The Little Town of Bethlehem
We stopped at high walls topped with barbed wire. “Would the guard with the gun allow us entry or deny us access?” raced through my mind as we waited at the entry point. Why? If any place is in jeopardy of dropping off the itinerary, it’s the little town of Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is a city behind walls, gates and guards, now in Palestinian territory. Tension quickened the tempo of our pace – and emotions – as we entered the eternally significant place.
Tight and fast – we walked from the parking garage to the old marketplace in the little town of Bethlehem. The center of community life was right there at Jesus’ birth. Today, one side is the Church of the Nativity, the other a Muslim mosque. Horns blared for prayer while we were there. Unsettling, distracting, drawing my attention away from Jesus. Interesting detail – but that’s another story…
Guided by a Christian native to Bethlehem, we felt safe and secure. He shared Bethlehem peaked at 80+% Christian yet the Christian population is now less than 2%. According to him, this percentage continues to fall rapidly.
Our guide also said something that grabbed my attention – and held it. As familiar as the Christmas story is, I’d never heard the particular details he shared. A quest commenced to confirm I’d heard him correctly. That’s the story I share here.
“Joseph and Mary traveled up to Bethlehem from Galilee for the census. There was no place at an inn, so they stayed in the stable. Mary’s time came to give birth, so Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloth and laid in a manger.”
Familiar words our guide shared from Luke 2 where the birth of Jesus is so beautifully told.
“The angel of the Lord came to the shepherds down in the fields to share the good news and give them the signs to seek. The heavenly host then praised God. When the angels departed, the shepherds went up to Bethlehem to find Jesus.”
“You know the story,” he said, “You’ve heard it all your lives.”
Yes, but not quite like he told it.
I’d never heard down in the fields or up to Bethlehem.
My Bible simply says wrapped in cloths, let’s go to Bethlehem, over to Bethlehem or the shepherds returned.
No up, no down, no swaddling cloths in the Bibles I read (even though I knew the swaddling cloth part). Why does this little detail matter to me? Why would you be interested in learning what I learned?
Our guide shared history I’d never heard before. It rattles me to the core and I want to say, “Tell me more!”
What else have I missed, overlooked or simply not learned from the Bible – yet?
“Swaddling cloths – do you know what they are?” our guide queried. Of course, that’s what baby Jesus was wrapped in at birth.
“Why?” he continued probing us. “Jesus was born in a manger. What does that have to do with Him being wrapped in swaddling cloths?”
We were clueless.
Jewish tradition dictates a person be buried by sundown the day they die. Bandits were common in Biblical times. Travelers anticipated burying one of their own or coming upon a body that needed burying as they traveled. They were obligated to perform the burial ritual so they prepared for it.
How? Men wrapped strips of linen around their waists in anticipation of and preparation for burying a body. Swaddling cloths were the linen strips men wrapped around their waist and wrapped a body for burial.
The shepherds down in the fields of the little town of Bethlehem tended the sheep for the Temple priests. They tended the lambs destined for sacrifice in Jerusalem in the temple.
Sacrificial lambs must be without spot or blemish. The temple priests wash the sheep and shave them. The shorn lambs are inspected for spot or blemish and rejected unless perfect. The perfect lambs are sacrificed – shedding their blood to atone for the sins of the one sacrificing them.
Even the hooves had to be flawless, without chip, crack, splinter, spot or blemish. At birth, the shepherds wrapped the lambs’ hooves with strips of linen to protect them.
Yes, linen strips known as swaddling cloths wrapped their lambs hooves to protect them from becoming marred so these lambs could be sacrificial lambs, perfect in every way humanly possible. I didn’t know. Did you?
There is one field down from the little town of Bethlehem. It’s still there today. This field is where the shepherds tended the sheep bearing the lambs destined for sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The flawless lambs born down from the little town of Bethlehem were wrapped in swaddling cloths from birth to preserve their perfection for their destiny – sacrifice. I didn’t know. Did you?
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
Luke 2:13-16 (NIV)
So they hurried to the little town of Bethlehem to witness the greatest story every told.
The Lamb of God
Wrapped in swaddling cloths
Perfect in every way
Destined to be sacrificed
To shed His blood
To atone for the sins of all
The Perfect Lamb
The Sacrificial Lamb
The Lamb of God
Swaddled at birth
20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:20 (NIV)
I searched BibleGateway.com high and low seeking the words up and down in Jesus’ birth story. I read every English translation of Luke 2, wanting to find any of the words our guide used as he told the old, old Christmas story.
15 And it came about, when the malachim withdrew from them to Shomayim, the roim (shepherds) were saying to one another, Let us go now up to Beit-Lechem and let us see this thing that has come about which Hashem has made known to us. Lukas 2:15 Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB)
And there it was – UP – in the Orthodox Jewish Bible. Imagine that – the words used when Jesus, a Jew, lived were preserved in the Orthodox Jewish Bible. Makes me wonder which version of the Bible our Christian guide from the little town of Bethlehem reads…
So the old, old story took on a new dimension. And that’s revelation.
The shepherds saw
The Perfect Lamb
Who shepherds us
Leading us to look up
God’s Own Son
Above all names.
Oh, my, I didn’t share anything about the gifts of the Magi. Burial spices…
That too will have to be another story for another day.
Oh, by the way, did you know you go up to Jerusalem?
Merry CHRISTmas, y’all, from this girl from Texas. May the name of Jesus Christ be celebrated in your heart, your home and your family today and every day.