O Little Town – A Little History (Part 1)

Series: Israel 2022

O Little Town of Bethlehem6.

This song has been rolling through my mind regularly since the start of the Christmas season. That and a good dozen other Christmas carols that speak (sing?) to the birth of Christ. So, it’s Christmas and I figure I just about have to write about visiting Bethlehem and seeing The Church of the Nativity, the place where it is said that Jesus was born.

But what comes to mind when I sing these carols is not the Bethlehem we visited, but something out of a Currier & Ives inspired event depicting a quaint and very small foreign village with lots of snow, twinkling stars, and an old wooden open-fronted shed with Mary, Joseph, 3 (exactly 3) wise men, maybe 4 shepherds, an angel hovering overhead underneath a big star, and a variety of farm animals. Everyone (and every animal) is standing around reverently adoring the wee baby Jesus wrapped up and asleep in a feeding trough (aka manger) with bits of hay sticking out the sides. Just so you know how important the baby is, there is sometimes a halo encircling his head or a bright light beam shining down directly on him from that giant star outside. A good and proper portrayal of the birth scene for Christians everywhere.

But the new world images of the Holy Land are maybe just a little skewed towards our culture and not that of the middle east.  Nativity scenes that I see at Christmas time certainly do not bring to mind the Bethlehem that we visited in the Judean Mountains just south of Jerusalem (maybe 5 miles). The Bethlehem that gets chilly in winter (if indeed Jesus was born in the winter season) but not really snowy although I’ve read that it can snow and does sometimes. It certainly didn’t snow when we were there in February.  In fact, it was rather hot, and Bethlehem isn’t a little village, it’s a good-sized city; and there was neither hide nor hair of a stable anywhere that I could see.

So, what is true about Bethlehem? Today it is located in the West Bank in the Palestinian Governorate of the State of Palestine. It is Israel but not really.  If you visit, you have to enter through checkpoints, and you have to show a valid passport just like any other border crossing anywhere in the world. (Fortunately, being on a bus as part of a tour, we were allowed to pass through without any serious issues or delays.) Today, Bethlehem’s economy is primarily tourist driven and right at the center of the city is The Church of the Nativity, a site now deemed sacred for Christians throughout the world which attracts thousands of Christian tourists every year.

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Like many middle eastern cities, Bethlehem is a city within a city. There are the ancient portions and then there are the 21st century modern parts. The “old city” in Bethlehem includes about 8 quarters (sections) with a “mosaic style” layout with Manger Square being at the core.  To the Arabs, the city was Beyt Lahm or “house of meat”; to the Hebrews, it was Bet Lehem or “house of bread”; to the ancient Greeks, it was Bethleem. But even older still is the Canaanite name, Beit Lahmi, which refers to the House of Lahmi, a Canaanite god of fertility worshipped by the Canaanites.5

The city is indeed ancient with some archaeological dates going back to the 14th century BC/E where it was mentioned in the Amarna Letters as a Canaanite city.5&10 But, our visit was primarily focused on Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity and events related to the birth of the Christ (Messiah) somewhere around 1BC give or take a couple years.

Bethlehem…. the place where Jesus was born…. the place that was prophesied in the Old Testament (Christian Bible) in the Book of Micah (5:2):

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, 

Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, 

Yet out of you shall come forth to Me

The One to be Ruler in Israel,

Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.”8

This little town – little among thousands. While no one really knows where Jesus was born and laid in a manger by Mary, his mother, there is a long tradition that associates the event with caves in the city at the site of The Church of the Nativity.

But, let me back up a minute. Bethlehem is also known as the “City of David” …. for good reason. David, the second and some would say greatest King of Israel, was from Bethlehem. David, the son of Jesse of the tribe of Judah who was anointed by Samuel to be king when he was but a young shepherd boy (1 Samuel 16:13).  David, the ancestor of Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, the mother of Jesus. David, who was promised by God (2 Samuel 7:16) that the Messiah would be born of his lineage.

David’s line. You know the basic nativity story, right? If not, it is all laid out in the New Testament in the Christian Bible in Luke Chapter 2.  The Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, called for a census, and everyone in Palestine had to travel back to the home of their ancestors. Since Joseph was of the “line of David”, he had to go to Bethlehem to be counted. And, so he did, taking a very pregnant Mary, his betrothed, with him.  (I’m leaving out quite a bit of the whole story so a little review by reading Luke Chapter 2 and Matthew Chapter 1 might be helpful to you.)

Bell Tower at the Church of the Nativity overlooking Manger Square

Now, back to the Church of the Nativity and those caves. As noted above, Bethlehem is in the hills of Judea and those hills include many limestone caves and the people built their houses over the caves. I suppose it is possible that, in even more ancient times, they originally lived in those caves and building their homes over them was a natural evolution. We know that young David took refuge in caves when he was hiding from King Saul (the first king of Judah, and that, in more modern times, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found stored in caves near the Dead Sea. Suffice to say, there are lots of caves in Israel and they were used for various purposes by the people living there. Even today, you can see houses built over caves in Israel. According to our Israeli tour guide, today the caves are used primarily for storage but have been used in the past for graves and, yes, as stables for sheltering their farm animals.

Old Houses built over caves in Jerusalem near Kidron Valley

The Church of the Nativity was built over a series of caves where tradition says that Jesus was born because there were no more rooms available in the house. Yes, the King James Version Bible says “inn”, but the koine Greek (New Testament language) word refers to a house or abode. The translation issue is not something I’m going to delve into with this blog. Suffice to say, some sort of building was built over the caves which, it seems, were being used as a stable with a manger available. Again, there is no recorded history – no neighborhood maps from 1BC, no birth certificate showing the date, time, & place of the birth of Jesus – only oral tradition that provided the basis for the location of the church.

Now a little info on the building of the church – very short version: Early Christians had identified these particular caves (or grottoes) as the site of Christ’s birth as early as the 2d century AD/CE. Yes, that’s over 100 years after the birth but it’s not known how long the early Christians had been going to the site. The Roman emperor Hadrian had gotten a little concerned about Christians gathering here. He didn’t like it since he wanted everyone to worship Roman gods so, in 135 AD/CE took over the site and had a pagan sanctuary to Adonis built over the caves.1&5 Interestingly enough (and ironically), Hadrian’s decision actually preserved the site which would later come to the attention of Helena (mother of Emperor Constantine) in 330 AD/CE or thereabouts when she came to the Holy Land seeking out sites associated with Jesus.  She found (?) and identified this site as the birthplace and the first Christian Basilica was built at the site over the caves in 339 AD/CE.1&2

Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity

Fast forward. The original church was one of those octagonal ones (remember the one built over Peter’s house in Capernaum – read about our visit there here). Octagonal shapes were customary for use in basilicas at the time. The original basilica was destroyed by fire in the Samaritan revolts in 529 AD/CE2 and replaced in 539 AD/CE by order of Emperor Justinian with a more modern (for that time) church in the cruciform transept style – shape of a basic Greek cross, 4 apses, 44 Corinthian columns, 5 aisles – basically the footprint the church has today.2  I could go on and on with this history – that church (like the city and the country) has been through a lot since Jesus was born…held by the Romans, conquered by Persians, conquered by the Crusaders twice, back to Muslims, and then the Ottomans, then much, much later, after World War I, the British, and so on and so on. The history of Bethlehem is pretty much also the history of the Church of the Nativity itself. Sometimes the Church of the Nativity was under the management of the Roman/Catholic church, sometimes the Greek Orthodox, sometimes used by the Muslims, sometimes nobody really taking care of things – back & forth it went for the past two centuries.

Today, as noted above, Bethlehem is a part of Palestine in the West Bank. The Church of the Nativity is managed in joint by a series of documents and understandings called the “Status Quo”.2 Major ownership is divided between the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, and the Roman Catholics (St. Catherine’s next door is connected to the Church of the Nativity and also built over the system of caves); minor rights are also given to the Coptic Orthodox (Egypt) and the Syriac Orthodox (the Church at Antioch) denominations. The city of Bethlehem was once predominantly Christian but today is primarily Muslim or secular with a very small minority being Christian. (In 1947, the population was 85% Christian; in 2016, 16%.5)


So what did I see there? Tune in Tomorrow for Part 2 – Our Visit

Sources for Information:

  1. The Holy Land for Christian Travelers, John A. Beck, 2017, Baker Books, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Bethlehem and Shepherds’ Fields, pages 87-91
  2. Church of the Nativity – Wikipedia
  3. Mosque of Omar (Bethlehem) – Wikipedia 
  4. O Little Town of Bethlehem – Wikipedia
  5. Bethlehem – Wikipedia
  6. O Little Town of Bethlehem > Lyrics | Phillips Brooks (timelesstruths.org)
  7. Rachel’s Tomb – Wikipedia
  8. Micah 5 (biblehub.com)
  9. Philippians 4:4
  10. Biblical Israel: Bethlehem – CBN Israel
  11. Currier and Ives – Wikipedia
  12. Church of Saint Catherine, Bethlehem – Wikipedia

Well of the Oath – Beersheba

Series: Israel 2022

Isaac’s Well at Be’er Sheva

In the desert, you need water to survive. To thrive, you’ll need lots of water. There are springs if you can find them (look for anything green of course) or you can dig a well. You could also dig a large cistern.

Water – necessary for living. Living water. Spring water and well water came from deep in the earth and was deemed by the ancients to be living water. Living water was a gift from God. It was also important for the Jewish purification rituals. Daily cleansing in living water was essential to Hebrew life.

Rainwater collected in cisterns was good for most things and the Hebrews dug massive cisterns in the desert communities. During rainy seasons, the water flow in wadis (valleys) was directed into these cisterns and this water allowed ancient cities to be built and to exist for hundreds of years…. cities like Be’er Sheva or, as we in the west call it most of the time, Beersheba.

But Be’er Sheva in the Bible is mainly about the wells although the ancient ruins show the town to have had an elaborate water system including a huge cistern which is estimated to have about a 132,000-gallon capacity7.  From a Biblical standpoint, the ancient city is primarily about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and to a lesser degree, David. And then, there was Josiah destroying the pagan altars but that was much later.

This is a reconstruction of a pagan 4-horned altar found in the ruins. It was actually found in pieces which had been used for other structures at the site. It is believed that the altar was destroyed during the reforms of King Josiah2 (2 Kings 23:8)

To my knowledge, per scripture, Jesus never came to this place. He did have a most interesting conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well about spiritual living water that he would give to her, and she would never thirst again. But that happened about 111 miles/180km north of here near Sychar in ancient Samaria (Okay, it’s an estimate – Sychar doesn’t exist anymore that I found so just guessing at the site somewhere near Mount Gerizim). (John 4:10-26)

Be’er Sheva is mentioned 33 times2 in the Bible primarily in the Old Testament. The ancient city was the largest city in the Negev Desert and the southernmost city of Judah.1 The “promised land” was said to stretch east of the Jordan River from Dan to Beersheba.


Google Map annotated to show Dan at the upper part of Israel and Beersheba down at the bottom.

It was an important city on the main road from the south into Judah and Israel. The Ridge Route7 begins here and connected all the cities in David’s kingdom. The Beersheva Valley was also a good way to travel from the Dead Sea west to the Mediterranean or north into Jerusalem. (You may note that there are different spellings for Be’er Sheva or Beersheba depending on the actual site. That is not a mistake – different place names are spelled differently in reference materials.)

The ancient roadway up to the city gates.
National Park sign showing a rendering of the city gates.

For all these reasons, it became an administrative center for Judah and a city that first Saul and then later, David, as king, fortified2 as protection for Israel from the south and the west…from the Philistines (remember David’s bout with Goliath just to the northeast) and from the Egyptians and just about anyone else who chose the southern route to the Mediterranean Sea and the trade routes to eastern Asia.

Looking down from the observation tower at the ruins of the city gates. There would have been two parts to the gate requiring travelers to pass through one and then the other. Traders would have been detained to inspect their goods and to extract a fee (in goods) for trading within the city.7

Archaeologists who have studied the site say it was first inhabited around 4000 BC and remained so until the 16th century AD. 4 The thriving modern city of Beersheba lies only about 3 miles to the west of the ancient tel (ruins/mound) which sits on a hillside overlooking Wadi Beer-Sheba2 (what else would it be named?) The Bedouin city of Tel Sheva lies to the east. Tel Be’er Sheva today is a national park. And the National Park is where we came to see the ruins and learn a bit about Be’er Sheva.

Biblically, it all started with a well…. or two…or three. In Genesis 21:22-24, we read that, after the event involving Isaac and his impending sacrifice by Abraham on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:19) which didn’t happen because God provided the sacrifice instead, Abraham came to Be’er Sheva and settled down and, well, he dug a well.

So, Abraham came, and he had sheep and goats and needed water for the needs of his family and his servants and his animals. The area was known for groundwater that could be more easily accessed (than other parts of the desert) by digging wells in and around the streambeds in the wadis.5 Hence, there were numerous wells in the area…all very well named (pun intended).

I’m always intrigued that the ancients – not just the Hebrews in the Bible – named their wells. It shows how very important water was in ancient times and remains so even today. In this country, we name creeks and rivers and springs and lakes, but I do not know of anyone who names their wells…perhaps because there are so many. But I’ve been thinking seriously about giving our well a name – it has served us well (pun intended again) over the past 20 years or so and probably warrants a good name.

Ruins – possibly of dwellings. Note the skyline of the modern city
(about 3 miles away) in the distance.

Back to Abraham, who showed up and dug a well (or had wells dug by his servants) and the local ruler, Abimelech wasn’t so happy about this. Abimelech’s commander had filled in the well and was starting something with Abraham’s people. Long story short, Abraham and Abimelech met and made a covenant that Abraham, who had God on his side and obviously in a better situation than Abimelech, would not bring harm to Abimelech or his descendants.  To commemorate, Abraham planted a tamarisk tree nearby. This well was named Be’er Sheva with Be’er meaning “well” and Sheva meaning “oath” for the covenant or oath that was made by Abraham. Because Abraham gave Abimelech seven (7) lambs as a sort of proof that he had, in fact, dug the well in question and wasn’t taking someone else’s well, it is also called the “Well of the Seven”. (Genesis 21)

Now, there is a well named Abraham’s Well3 that is within the Archaeology Museum nearby. Tradition says that this may be the well that Abraham dug. In 1897, a local sheikh built a house over/around it. There is a photograph of this well on Wikipedia.3 We did not stop at this site so did not see Abraham’s Well.

More ruins, possibly dwellings.

Now, moving along to Isaac and Genesis 26:16-33. Isaac also has a run-in with Abimelech about those wells. Note: Abimelech is what all Philistine kings/rulers were called at the time1…. so, it is really not clear who the king was. It was like saying “the king” without giving his actual name. That helps explain how, years later, after Abraham had died, Abimelech’s men filled in all of Abraham’s wells and Isaac had to go through the same covenant process with Abimelech. That confused me for quite a bit until I read the part about all kings being called Abimelech… I was beginning to wonder how old Abimelech would be when Isaac came and started reopening those wells that his father, Abraham, had dug. 

Isaac’s story is a bit longer. First local people came and said the first well was theirs. Isaac named that well Esek which means “argument”. He dug another and the same thing happened. He named the second one Sitnah which means “hostility”.  Third time is the charm and the third well was dug and no one complained so he named it Rehobeth which means “open space”.  Then Isaac heads up to Be’er Sheva; Abimelech (the Philistine king) comes along and a new oath is sworn. The servants dig yet another well which Isaac names Shibah which means “oath” and the town there was now named Beersheba. Whew!!

And, per the National Park sign at the site, that well, is said to be the well that we actually did see. (And, of course, we took the obligatory selfies there to show everyone that we were there.)

Looking down into Isaac’s Well at Be’er Sheva. It is said to be 225′ deep. It is grated for safety.

My memories are of a hot, dry place on the hillside where the ruins of the city are located. Some people on the tour went down into the cistern – giant hole with lots of steps going down – but we did not. I might have been crazy enough to want to go down into the well but, it was grated up. (Okay, I wouldn’t really go down in a deep well considering it is one of the deepest in the area at 225’ deep7.)

Along the hillside, there were beautiful flowers growing and there were trees in the wadi although I do not know if they were tamarisk trees.

Just down the hill from the ruins, there was a stream where a local shepherd (Bedouin) herded sheep. Some things never change. There is still water there, there are still wells, and there are still people with thirsty sheep surviving in the Negev. May it always be so.

Bedouin Shephard

Other Scripture References of Importance Related to Beersheba:

  1. Genesis 21:14-19 – When Abraham sent Hagar away with Ismael, she wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. When they ran out of water, God intervened, opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water.
  2. Genesis 46:1-7 – When Jacob/Israel was going down to Egypt during the famine, he got to Beersheba and hesitated. God spoke to him and told him not to be afraid to go to Egypt to Joseph, his son. God promised to bring Jacob back again and that Joseph’s own hand would close Jacob’s eyes.
  3. 1 Samuel 8:1-2 – Samuel’s sons, Joel & Abijah served at Beersheba. They didn’t follow the ways of their father for they were corrupt. The people came to Samuel and asked him to appoint a king.
  4. 1 Kings 19:1-8 – Elijah & Jezebel. When Elijah killed all the false priests/prophets, Jezebel swore to kill him. Elijah fled to Beersheba. He left his servant there and journeys into the wilderness and sat under a broom tree. An angel ministered to him. He then traveled to Horeb where he stayed 40 days and 40 nights. God spoke to him there.
  5. 2 Kings 23:8 – King Josiah brought all the priests from the towns of Judah and desecrated all the high places for pagan worship from Geba to Beersheba. He broke down the gateway at the entrance of the Gate of Joshua…to the left of the city gate.
  6. Nehemiah 11:27-30 – When the Israelis (the remnants) returned from captivity in Babylon, the people settled in their ancestral homes from Beersheba to the Valley of Hinnom.
I have no idea what this sign is all about. It looks intriguing and very official. I wonder if it was asking visitors to watch out for snakes.

Sources for Other Information:

  1. Beersheba – Wikipedia
  2. Tel Be’er Sheva – Wikipedia
  3. Abraham’s Well Visitor Center
  4. Archaeology of Israel – Wikipedia – Tel Be’er Sheva
  5. Wayback Machine (archive.org) – Be’er Sheva Natl Park Brochure (PDF)
  6. 2022 Holy Land Tour, Journey to the Land of the Bible; Dallas Theological Seminary; 2022; Beersheba p31
  7. www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Beersheba pp 119-121
  8. New Testament places associated with Jesus – Wikipedia