Week Forty Eight: Jonah; Micah
Nestled in the fifth chapter of the Book of Micah, right in the first couple of verses, is an iconic revelation. Micah 5:1 seems to call Israel to attention, “Now, gather thyself in troops, oh daughter of troops!” Then, after warning of yet another humiliating blow to the judges of Israel, a revelation of enormous import is offered in Micah 5:2:
“But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose going forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”
These forty words foretell the coming of the Messiah in the Davidic line, predicting he would, like King David, be born in Bethlehem Ephratah. This. Is. HUGE.
Beth Lehem means House of Bread in Hebrew. Interestingly, there are two towns in the vicinity of Israel named Bethlehem, always have been, and still are. One is much more convenient to Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph lived in year 0. Located only a few miles north of Nazareth, in the area of Galilee, this other little town of Bethlehem is believed by some of its few residents, and at least one prominent Israeli archeologist from the Israeli Association of Antiquities, Avaram Oshri, to be the actual site of Jesus’ birth. It makes sense, because compared to the 70 mile trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem Ephratah, which is now part of the Palestinian Authority, this second, charming, little town of Bethlehem, is a convenient hop, skip and jump from Nazareth.
But Old Testament prophecies point forcefully to the more inaccessible Bethlehem Ephratah, located at that time in the kingdom of Judah, as Jesus’ birthplace. And even Aviram Oshri, the archeologist, concedes that as long as Christianity finds its roots in the Old Testament, the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem of Judah will be the story that makes genealogical sense.
Imagine Mary and Joseph, living in Nazareth around 0 BC. Did they know of the scriptures prophesying the birth of the Prince of Peace? There were many such prophecies; Genesis 3:15; Deuteronomy 18:15; Numbers 24:17; Isaiah 7:14; and Daniel 9:25, to cite a few. By all accounts, both Mary, and Joseph, to whom she was betrothed, were faith filled individuals, devoted to the God of Israel and observant of the rituals and traditions associated with piety in their times.
Nevertheless, Nazareth, in the meridian of time, was not a hotbed of scriptural study. It’s true, the Dead Sea Scrolls, containing many books in the Old Testament and discovered by Bedouins in the 1940’s, in caves in the Qumran area, demonstrate these old and sacred writings were already codified and honored by those societies. But, these writings were not necessarily widely dispersed among the Jewish people. It is possible Mary and Joseph were aware of the prophetic record in Micah 5:2 that zeroes in on the place where the Messiah would be born. It is also probable they did not know this important prophetic detail.
Mary and Joseph had been through a lot…the visit and annunciation of the plan that Mary would be the mother of the Messiah by the angel Gabriel, Joseph’s own angelic encounters, and moving faith in, and protection of, Mary and her unborn child. And now, a call from the Roman rulers for a census. The requirement that Joseph, because he was a descendant of the great grandson of Boaz and Ruth, King David, must return to Bethlehem Ephratah (the same place to which Ruth and Naomi returned from Moab,) to be counted for the census, must have seemed a lot to ask, very annoying and very difficult.
Couldn’t Joseph have left Mary in Nazareth with her family to have the baby? Why did they have to make this long journey together? It gives us perhaps an insight into the nature of their love, intimacy and devotion to one another…that Joseph wanted to bring Mary and that Mary wanted to make the journey. Whether or not they were familiar with or understood the prophetic implications of Micah 5:1-5….that they undertook to do this together speaks volumes about both of them. If they did understand that prophetic pronouncement, how determined they were to do their part together to fulfill it. If they didn’t, how marvelous that they should have accepted, TOGETHER, the burdensome requirement of the state that they get to Jerusalem to be counted in the census according to Roman law.
They did it. They made the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a donkey and walking. As the crow flies…a rocky 70 mile trip across a lot of bumpy desert land. One walking and one riding. It couldn’t have been easy or comfortable. Maybe they did know about the prophecy in Micah 5. Maybe they DID know the Messiah was expected to be from Bethlehem, in Judah. If they did, they were determined to do their part to fulfill that promise. How they must have been astonished that the world had been orchestrated to facilitate the placement of this piece of the prophetic puzzle. But somehow, I doubt they knew. There were no printing presses in Israel in the meridian of time. Though the prophet Micah was prophesying 100’s of years before Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, it is possible they did NOT know of this small but significant inspired insight he had shared. If they didn’t know, and simply found themselves in Bethlehem on that fateful night because they had humbly chosen, together, to abide by the laws of the land despite the apparent injustice, inconvenience and extra expense that the particular law required …one must stand back in awe and review with humility all those times in our lives when things seem so unfair and we JUST DON’T GET IT! There may indeed be a purpose, a foreordained purpose being accomplished that we cannot discern.
Mary was only 8 months pregnant and she may have thought she still had time to get home and have the baby there. That happened to me once. I went to help a family member out on a project a few weeks before a baby was due. It didn’t occur to me that there was a problem because my babies were always around nine days to two weeks late. But the trip itself may have provoked the birth. My last baby was born three weeks early and 2000 miles from home. That probably is what happened to Mary too. And then, there they were and no place to stay. And …oh my goodness….probably as a result of that long bumpy trip …the baby was coming!!!! We once had a baby born in our car…with two dogs in attendance. It was around Christmas so the local television station heralded it as a stable-like birth. All I knew was: when it’s happening, it’s happening. Unless you have some very advanced medical intervention, or know something I don’t, it is not possible to stop that process! So, Joseph gratefully accepted the offer to stay in the stable with the donkey and Mary and the other animals..and…in the wee hours of the night or morning…the promise and prophecy of Micah 5:2-5 was fulfilled.
It helps me to look at all the inconvenient truths and circumstances of my life in a different light. What prophecies about my life needed just the mix that I’ve faced to have been fulfilled according to God’s plan. How much better to embrace life as it unfolds with faith and good cheer. Many years ago, I had the sweet privilege of driving with Sister Pat Holland, wife of Elder Jeffrey Holland, to my first calling as a new member of the church. I was aglow with the wonder of my new found conviction of the TRUTH of the restored Gospel. Hence I was taken aback by Sister Holland’s observation that EVEN if the Gospel wasn’t TRUE…how grateful she was for the way it allowed her to live and experience life. Shocked, I responded, “Oh, but it is TRUE! That’s why I’m here!” Sister Holland smiled her radiant smile and chuckled,” Well, of course it’s true,” and continued, “but think about it, even if it wasn’t, what a better way to live…to live with hope, love, purpose, direction, community and commitment.” The wisdom of Sister Holland’s unconventional observation has become increasingly clear to me over the years. How grateful I am for the truths tucked away in the Old Testament, the breadcrumbs of prophetic insight that led to Bethlehem and that leave a record for us of the glorious Truth that in a tiny town, faraway, on a quiet night, our great Lord and creator came into our world as a small, vulnerable babe so that He could teach us, love us and die for us ….to pay for our sins and provide us a path back to our eternal home. May we each receive this gift with humility and gratitude is my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.