A shepherd and his sheep in Bethlehem today. (photo: Rev. Leon V. Kofod)
The Shrine of the Birthplace of Jesus in the Church of the Nativity. (photo: Rev. Leon V. Kofod)
Stone mangers used for animal feed are still in use today. (photo: Rev. Leon V. Kofod)
A young boy tends his herd in Shepherd’s Field as his ancestors have for thousands of years. (photo: Rev. Leon V. Kofod)
But you Bethlehem Ephrathan, the least of the clans of Judah, out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel. (Micah 5:2)
Five miles south of Jerusalem on a limestone ridge of the Judean highland, is a little town overlooking the main highway to Hebron and Egypt. It is Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means the house of bread. The modern Arab name for the town is Beit Lahm house of meat. Both names bespeak the natural fruitfulness of the area.
Off from the south side of Bethlehems rocky terrain, a steep valley drops down to the Dead Sea. A stony donkey path descends south from the east edge of town toward the wilderness, and the home of the biblical figure Amos.
As early as Davids time the town was walled, and sections of Bethlehem today appear much as they may have 2000 years ago. Narrow streets are lined with flatroofed, cube-shaped stone houses. The town today, however, is more prosperous but still seemingly eternal in its hilly loneliness surrounded by fields and sheep.
The majority of Bethlehems 20,000 residents are Arab Christians, and many of them depend on the pilgrim flow for their livelihood.
In ancient days Bethlehem was called Ephrath, and is said to be the town where Rachel was buried. Her tomb, not far from the north of town, is in the shape of a small stone structure and is considered holy by Christians and Jews alike.
Bethlehem was also the city of Davids birth, and he spent his boyhood tending his sheep in nearby pastures.
In the second century Bethlehem was devastated by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. However, in 330 A.D. the Emperor Constantine the Great erected a basilica over the traditional grotto of the Nativity. This Church was enlarged by Justinian in the sixth century and today is shared by Christians of many rites.
Annaville Van Haag is a freelance writer with a special interest in philosophy and culture.