Bethlehem - Messiah's birthplace
A detailed look at Micah 5:1-2 and some objections that skeptics have
Some skeptics have attacked the New Testament book of Matthew for its claim that Micah, chapter 5, is a reference to the birthplace of the Messiah (Jesus). The skeptics have claimed that Matthew is wrong, that "Bethlehem Ephrathah" is not a reference to the town of Bethlehem, but to the descendants of a man named Bethlehem, whose mother was named Ephrathah. (In the Bible there is such a man who is named Bethlehem, and whose mother was named Ephrathah). And some skeptics have attacked Matthew for claiming that Micah 5 is a Messianic prophecy. So what evidence do we have that Micah 5 really does refer to the town of Bethlehem, and that it really is a Messianic prophecy? Take a look:
Although it is true that the Bible speaks of a man named Bethlehem, whose mother was named Ephrathah, it is also true that the Bible speaks of a town named Bethlehem. In fact there were two towns named Bethlehem. One was in Judah, the southern part of the Jewish homeland, and the other was in the north. But, the Bethlehem in Judah was in more ancient times called Ephrathah. So, Micah might have been using the phrase "Bethlehem Ephrathah" as a way to make it clear that he was referring to the town of Bethlehem that used to be known as Ephrathah - in other words, the Bethlehem that is in Judah.
And what evidence do we have that Micah 5 was intended to be a prophecy about a Messiah? Several passages from a variety of ancient Jewish writings have made it clear that at least some Jews considered Micah 5 to be a Messianic prophecy. Below are all of the examples that I personally know of. I have placed in bold-face some of the key phrases that I believe establish Micah 5 as a Messianic prophecy, or as a Messianic prophecy that regards Bethlehem as a town in Judah, rather than as a person named Bethlehem:
Although thou art little among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall come forth unto me a Judge to be Ruler in Israel, and this is the King Messiah.
- Rabbi David Kimchi (also known as Redak or Radak, and David Kimchi or David Kimhi).
So, who was Rabbi David Kimchi? And what qualified him to interpret ancient Jewish scripture? "David Kimhi, known as Redak, c.1160 - c.1235 . . . wrote Mikhlol [completeness], long the leading Hebrew grammar, The Book of Roots, a dictionary of the Bible, and The Pen of the Scribe, a manual of punctuation. Standard editions of the Hebrew Bible frequently included his learned and lucid commentaries. . ." This is cited from a Web site at www.infoplease.com, using the keyword "Kimhi"
So, for what it's worth, a Jewish Rabbi, who clearly had no reason to "distort" a prophecy on behalf of Christians, clearly described Micah 5 as being a prophecy about a Messiah. And, Rabbi Kimchi was a grammarian who wrote a book about Biblical commentaries and a book about the roots of Biblical words. I would think that his qualifications would compare quite well against those of any Bible skeptic who claims that Micah 5 was not about a Messiah.
And you Bethlehem-Ephrathah who are too little to be counted among the thousands of the house of Judah, from you in My name shall come forth the Messiah who is to be ruler in Israel and whose name has been called from eternity, from the days of old.
- Targum Jonathan on Mikah 5:2 in the Tanakh
The King Messiah... from where does he come forth? From the royal city of Bethlehem in Judah.
- Jerusalem Talmud, Berakoth 5a
O, thou Bethlehem Ephrata ... although thou art little in the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall come forth unto me a Man, a Ruler in Israel whose goings forth are from the days of old ... that is from the Seed of David ... who was of Bethlehem Judah.
- Abarbanel, Mashmiah Jeshua, fol. 62, c. 2.
A FEW MORE COMMENTS:
In the opening line of Micah, chapter 5, Micah mocks Jerusalem as the "city of troops." He is mocking Jerusalem for thinking that it can deliver itself from its worldly problems through the use of military force. In a sense, he is criticizing Jerusalem for being proud. In that context, I believe, he is offering Bethlehem - the town of Bethlehem, formerly known as Ephrathah, as the source of Israel's deliverance, in contrast to Jerusalem, the "city of troops." And, Bethlehem, was the birthplace of King David. And, the Messiah was supposed to be a descendant of King David. And, according to Matthew, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and He is a descendant of David, and He did not rely on military power for His as did Jerusalem during the time of Micah.
As for the belief that the Messiah referred to in Micah 5 was supposed to defeat the Assyrians - I disagree. I think that Micah was talking about two different things:
1. Bethlehem, rather than Jerusalem, would be the birthplace of the Messiah, because Jerusalem was too reliant on worldly solutions to worldly problems.
2. Assyria ultimately would not rule over Jersualem, but instead fall under the rule of others.
The extent to which these two events were to be connected are not clear from the context, at least not in my opinion, for what that's worth. One thing is clear, though, Assyria, as an empire, had long since ceased to exist by the time that Rabbi David Kimchi, and others, commented to the effect that they believed that Micah, chapter 5, was indeed a Messianic prophecy.
I could be entirely wrong about this. But I suppose that it might be possible that "Ephrathah" referred to a person and that Bethlehem referred to the town in Judah. My theory is based on my reading of 1 Samuel 17:12. Take a look and see what you think: 1 Samuel 17:12 (NIV) - Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. Jesse had eight sons, and in Saul's time he was old and well advanced in years. Perhaps this is what Micah meant in chapter 5 when he wrote "Bethlehem Ephrathah" - that the Messiah would be a descendant of Ephrathah, like Jesse and his son David, and that he would be born in Bethlehem, like David! So, maybe, just maybe, "Bethlehem Ephrathah" is a reference to both a person and a town.
Below are some Bible references to Bethlehem as being known as "Ephrathah" or "Ephrath:"
Genesis 35:16 (NIV) - Then they moved on from Bethel. While they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and had great difficulty.
Genesis 35:19 (NIV) - So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).
Genesis 48:7 (NIV) - As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath" (that is, Bethlehem).
Ruth 1:2 (NIV) - The man's name was Elimelech, his wife's name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.