. The Church of the Nativity is built above such a cave.

But perhaps a more compelling picture is painted by Kenneth E. Bailey, a New Testament scholar who spent 40 years living and teaching in the Middle East. In his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, he explains “In the Middle East, historical memories are long… In such a world a man like Joseph could have appeared in Bethlehem and told people, ‘I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Mattat, the son of Levi’ and most homes in town would be open to him. … Being of [David’s] famous family, Joseph would have been welcome anywhere in town… Simple rural communities the world over always assist one of their own women in childbirth regardless of the circumstances. … Surely the community would have sensed its responsibility to help Joseph find adequate shelter for Mary and provide the care she needed….”

And so he calls into question our traditional understanding of the “inn” and the “manger” (or “feeding trough”).  He explains “simple village homes in Palestine often had but two rooms. One was exclusively for guests. That room could be attached to the end of the house or be a ‘prophet’s chamber’ on the roof, as in the story of Elijah. The main room was a ‘family room’ where the entire family cooked, ate, slept and lived. The end of the room next to the door was either a few feet lower than the rest of the floor or blocked off with heavy timbers. Each night into that designated area, the family cow, donkey and a few sheep would be driven. … Such simple homes can be traced from the time of David up to the middle of the twentieth century.”

“If Joseph and Mary were taken into a private home and at birth Jesus was placed in a manger in that home, how is the word inn in Luke 2:7 to be understood? … the Greek word does not refer to ‘a room in an inn’ but rather to ‘space’ … The Greek word in Luke 2:7… is katalyma. This is not the ordinary word for a commercial inn. … Literally, a katalyma is simply ‘a place to stay’ and can refer to many types of shelters. The three that are options for this story are inn, house, and guest room. Indeed, Luke used this key term on one other occasion in his Gospel….” 

He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered into the city, a man carrying a pitcher of water will meet you. Follow him into the house which he enters.  Tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’  He will show you a large, furnished upper room. Make preparations there.” (Luke 22:10-12)

So, we have Jesus completing his second journey, from his family’s home in Nazareth to a lowly and common space (whatever form it took) where He made His visible entry into this world.

The map above is from the current prototype of the Journeys with Jesus game board showing the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

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Note: all scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the World English Bible which is in the public domain.

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