O Little Town – We Were There (Part 2)

Series: Israel 2022

O Little Town of Bethlehem6

Yesterday I gave you a little bit of Bethlehem’s history; today, I give you a little bit about our visit there last February.

Outside the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, our Palestinian Christian guide gives us an overview of the church. While in Bethlehem, our Israeli guides were replaced with a Palestinian guide. The Church of the Nativity was the home church for our guide – his family had attended for many generations. But he said that he and his immediate family now attend a church closer to their home for regular services.

Our first glimpse of the Church of the Nativity was from Manger Square which is the site visited on Christmas Eve by thousands of Christians who come to celebrate the Lord’s birth. You enter the actual church through a very low door known as the “Door of Humility” which forces you to bend down to enter – being made to be humble as it were.

Entering the Church via the “Door of Humility”

But the story behind the door is much more interesting but not very spiritual at all. Sometime after the Ottoman conquest in 1516, the church had fallen into decay and was being ill-used by the locals. The large main doors were walled up to prevent people from riding their horses right into the sanctuary. The small, low door kept the horses and other animals out of the church.2 While the original intent of the small door may not have been about humility, it does feel a bit like you’re going into a very sacred place when you bow down to enter that door which opens up inside to a large open sanctuary.

Looking back at the “Door of Humility” from inside the church. The stone archway gives you an idea of that the original entrance might have been. Looking at the changes in the stonework helps to imagine the location of the large wooden doors of the original church.

I have only been into one Orthodox church in my lifetime and never into one so old. This church is the oldest Christian church in Israel and, in terms of active continuous worship, possibly the oldest in the world.2 Being someone who grew up in a little country church in the US with very little embellishment besides possibly a large wooden cross over the altar behind the pulpit, this church seemed a bit overwhelming to me. The floors were marble flagstones with marble columns lining the aisles up to the altar which was all gold and silver and lit strategically to enhance the glow and sheen in the flickering candlelight.  

Inside the Church of the Nativity (Eastern Orthodox). The marble flagstone floor is not the original; there is supposed to be a trapdoor that lifts to show the original mosaics of the Justinian-built church, but it was not open for us the day we visited.

We were advised by our Palestinian Christian guide that the gold screens behind the altar had tarnished to a dull grey over the years but were being restored to their original gold & silver especially in the past couple years while there were few, if any, tourists during the Covid pandemic… that we were lucky to see everything “gold” again.

A closer view of the gold & silver panels at the altar. On the left side of the photo, you can see three people (one standing just left of center and two others sitting on the floor) working to restore the patina on the panels. At the far left on the bottom, you can see the tarnished panel not yet restored.

There were sanctuary lamps of gold and silver hanging everywhere…. hundreds of them. I was quite fascinated by all these lamps…. they appeared to be lit with candles or, maybe oil. I have read that the lamps signify the eternal flames and everlasting light that is Jesus.2 Who lights these lamps every morning…or whenever they go out? Does some priest come in with a very tall ladder every morning to ensure the lights never go out? If the lights do go out, does some poor caretaker get fired? There were just so many of them and I saw no hint that anyone was actively monitoring them while we were there. (This is the way my mind works.) And, yes, there were electric lights too.

The walls near the ceiling were covered with mosaics depicting saints or scenes of the life of Christ and there were many old paintings and other gilded icons everywhere. The marble columns also included life-size portraits of saints although many were covered with graffiti from crusaders, Ottomans, pilgrims, etc.2 We humans seem to have a need to leave our mark everywhere we go – you know adding our own “Kilroy was here” – even in places where we know we shouldn’t.

The Grotto of the Nativity is behind and underneath the altar. To descend to the cave, we were directed into a line to the right of the altar, past the charity box, and back to a narrow stone stairway down to the lower level and into the cave.

Probably the most ornate “Poor Box”
that I have ever seen.

The actual place of the birth is curtained off in a little marble lined alcove with ornately embroidered curtains. The “nativity” marked by a 14-pointed silver star. The star was placed there by the Catholics in 1717 and is inscribed in Latin – “Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est – 1717” which means “Here Jesus Christ was born to the virgin Mary – 1717”.2 The 14 points symbolize 3 sets of 14 generations in Christ’s genealogy (see Matthew 1 for more on the lineage of Christ).  The 1st set of 14 generations are from Abraham to David, the 2nd set is from David to the Babylonian captivity/diaspora, and the 3rd set from Babylon captivity to Jesus’ birth.2 Fifteen (15) silver sanctuary lamps hang around the star – 6 representing the Greek Orthodox Church, 4 for the Roman Catholic church, and 5 for the Armenian Apostolic.2 In the middle of the star is a circular opening so that pilgrims and worshippers can reach down inside the star to touch the actual stone floor of the cave where it is said that Mary actually laid down to give birth.

The Nativity where (per tradition) Mary laid on the cave floor and delivered the baby Jesus. Although visitors are no longer permitted to do so, the hole in the star would allow visitors in the past to reach through and touch the floor of the cave.

But not today – no touching anything or reaching into the opening is allowed. As I bent down to see into the nativity alcove and get a photo, I was advised to bow down before the nativity.  I certainly didn’t mean to be disrespectful, but bowing was out of the question (I would have had some trouble getting back up at my age) so I squatted down as low as I could and got as much of a look as I could before I was hurried along so the next person could do the same.

Directly across from the nativity is another spot that is called the Grotto of the Manger where it is said that the manger stood where Jesus was laid after he was born.2 Across from that is the Altar of the Magi where the wise men were to have stood to see the newborn king.2 I will admit that I am not really sure where the Altar of the Magi was (is) or even if I noticed it. Per my recollection of scripture, the wise men visited Jesus and the family sometime after the birth in a different location altogether (Matthew 2:11).  Perhaps, the altar there is just symbolic of the visit. So, I have little recollection of that third altar being pointed out in the short time we were in the grotto which is very small and crowded and the line of people waiting is long and the actual time for each person to view the nativity is very short. (Bow down, look, get up and move on.) After only a few minutes, we departed the grotto via the stone stair directly opposite and identical to the one we used to come in.

The Grotto of the Manger. Per tradition, the is the spot where the manger stood and where Mary placed the baby Jesus. If you look to either side of the altar, you get a glimpse of the original cave walls.

We spent some additional time in the church taking photos (yes, everyone needed a selfie in front of the altar) and admiring the mosaics, paintings, and carvings.

Madonna and Child. Note that the hands and halos in the painting have been covered with actual silver.

We exited the church to the left of the altar and entered the small courtyard garden just outside the Catholic church, St. Catherine’s. It is a newer church dedicated to Catherine of Alexandria in 1347.12 It was closed to the public on the day that we visited although I believe that parishioners could enter for services.  I would certainly have liked to see inside the church. St. Catherine’s building is directly connected to the Church of the Nativity and built over the series of caves that include the Nativity of the Grotto.2

The caves underneath the two churches are connected via a tunnel that is kept locked.2 St. Catherine’s is noteworthy in that St. Jerome is said to have lived there during the years when he was compiling the Latin Vulgate translation of the Christian Bible. His “office” is said to have been in one of the caves under the church.1

I’d like to say that I had some deep abiding spiritual experience when we visited the site of the Lord’s birth in Bethlehem, but I didn’t really that I recall. I found the Church & Grotto of the Nativity extremely ancient and interesting from a historical sense and a religious sense. All the lamps with candles and the bright shining silver & gold of the altar screens gave the place an ancient and eternal feel and made it easy to believe that this was, indeed, a sacred place where the birth of Jesus had occurred; but it was all a bit foreign to me with my simple country church background. And there just wasn’t really any time to stop and meditate on the significance of the place, which might have made it more enlightening and spiritual for me.

Crucifix over the altar in the Church of the Nativity

Then again, maybe my emotional response is just evolving slowly over time. I marvel that I was there – in Bethlehem – where Jesus was born – not at that specific place maybe but we know he was born somewhere in the city. And I actually walked through the Church of the Nativity, entered the cave, and saw the spot – quite possibly the actual spot – where he was born and laid down to sleep in a manger while a star shone brightly overhead and angels sang to shepherds out tending their flocks in nearby fields.  

I am left with a thought that brings me back to David and God’s promise to him. David – a shepherd boy born in Bethlehem who was raised up by God to become King of all Israel….and just as promised, some thousand years later, a King – the King – Jesus – gave up his throne above to become a lowly shepherd to his followers… the birthplace of a shepherd who became a king and a king who became a shepherd.

The Good Shepherd – Jesus – who was raised up in death to forgive us all and give us eternal life…born in Bethlehem, the City of David.

“Rejoice in the Lord Always.

I will say it again.


Mosaic of an angel near the ceiling in the Church of the Nativity

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, Dan, pages 89-91
  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

Abraham’s Gate and Tel Dan

Series: Israel 2022

Date Visited: February 24, 2022

Drinking at the springs of living water,
Happy now am I, my soul they satisfy;
Drinking at the springs of living water,
O wonderful and bountiful supply.


Once an ancient Canaanite city named Laish (lioness) which was old even when Abraham went there looking for his nephew, Lot.  Old when Joshua referred to it as Leshem (jewel).  Old when it was captured and burned by the tribe of Dan then rebuilt and given a new name more than two thousand years ago.

But Dan the city is not nearly so old as the springs bearing the same name. The Springs of Dan that are fed by winter snowmelt and gush forth from the mountains of Hermon…the springs of crystal-clear living water that have been flowing since time began and, some would pray, will continue to flow forever more.

These springs are the primary source of the Jordan River (along with the Banias Springs at Caesarea Philippi which you can read about here) – first forming the Dan River then joining with two other rivers to form the upper Jordan. The icy cold waters flow out from the Golan Heights at about 2000 gallons per second5 (240-252 million cubic meters per year12) and flows some twelve miles13 to reach the Jordan which flows into the Sea of Galilee. Ultimately, the waters of the Jordan River will end its long 156 mile13 journey at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth.

Flow from the Springs at Dan

In ancient times, the river flowed into the wetlands that once was Lake Hulah (or Hula or Huleh). The “lake” was drained in the 1950’s14, the fields plowed, and the area became…. well, an agricultural center (Hulah Valley) in northern Israel. But there were always people living there with farming, fishing, and hunting going on. There’s a reason the cows of Bashan as described in Amos 4:1 were so fat and happy. (Of course, Amos was calling the women “fat cows” but that is another story altogether.) This land is not desert like much of southern Israel; the abundant water and rich soil made this land very appealing to ancient peoples and to the Canaanites who settled there and built the city of Laish.

The first permanent settlement in the Valley, Enan/Mallaha, dates from 9000-10,000 years.14 Laish (later Dan) was first occupied from about 4500 BC7 (Before Christ or BCE/Before the Common Era). Archaeological excavations show that it was then abandoned for about a thousand years7. It was then occupied until its capture and destruction by the Assyrians. The site of the city was discovered again by archaeologists and identified as ancient Dan in the mid-1800’s AD (Anno Domini) or CE (the Common Era).

Biblically, we first hear of Laish when Abram (later to be called Abraham) goes there in search of his nephew, Lot. In Genesis 14, Abram’s nephew, Lot and his family, got caught up in a territorial war between four kings fighting five kings in the area around the Dead Sea Valley. The “four” kings ended up attacking and plundering Sodom & Gomorrah (yes, the two cities destroyed by fire later on) and heading north.  Lot and his family got caught up in the scuffle and were captured. Abram, who was living nearby, put together an army of 318 trained men from his family and allies and went in pursuit of the ruffians who had taken Lot and his family.  Abram and his army pursued the kings as far as Dan, all the way to Hobah, north of Damascus. Lot, his family, his possessions, and some others were rescued. 

At the ancient site of Dan, we saw an ancient archway/gate to the Canaanite city that dates from the Middle Bronze Age (@2000-1550 BC)1. The old gate/city entrance is traditionally called “Abraham’s Gate” as it is thought that this would be the gate that Abraham would have entered at Dan.7 

Abraham’s Gate at Tel Dan. You cannot see the arch clearly
due to the scaffolding.

The gate/entrance includes a mudbrick arch on top of megalithic basalt blocks which formed the gateway between two towers that have been preserved at almost 20’ tall.4 This Canaanite city gateway has been dated to about 1750 BC. It is the only existing structure “of its kind”4 in the near East and thought to be the oldest free-standing archway built in the world.5  

After the city was attacked, burned, and then rebuilt by the tribe of Dan (more later), a new and more secure entrance/gate to the city was built to the south and the ancient gateway that Abraham would have known was eventually filled in with dirt.5  

Today, the old gateway is covered with a pavilion to protect it from the elements, but we were told by our tour guide that the mud bricks are so badly and quickly eroding now that the Israeli Antiquities authorities are considering re-covering the structure by filling it again with dirt.  Dust to dust, as it were.

Before I continue with the story, I must note that the city would not have been called “Dan” when Abraham came to rescue Lot. This confused me as I was reading about the city. It is known historically to have been called Laish. That archway and gate was thought to have been built some 700 years before the tribe of Dan arrived and captured the city. At that point, there was no tribe of Dan as Isaac had not been born to Abraham & Sarah and Jacob had not yet been born to Isaac & Rebekah and, of course, Jacob had not yet sired those twelve sons who would become the twelve tribes of Israel, one of which was Dan. Abraham’s Gate is thought to have been built just about the time Jacob was going over to Egypt during the famine to meet back up with Joseph.5

Our tour guide, Olga, pauses for a moment to check the scriptures.

But I read through about ten different Bible translations and every single one of them referred to the city as “Dan” and not Laish. I will chalk that up to Biblical translators calling the city by the name it was at the time of the translator(s) and not at the time of Abraham. I also checked the Hebrew Bible on Biblehub.com and it does not mention Dan at all, just Hobah. I leave it with that.

So, how did the Canaanite city (and springs) become “Dan” anyway.  Back to scripture and it’s a long story that begins with the twelve tribes being allocated territory when the Israelites under Joshua’s leadership arrived and captured the “promised land”.  But that story is way too long and complicated (and confusing!) for a blog…so I’ll hit a few points and jump way ahead to the re-naming of the city. When I say I’m making a long, long story short, believe me, I’m reducing it to down to almost nothing.

Deuteronomy 34:1-4 tells of Moses climbing Mount Nebo and God showing him the promised land – all of it from Gilead to Dan and so on. This was in conjunction with God telling Moses that he [Moses] wouldn’t be going over into the promised land.

Joshua 19:40-48 tells of the land allotments made when the Twelve Tribes took possession of the promised land. The Tribe of Dan was allocated territory in the south across from Joppa. Verse 47 notes that, later, the Danites lost this territory, and they went up and fought against “Leshem” which means “Jewel” and captured it.  Leshem is thought to be Laish.7

Now we move to Judges 18. Some time had passed since the Israelites came to the land and divided it up. There is no king yet in Israel. The Danites (as previously referenced above in Joshua) are now without territory and looking around for some good land to occupy. So, they sent out scouts. The scouts came back with a good report saying the land “is a place where nothing on earth is lacking”. Basically, let’s go take what we want. And so, six hundred Danites went to Laish “to a tranquil and unsuspecting people” (V27) and captured and burned the city.

Israelite Gateway – Ancient Dan. To enter you had to pass through a “bottleneck” by passing through this first gate, then turning left, then right, and passing through a second gate.

They rebuilt the city and named it Dan. At some point, the city was fortified with a double gated entrance in the Israelite fashion – go into one gate, turn left or right, then proceed to the second gate…. sets up a bottleneck that is easier to defend than one wide open gateway.  No more mud bricks – they now use interlocking stones. This was circa 1200 – 721 BC.1

Sun dried bricks were no longer in use when Dan was fortified with thick walls made of interlocking stones.

Now, there is a slight nuance to this story.  When the Danite scouts went up to Laish, they stopped and spent the night at the house of a man named Micah (not the Biblical prophet). There they noticed a Levite/priest serving the house. The scouts reported back to the tribe about the priest and idols at Micah’s house. So, when the Danites came back on their conquest of the city, they stopped at Micah’s, took the idols, the priest’s ephod and teraphim, and convinced the priest to go with them.11 The Danites set up the idols and the priest for worship in their new city of Dan.

Which brings me to the last part of the story found in 1 Kings 12.  Many years have passed. King David has come and gone. After King Soloman (his son) died, the kingdom was divided – Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Jeroboam became the king of Israel, but Judah remained loyal to the house of David under Rehoboam (one of Soloman’s descendants). Jeroboam worried that the northern tribes will turn back to Rehoboam and Judah because the people continue to travel to Jerusalem in the south to the temple (the one Soloman had built) to worship as required by Jewish law. So, Jeroboam had two golden calves made and placed one golden calf at Bethel and the other at, you guessed it, the cultic altar at Dan.

The “High Place” or altar where the Golden Calf was placed by Jeroboam. The stairs lead up to the altar platform. This altar was already in use for pagan worship before the Danites arrived with the idol and priest that had been taken from the house of Micah (not the prophet).

Part one of Jeroboam’s plan was that the people of Israel would worship at Bethel and Dan rather than go all the way down to Jerusalem and then they wouldn’t be tempted to reunite the two kingdoms under the house of David and Rehoboam. Jeroboam appointed his own priests for the “high places” from every class of people and not just from the Levites tribe.7 Since Jewish law allowed that only those from the tribe of Levi (i.e., Levites) could perform duties as priests, appointment of priests from other tribes would have been considered to be an egregious violation of the law. Part two of the Jeroboam’s plan explains the golden calves (which would also have been totally forbidden under the Jewish law) since he wanted to form an alliance with the Canaanites in the area by using idols that they would recognize and accept.5&9

View of the altar platform looking back from the hilltop. Note that archaeological excavations are ongoing.

But with all this idol worship and golden calves, do not think things went well for Jeroboam. They did not. He suffered a series of mishaps while trying to make sacrifices at the altar at Bethel further to the south (see 1 Kings 13). 1 Kings 13:34 finally reports “And this was the sin of the house of Jeroboam that led to its extermination and destruction from the face of the earth.”

The city of Dan continued until 733 BC(E) when it was destroyed by the Assyrians under Tiglath-Pileser III.7 By the time of Jesus, it was already in ruins. It was lost to history altogether until the mid-1800’s when the ruins were positively identified as the Canaanite city of Laish and Biblical city of Dan. One final note of interest. During more recent archaeological excavations, a stone stela was found which included the inscription BYTDWD (House of David) and MLK YSR’L (King of Israel).  This is the oldest written record (9th century BC) that mentions David and validates that he was a real person and the King of Israel some one hundred years after his death.7&2

This area (Golan Heights) was highly disputed during the Six Days War in 1967. The old military bunkers remain at the top of Tel Dan.
Looking across into Lebanon from the Golan Heights.

Today the ruins of the ancient city and the springs are part of the Tel Dan Nature Preserve which was created in 1974. We started our tour with a long, beautiful walk beside the springs, then up the hill to the remains of the ancient “high place” and cultic altar, then around to Abraham’s Gate, and ending down by the ruins of the old Israelite gateway.

I end my story where we began our tour – with the crystal-clear springs. So much history but all that remains today are just ruins and the water – the beautiful free-flowing living waters, – back where everything started.

“How sweet the living water from the hills of God,
It makes me glad and happy all the way;
Now glory, grace and blessing mark the path I’ve trod,
I’m shouting Hallelujah every day.”

Sources for Information:

  1. Site-Seeing: Exploring Beautiful Tel Dan – Biblical Archaeology Society; Jonathan Klawans; October 19, 2022
  2. The Tel Dan Inscription: The First Historical Evidence of King David from the Bible – Biblical Archaeology Society; BAS Staff; June 14, 2022
  3. The Renewed Excavations at Tel Dan – Biblical Archaeology Society; Dan Ilan, Yifat Thareani, & Jonathon Greer; July 29, 2016
  4. The Remarkable Discoveries at Tel Dan · The BAS Library; Biblical Archaeology Review 7:5; September/October 1981; John C.H. Laughlin
  5. Did the Northern Kingdom of Israel Practice Customary Ancient Israelite Religion? – Biblical Archaeology Society; BAS Staff; May 17, 2016; Jonathan Greer
  6. 2022 Holy Land Tour, Journey to the Land of the Bible; Dallas Theological Seminary; 2022; Tel Dan; p18
  7. Dan (ancient city) – Wikipedia
  8. Springs of living water | Hymnary.org; John Willard Peterson; 1950; renewed 1978 by Singspiration
  9. The Holy Land for Christian Travelers, John A. Beck, 2017, www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Dan, pages 189-193
  10. Dan (son of Jacob) – Wikipedia
  11. Micah’s Idol – Wikipedia
  12. Jordan River – Wikipedia
  13. Dan River (Middle East) – Wikipedia
  14. Hula Valley – Wikipedia