For birth or death: the destiny of Bethlehem

Photo by Sean Hawkey/WCC: Icon on a segment of the Israeli separation barrier near Bethlehem.

This reflection was originally presented during morning prayers in the chapel of the Ecumenical Centre, on 18 December 2017.

I sometimes ask people if they know which is the first point in the Bible that Bethlehem gets a mention. And that normally offers them quite a challenge. People certainly move back from the New Testament into the Old – and come up with responses like, ‘the story of David’, or ‘the Book of Ruth’. Good thinking. But actually the first mention of Bethlehem in our Bibles (as they are now set out) occurs much earlier still.

You can find it in the Book of Genesis: Genesis 35.19 to be exact. When Jacob returns from his 20 years of ‘exile’, bringing with him his two wives, Leah and Rachel, Rachel goes into labour and gives birth to her second son, Benjamin, ‘when they were still some distance from Ephrath’. Though Benjamin is born safely Rachel herself (like so many women throughout past history), dies in childbirth. And the text then reads, ‘So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave.’

When I first realised this, I found it an extraordinarily powerful ‘coincidence’ (if that is an appropriate word), that the first biblical mention of Bethlehem, a town that we Christians so much associate with birth, should actually be in relation to a story about death – or rather a story about birth and death.  Indeed other mentions of Bethlehem in scripture remind us of how close birth and death were. There is the story of Ruth which begins in Bethlehem – only then it is a place of famine which people leave to seek survival, and which ends too in the same town with the joyful birth of a son to Ruth.

There is the poignant and beautiful oracle of Jeremiah in 31.15 which speaks of Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted ‘because they are no more’, an oracle quite is clearly alluded to Matthew’s account of the massacre of the innocent children of Bethlehem by Herod (Matthew 2.18), which itself is another example of birth and death drawn very close together in Bethlehem.

As I reflect on this I find myself recalling the words ‘For birth or death?’ which appear in a wellknown  English poem, by TS Eliot The Journey of the Magi. Do you remember how the Magi ponder, towards the end of the poem, how they have encountered both birth and death in their journey? As the wise man – the magus – speaking in the poem puts it

were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death

I was powerfully reminded of Eliot’s words years ago, when I was living in Jerusalem and visited Bethlehem on a bitterly cold February day, to find a funeral going on inside the church, with the coffin placed directly above the Cave of the Nativity. Birth or death? A birth which foreshadows later suffering and death – yet it is only through such a death that new birth is made possible. Bethlehem is a place of paradox, a paradox wonderfully encapsulated in the door to the Church of the Nativity, which is an entrance so low that everyone needs to stoop down to pass through it. It was built in that way to stop people trying to ride into the church on the back of their horses. It expresses in stone the paradoxical truth of the incarnation – hymned more than 1500 years ago by St Ephrem in his Hymns on the Nativity:

‘Blessed be the Child who today delights Bethlehem…

Glory to the Living One whose Son became a mortal;

Glory to the Great One whose Son descended and became small.’

That sense of paradox at the heart of Bethlehem is somehow further epitomised by the fact that the actual birthplace of Jesus is an underground cave – beneath the floor of the great church first built by Constantine and then rebuilt by Justinian. Somehow, fed by our images of European nativity scenes Christians expect the site of the birth to be a wooden stable – but the tradition of Christ’s birth in a cave goes back to Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the 2nd century AD, ‘When the child was born in Bethlehem, because there was nowhere to rest in that place, Joseph went into a cave very close to the village.’

Caves are very much a part of the Christian religious landscape in the Holy Land – and, as here at Bethlehem, they speak to us of a God who enters the depths of human life and human suffering and who works mysteriously in the darkness. Caves speak too about the deep subversiveness of Christianity – which spent its first three centuries before Constantine as an underground movement. The word ‘subversive literally means ‘to turn from under, from below, from underneath’. The birth of Jesus in a cave was a very appropriate location for one who was to subvert the meaning of messiahhood.

For me, one of the saddest aspects of the current tension and hostilities in the Holy Land, is the particular problem faced by Bethlehem, which has suffered grievously and disproportionately from security measures and conflicts since the beginning of this millennium. In the 1970s, when I lived in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, even though under Israeli occupation, seemed a comparatively prosperous ‘little town’. No longer.

In the years 2001-2003 the inhabitants of Bethlehem knew hardship, siege, poverty – and death, far more than birth. Even though the brute violence of those years is no longer apparent, life in Bethlehem is now visibly dominated by the ‘Wall’ – that symbol of division.  Indeed, because of its importance to the Christian world, Bethlehem tends to be the place more than any other in the land where western Christian pilgrims can catch sight of the realities of the occupation. It is also a town that shows only too clearly how the demography in the Middle East is shifting – as Christian families who have lived in Bethlehem for centuries,  perhaps almost since New Testament times, finally decide that they can no longer see a future there for themselves and their children, and leave for the West.

Many of the Christmas carols we sing which refer to Bethlehem I find too sweet – almost sickly – given the realities of today. But there is a lilting Christmas song by Elizabeth Poston which I have asked for us to sing which has always expressed for me the intermingling of glory and the tragedy of Bethlehem. It includes the lines, ‘O Bethlehem! Ancient of days, within thy story, heaven was laid. O Bethlehem! Anguish must be the price of glory, for us he paid.’

One of the many ironies about Bethlehem is encapsulated in its very name. In semitic languages the word ‘Beth’ means ‘House.’ But the letters ‘Lehem’ can either be linked to a word which means ‘Bread/Food’ or another word which means ‘War’. So the name Bethlehem can mean either ‘House of Bread’ or ‘House of War’. The choice is for us, and for our world today:  do we come to Bethlehem to be fed, receiving the bread of life – or do we turn our backs on the ‘one of peace’ (see Micah 5.5) and follow the dangerous path which leads to war?


The impressions expressed in the blog posts are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.