The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi: Bethlehem

Where It All Began

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. — Luke 2:4-7

 

Today’s Tour Stop

Ask someone in the group to read aloud this introduction to today’s main setting: Bethlehem.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a small town about six miles south-southwest of Jerusalem. Today its population is about 25,000, mainly Palestinian Arabs, most of whom are Muslim, though there is a sizeable Palestinian Christian community. It is surrounded by major Jewish settlements of some 170,000 people. But in Jesus’ day, Bethlehem was a Jewish town with a population of fewer than a thousand people, and maybe as few as one hundred.1

Bethlehem was important as the birthplace of King David, a thousand years before Jesus. There was a prophecy that the Messiah, a descendant of David, would be born in Bethlehem. The Messiah was expected to be a godly military leader like David, who would drive out the foreign oppressors who controlled the Holy Land. At the time of Jesus’ birth, His homeland was ruled by a nominal Jew, Herod the Great, who ignored God’s law and collaborated with the hated Romans.

In this session, we will go to Bethlehem to see what happened there in the time of Herod the Great. We will explore the drama behind the Christmas carols about the little town of Bethlehem.

First Thoughts

If you or any of your fellow group members do not know one another, take a few minutes to introduce yourselves. Then have each person in the group share an answer to these questions:

What images, feelings, and thoughts come to mind when you hear the word Bethlehem?

What do you hope to get out of a study of the Gospels and the Holy Land?

Watch the Video

Play the video segment for session one. As you watch, use the outline below to record any thoughts or concepts that stand out to you.

Notes

We tend to picture Jesus as being born in a stable, but the evidence suggests He was born in a cave — the birthing place of lambs.

Jewish tradition tells us the animals born around the fields in Bethlehem were used as sacrifices in the temple for the worship of the Lord.

The caves were kept in a state of ritual purity, and the lambs were wrapped in swaddling cloth to keep them without spot or blemish.

Jesus was wrapped like one of these baby lambs to show that He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Priestly garments too worn for use were made into the wicks of the menorah in the temple, which points to Jesus as the light of the world.

Every event in Jesus’ life revolves around a Jewish holiday — He died as the Passover Lamb; His resurrection was on the Feast of Firstfruits; and He poured out His spirit on Pentecost.

Debriefing the Tour

Take a few minutes with your group members to discuss what you just watched and explore these concepts in Scripture.

  1. What caught your attention most as you viewed the video?
  2. Ask for a volunteer to read aloud Luke 2:1–18. (Because it is long, you could change readers every few paragraphs.) Jesus was born in the humblest of places: a cave for animals. In what ways did His humility reveal His greatness? Bethlehem is about eighty miles from Nazareth. It would have taken about four days on foot or with a donkey to cover that distance. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph traveled the eighty miles to Bethlehem to enroll in a census for tax purposes. A manger is a feeding trough for animals (see Luke 2:7, Luke 2:12). Swaddling cloths were strips of fabric in which the baby was wrapped to immobilize his arms and legs to give him more restful sleep. Levitical shepherds were shepherds from the priestly tribe of Levi. They had the job of raising animals that were pure enough to be used for sacrifice in the temple.
  3. What explanations did Rabbi Sobel give in the video for why Jesus was:
  • Placed in a manger in a cave?
  • Wrapped in swaddling cloths?
  1. Why is it significant that Jesus may have been born in the same place as the lambs used for sacrifice in the temple?
  2. What is the significance of the infant Jesus being wrapped in cloth that came from used priestly garments?
  3. Ask a volunteer to read aloud the information about the Feast of Tabernacles below. What do you think about the idea that Jesus may have been born in September on the Feast of Tabernacles, rather than on December 25?

The Feast of Tabernacles commemorates the wandering of the Israelites in the desert after God liberated them from slavery in Egypt. Each September, Jews build temporary structures much like those the Israelites lived in during their wandering, and live in them during the holiday. This holiday commemorates how God provided manna from heaven to feed the Israelites, water from the stones to quench them, and a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to guide them. Ultimately, it reflects God’s presence, provision, and pro­tection. And for Christians, it reminds us of the time when “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us [literally, tabernacled among us]” (John 1:14).

Trying It Out

This is a hands-on activity to help you fix in your mind something you’ve learned in this session. For this activity, you will need cardboard, felt tip pens, white ribbon, and tape.

A crèche is a scene of the nativity, the birth of Jesus. Many Christians set up crèches at Christmastime to help them imagine the wonderful event in Bethlehem. Crèches can be made of wood, pottery, or many other materials. As a way of making the events more real to the members of your group, you can make a simple crèche together.

On sheets of cardboard, draw pictures of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, a manger, shepherds, sheep, and a lamb. Make the adult figures at least six inches tall and the other figures in proportion to them. Cut out the figures. You may color or laminate them if you like. Tape additional wedges of cardboard onto the backs of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the sheep so the figures can stand up. Use white ribbon to swaddle the baby Jesus and the lambs. Arrange your figures the way you imagine them in the cave at Bethlehem.

Another idea to try: buy or borrow a crèche, a nativity scene, to display in your home at Christmastime. Be sure to get some sheep with your crèche. When you display it, wrap the baby Jesus in strips of old cloth (linen would have been used in His day, but cotton will serve just as well). Also, wrap one of the sheep in strips of cloth to represent the young lambs that would have been swaddled there. Let this be a visual reminder of what you’ve learned about Jesus’ birth.

That’s a Wrap

This week, you and your group members learned some insights about Jesus’ birth from Jewish tradition. You learned what Luke may have meant when he wrote in his Gospel about Jesus being wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. As you prepare for personal study time this week, reflect on the truth that even from His birth, Jesus was destined to be our Passover Lamb without blemish, born to die to free us from sin and death.

Closing Prayer

Father of grace, we thank You for sending Your Son into the world to be our Passover Lamb. Thank You that through His coming in the flesh, He has dealt with sin and death for all who trust in Him. We offer ourselves completely to You and ask You to be active and real in our lives this week. Please fill us with courage to face whatever comes to us during the coming week as we keep our eyes fixed on the Lamb. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Recommended Reading

Read chapters 5 and 6 of The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi.

  1. T. France, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

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