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By Moishe Rosen
Moody PressCopyright © 1982 Moishe Rosen
All rights reserved.
"O Little Town of Bethlehem"
Few small towns are as well known around the world as one that sits on a hillside about five miles south of Jerusalem. If it were not for the fact that Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus, it would today be a place of little prominence. Yet even before Jesus' time, Bethlehem held an important place in the history of Israel, because it was the home of King David's family. The book of Ruth, which tells the story of how a Gentile girl became David's great-grandmother, is set mainly in Bethlehem.
Its associations with David are numerous. It was his home, and the place where Samuel anointed him to be king. A Philistine garrison was stationed there. It was the home of Elkhanan and the burial place of Asahel. King Rehoboam fortified Bethlehem in the late tenth century; Jeremiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah all mention it in their records. But the most unusual mention of it is found in the book of the prophet Micah, who hails it as the birthplace of the Messiah:
But thou, Beth-lehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto Me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from ancient days [Micah 5:1].
Like all the prophets, Micah knew that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. It is not surprising that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, David's city. But what is surprising is that Micah declares that the Messiah existed before his birth in Bethlehem. The Targum Jonathan, an Aramaic paraphrase of the Scriptures dating from approximately the second century C.E., renders the passage, "he whose name was mentioned from before, from the days of creation." Raphael Patai, formerly professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, remarks, "The concept of the preexistence of the Messiah accords with the general Talmudic view which holds that 'The Holy One, blessed be He, prepares the remedy before the wound.'"
So a primary qualification for the Messiah was that He had to be born in Bethlehem. Jesus seems to fit the bill nicely. The writers of the New Testament record the birth of Jesus as taking place in Bethlehem in a rather unusual manner.
Matthew explains that "wise men" (really a class of religious officials from Babylonia or another Eastern country) came to Jerusalem from the East with the curious announcement that they had seen a star in the heavens that signified the birth of the king of the Jews. Herod was rather troubled and inquired of the chief priests and scribes—those who knew the Scriptures—where the Messiah was to be born. Promptly and unhesitatingly they replied, "In Bethlehem of Judea," and cited Micah's prophecy to back up their assertion. Panic-stricken, in a frenzy of carnage, Herod undertook the slaughter of every male child in Bethlehem under the age of two, in an attempt to kill the rightful heir to the throne. But Jesus' family, learning of the plot, hurried to Egypt and took sanctuary until the danger was past (see Matthew 2:1-18). That may sound like a good plot for a melodrama, but it is history.
There is more. Have you ever noticed that Jesus is called "Jesus of Nazareth" and not "Jesus of Bethlehem"? Nazareth is a northern city in the Galilean area of Israel. Bethlehem, on the other hand, is down in the south. The parents of Jesus lived in Nazareth, but the Romans, who were the de-facto rulers over Israel, decided that the time had come to take a census and that everyone had to return to his place of family origins to be counted. Since Joseph was of the house and lineage of David, he and his pregnant wife Mary had to travel from their residence in Nazareth down to Bethlehem, the home of David. Interestingly, a petition for tax relief from the Jews to Caesar Augustus* delayed the census for a period of time, so that Mary came full term while they were still in Bethlehem.
If anyone might have suspected that the family of Jesus had somehow arranged to have Jesus born in Bethlehem and so fulfill the prophecy about the Messiah's birthplace, this account should make it clear that far from being prearranged, the circumstances were totally out of their hands. However, there is still another part of Micah's prophecy that the New Testament touches on elsewhere as well: the statement that the Messiah was to be preexistent. Matthew's gospel reports this conversation with the Pharisees:
Jesus asked them a question, saying, "What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?" They said to Him, "The son of David." He said to them, "Then how does David, in the Spirit call him 'Lord,' saying, 'THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, "SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I PUT THINE ENEMIES BENEATH THY FEET"'? If David then calls Him 'Lord,' how is He his son?" [Matthew 22:41-45, quoting Psalm 110].
In other words, the Messiah is a descendant of David, and yet somehow David's Lord, or ruler! Jesus made a declaration similar to this when he told the Pharisees that "before Abraham was born, I am" (John 8:58). Considering that Abraham lived almost two thousand years before Jesus, that's claiming quite a bit! Normally, anyone who talked like that would be considered a lunatic and simply written off as mad. But when they heard Jesus say those things, nobody called him crazy, laughed, or ignored him as we today might treat a babbling derelict in Times Square. Instead, Matthew reports that when asked about David's son, the Pharisees gave no answer to his question—only taunts. Could it be that, knowing what Micah 5:1 and Psalm 110 had to say, they had no answer?CHAPTER 2
Of Snakes and Seed
The story of Adam and Eve is so well known that countless poems, stories, paintings, and films have drawn on its theme over the centuries. What is not so well known about that story, though, is that it contains a passage that the rabbis have long considered to be the first gleam of a promise that God would send a Messiah. The curtain has barely risen on humanity when the familiar scene occurs: God commands that a certain fruit should not be eaten; the serpent tempts Eve; she eats the fruit and gives some to her husband as well. At that point the Lord pronounces judgment on them all, beginning with the serpent, to whom He says,
Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel [Genesis 3:14-15].
At first sight this seems to be an Aesop-like fable explaining why snakes have no legs. But there are certain curious phrases that compel us to probe more deeply, phrases such as "between thy seed and her seed." In biblical terminology, "seed" has nothing to do with what you plant in a vegetable garden. Rather, it refers to a progeny or a group of descendants, as when God later promised Abraham that his seed would be as plentiful "as the dust of the earth" (Genesis 13:16). But if the reference is to countless generations of progeny locked in battle, why do we read "he" instead of "they"? Could this be a veiled hint of a special individual to come? Is it a promise that the forces of evil unleashed by the serpent would someday be fatally destroyed by this unnamed "he"? In other words, could this be more than just a quaint description of how men dash the heads of snakes underfoot and how snakes most often inflict damage near the feet?
There is something else here that strikes the reader as odd-at least it would if the reader were an ancient Mesopotamian perusing his cuneiform translation of Genesis! It is the phrase "her seed." Biblical society was strictly patriarchal. The generations were traced through sons and fathers, and even today Jews speak of themselves as the seed of Abraham, not of Sarah. So to our hypothetical Mesopotamian, it must have seemed very strange to refer to the seed of a woman.
Both Matthew and Luke in the New Testament provide an explanation. They both claim that Jesus was born while Mary was still a virgin. Biologically that is an impossibility from the outset; but it is amazing that those who will accept the fact that God created the universe out of nothing, won't allow that He could bring about a virgin birth. Nevertheless, the New Testament records this miraculous occurrence as history, and uses an Old Testament prophecy to authenticate it.
Matthew ties the virgin birth of Jesus to Isaiah 7:14, a passage that says, "Therefore the LORD Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [God is with us]." The discussion focuses around whether the Hebrew term almah, employed here, should be properly translated "young woman" or "virgin." Notice that the sign was to be not only the virgin birth, but the fact that God would be with us. You won't have to be a linguistics expert to understand the following points.
Usually, it is said that if Isaiah meant a virgin, he could have chosen another word, bethulah. But bethulah could be used of a married woman who was not a virgin, as in Joel 1:8. Almah, however, can be shown to mean a virgin in its six other uses in the Hebrew Bible; and when Jewish scholars rendered the Scriptures into Greek during the third and second centuries B.C.E., they translated almah in Isaiah 7:14 by the Greek term parthenos, which could be understood only as meaning "virgin." That translation represented the best understanding of that day.
Furthermore, we must remember that ancient societies placed a much higher premium on virginity than is customary in our Western culture in the twentieth century. A young woman was assumed to be a virgin unless it was explicitly said otherwise. Besides this, remember that Isaiah 7:14 promised a "sign." An ordinary birth does not seem especially significant as a sign. The evidence points to the fact that what Isaiah is actually talking about, as incredible as it may seem, is a virgin birth. Matthew 1:18-25 tells us that when Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, he contemplated a quiet divorce. Although they had not yet come together as husband and wife, in that culture a betrothal marked a solemn bonding to each other, so much so that in Jewish law, if Joseph had died before the wedding, Mary would have been considered a widow. God, Matthew continues, had to speak to Joseph directly in a dream to convince him that all was really on the up-and-up. Still, things no doubt looked pretty bad to the neighbors, and we get a hint from. John's gospel of the persistence of some unfounded rumors. There we find Jesus rebuking his compatriots, telling them that they were not behaving like children of Abraham and were therefore not his true children. They replied, "We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God" (John 8:41). The sarcasm implied that he wasn't one to talk!
But a study of Isaiah would have shown that a virgin birth was not only possible, but was in God's plan 700 years before Jesus was born. Not only was Jesus born in Bethlehem, as the Messiah was to be born, but he fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy about a virgin birth. Maybe some would say that it's coincidental, but it certainly gets one thinking.CHAPTER 3
Fathers and Sons
When Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, they didn't exactly get on the next train to the Riviera. Their exit was an exile, and they found life difficult. Ensuing generations continued to display a moral deterioration of such magnitude that God had to send a flood on all mankind, sparing only Noah, his family, and the first zoo in recorded history. But God had made a promise back in Genesis 3:15 (see chapter 2), and He soon took steps to fulfill that promise. He called Abraham to leave his home in Ur of the Chaldees and to head for the land of Canaan—about the equivalent of God's asking you to take a hike from Philadelphia to Minneapolis. It takes a certain amount of trust in God to say yes to such a venture! Later, when both Abraham and his wife were old and gray, God promised him that all nations would be blessed through him and that his seed (there's that word again) would surpass the dust of the earth in number-something that gave even Abraham a crisis of confidence!
It was thus by a miracle that Isaac came into the world, and God confirmed that the promise of blessing would pass through Isaac and not through any other sons of Abraham. Later still, the promise was reconfirmed as going through Jacob, one of the sons of Isaac. In his old age, Jacob assembled his sons to hear his last will and testament. He announced: "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, as long as men come to Shiloh; and unto him shall the obedience of the peoples be" (Genesis 49:10). It is interesting to note that a sceptre is the symbolic instrument of a king, not a tribal chieftain. "Shiloh" has been recognized by the rabbis as a title for the Messiah, and Jacob's words as an indication that the Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah.
Can you see how God progressively narrows down the family line of the Messiah? First of all, in Genesis 3:15 Messiah was called the "seed of the woman." At the very least he was going to be a real human being, not an angel or a vague spirit entity. We could have also talked about Genesis 9:27, where the promise goes through the line of Shem, or the Semites. The Messiah could not be Danish, or Ugandan, or Korean. And now, he must be a descendant of Abraham, but not just any descendant. The Messianic promise goes through Isaac, not Ishmael. Then, it goes through Jacob; the Messiah must be Jewish. Next, he must come from the tribe of Judah, which eliminates eleven twelfths of the Jewish people. And finally, we learn that in the family of Judah, the Messianic line goes through King David.
God promised David that his throne would be established forever. And in fact, David's descendants kept succeeding to his throne for four centuries, making them record holders. But even four centuries is not the same as forever. We know that no one of David's lineage ever sat on the throne of Judah or Israel after 586 B.C.E. Has the promise been broken or is there a king in the line of Judah today? There are only three possible answers to that question.
The first alternative is to decide that the prophecies were mistakes, not given by God, and useless to tell us anything about the future. The second possibility is that the Israeli Knesset will discover an authentic descendant of David. They will then vote to reinstitute the monarchy, crown the fellow, turn the reins of government over to him, and step down—after all the members of the Knesset have been convinced of the wisdom of such a course. To be honest, it seems more likely that our first alternative was the correct one!
That is, unless the third alternative is true. We can examine the claims that Jesus was a descendant of David and that He will actually reign, as 2 Samuel says, "forever." How He could reign for all time is something we'll take a look at later on. For now, though, let's see if He was, indeed, descended from David. After all, if He wasn't, we might as well forfeit all claims that He is the Messiah of Israel.
Excerpted from Y'SHUA by Moishe Rosen. Copyright © 1982 Moishe Rosen. Excerpted by permission of Moody Press.
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