One of the most beautiful stories of the Old Testament is set in Bethlehem. It is the story of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite woman, a foreigner. But when her mother-in-law Naomi returned to her own land to settle in Bethlehem after the death of her husband and two sons, Ruth determined to return with her and settle where she did. “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried” (Ruth 1:16, 17). In Bethlehem Ruth met Boaz, a wealthy man of the town, and she became his wife. Their son was Obed, who was the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David.
Of course, it is David for whom Bethlehem is chiefly known. 1 Samuel 16 tells how the prophet Samuel went to Bethlehem to anoint a successor to the unworthy King Saul. Jesse produced each of his seven oldest sons, beginning with Eliab the first-born. But the Lord passed by each of them until the youngest, David, was eventually brought in from the fields and was chosen.
While Saul reigned as king, David often passed from Saul’s encampment to Bethlehem to feed his sheep (1 Sam. 17:15). David loved the small town and often thought of it. Once, when Bethlehem was occupied by Philistines, David exclaimed, “Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem” (2 Sam. 23:15).
Three of David’s mighty men were standing by, heard him speak these words, and took his request seriously. Out of the love they had for David they broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well, and brought it back to him. But David poured it out as an offering to the Lord, saying, “Far be it from me, O LORD, to do this! Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?” (v. 17).
Bethlehem was a small town among the many towns of Judah, but with a great history. And yet the history of Bethlehem was to become even greater, for it was out of Bethlehem that He who was to be a divine and everlasting ruler over Israel would come.
How wonderful the way it happened! Joseph (the adoptive father of Jesus) and Mary (His virgin mother) were of Davidic descent. Their ancestral home was Bethlehem. But they did not live in Bethlehem. They lived in Nazareth, where Joseph was a carpenter. How could it happen that their son Jesus could be born where the prophet said He was to be born—in Bethlehem, so many miles (and so many long days of travel) to the south?
We know how it happened. The great Caesar Augustus had a quarrel with King Herod, and determined that Judea should therefore be taxed as an imperial province instead of existing apart as a separate kingdom. And he determined that for that purpose everyone should return to the city of his or her ancestors to be registered. So we read in Luke’s gospel, “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” (Luke 2:4, 5).