Although Bethlehem is only a small town (Micah 5:2), it was well-known in Israel 1000 years before Jesus’ birth. The royal family that ruled all Israel for 80 years, and Judah for 300 years afterwards, came from Bethlehem.
Those kings chose Jerusalem and not Bethlehem to be their capital city. Jerusalem is about 6 miles (10 kilometres) to the north of Bethlehem. There in Jerusalem they built their palaces and they organised their government. However, long afterwards the family still considered Bethlehem to be their real home (Luke 2:4).
Bethlehem is high in the hills of the region called Judah. It stands by the ancient main road that runs from the north to the south of Israel. It had a good supply of water from the well that is near its gate (2 Samuel 23:15).
Bethlehem had a gate because a wall completely surrounded the town. That gate was the most important place in the town. In its shade, the old men who led each family would sit each day. They are called its ‘elders’; they acted both as the town’s council (local government) and its court (Ruth 4:1-12).
Near the town were the fields where people grew their crops: the grains called wheat and barley (Ruth chapter 2). For that reason Bethlehem’s name means ‘the house of bread’. The inhabitants of Bethlehem also kept animals, especially sheep (16:11). They would take those animals further away from the town into the hills to feed.
Later, the trade in sheep became especially important for Bethlehem. It would provide many of the animals that people gave to God in the temple (God’s house) at Jerusalem (Luke 2:8). However, the temple did not yet exist, and Jerusalem was not yet Israel’s capital city. At the time that we are reading about, Samuel had to bring his own animal to Bethlehem (16:2).
Next part: ‘Consecrate yourselves’ (1 Samuel 16:5)
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© 2013, Keith Simons.