Mention the city of Waco, Texas, to most people today and they associate it with Chip and Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper” fame. That is a positive image, of course, and has brought the community popularity and economic prosperity.
But it wasn’t always so.
Beginning in 1993, and for many years thereafter, Waco was pejoratively known as “Wacko.” It had a bad reputation nationally and even internationally. Why? In April of 1993, the Branch Davidian compound, headed up by David Koresh, was raided by ATF agents. The resultant gun battle and fire left not only adults but many children dead.
The compound was located outside Waco.
That infamous incident, while not the fault of the city, soiled Waco’s reputation. The mere mention of its name, for many years, caused people to cringe, shake their heads, or engage in gallows humor.
Chip and Joanna greatly helped to change all that. The city that once was associated with a cult, bloodshed, and violence, was “fixed up,” we might say. It received a much-needed makeover.
And, in that way, it is similar to the bad little town of Bethlehem.
Two Repugnant Stories about Bethlehem
Bethlehem is mentioned a handful of times in the first six books of the Bible, but only in passing. With Judges, however, that changes—and not in a good way. In the final section of this Rated-R-for-Violence book, we have two stories, both repugnant, both associated with Bethlehem.
In the first, we meet Mr. Priest-for-Hire. He’s a Levite. And no less than three times we are told that he hailed “from Bethlehem in Judah” (17:7-9). What does this Bethlehemite do? Nothing good. He’s hired first by a real “pillar of society,” a fellow named Micah. This man had stolen a boatload of silver from his own mother, later confessed to the crime, and his mom had the silver melted down and made into idolatrous images that her son then placed in his family’s shrine.
When the Levite from Bethlehem happened to mosey by one day, looking for work, Micah hired him on the spot to be his personal priest.
Later, when some ruffians from the tribe of Dan, like a horde of Israelite Vikings, stomped in and pillaged the silver images and other religious paraphernalia from Micah, they offered the Levite a job being their priest. He jumped at the deal and joined their entourage, bidding adieu to his former employer, who barely escaped with his life.
Only at the end of the story does the hammer really come down. This priest-for-hire? This Levite? He was none other than the grandson of Moses himself, Jonathan by name (18:30). And his hometown, let us not forget, was Bethlehem.
But we’re not done. The second story from Judges makes the first seem like playground antics (Judges 19-21). In this story, we meet another Levite, along with his concubine. The girl’s hometown was Bethlehem. At some point, she is sexually unfaithful to him and skedaddles to her father’s home. Four months later, the Levite shows up on her doorstep in Bethlehem. After a few days of wooing and feasting, he succeeds in convincing the girl to come home with him.
Dear God, would that she’d have stayed in Bethlehem.
Along the way, one of the most horrific stories in the Bible takes place. The Levite, the girl, and a servant opt to spend the night with an old man in the town of Gibeah. Under cover of darkness, a mob of men from the city surround the house and demand the old man send the Levite outside so they can sexually abuse him. Instead, the Levite seized his concubine and handed her over to them. Gang rape ensued. All night.
The next morning, the Levite found this poor, ravaged woman from Bethlehem, motionless on the porch, her hand on the threshold, reaching, as it were, for the haven that was not to be.
The Levite loaded her on his donkey, took her home, and dismembered her corpse into twelve pieces. These gruesome body parts he sent all over Israel to deliver the message of what had happened to her.
There’s more to this nightmarish story, but you get the point. If the first narrative was about a cult, idolatry, theft, and the actions of a corrupt priest, this second is about a Levite with a heart of ice, a beastly mob of murderous rapists, and a poor girl without hope or life or even a decent burial.
And both stories, each in their own way, begin in Bethlehem.
A New Lease on Bethlehem’s Life
Both of these Bethlehem stories happened in the book of Judges, but there’s another Bethlehem story that happened, not in the book of Judges but in the time of the Judges. It’s the narrative about Naomi, Boaz, and Ruth, recorded in the book that bears the latter’s name.
In the book of Ruth, the evil and sinister themes of the other two Bethlehem stories are replaced by their opposites. We find here not a horde of Danites on the way to conquer some unsuspecting city, pillaging along the way, but old and widowed Naomi, coming back to her hometown of Bethlehem. We find not a sexually unfaithful concubine whose life ends violently and tragically, so that even her dismembered body bespeaks disunity, but a faithful woman named Ruth, who gets married and bears a son who will be the grandfather of the king who unites all Israel. And we find, in this story, not a Levitical priest-for-hire or a stone-hearted butcher, but a redeemer named Boaz who will make the sacrifices necessary to save Ruth and Naomi.
In other words, in Ruth’s story, Bethlehem’s story too begins to be retold. The bad little town of Bethlehem, with such a soiled and stained reputation, gets a much-needed makeover. And once the eighth and youngest son of Jesse, the boy David, is anointed king of Israel, the town that once seemed shackled to an unsavory past is given a new lease on life.
A Single Drop of Light
Long before the Messiah was born, the prophet Micah had told us that the Ruler of Israel would have his nativity in Bethlehem (5:2). Since he was the promised Son of David, this made perfect sense. David’s Son, David’s Lord, David’s hometown.
But I can’t help but marvel at how utterly appropriate his birthplace was in light of the other, darker stories about Bethlehem. The story of spiritual and sexual infidelity. The story of rape and murder. The story of cults and robbery and dysfunctional families and all the shrapnel from bombed-out souls that litters the landscape of our sad and forlorn world.
Jesus was not born just for the Naomi’s and Ruth’s and Boaz’s of the world. He was born for the forgotten, who sleep cold and scabbed in the trash-strewn alleys of our cities. He was born for the refugees, who have seen the underbelly of a world that would make most of us vomit from horror. He was born for the repeat offender, the stripper and prostitute, the preacher hooked on porn and the politician hooked on an ideology concocted in the mad mind of hell itself.
He was born for them all. He was born for us all.
In the little town of Bethlehem, which itself was neither good nor bad, we see a microcosm of the vast and mangled mass of humanity, each individual, perhaps known to them, perhaps not, thirsty for even a single bead of light to be dropped into the blackened depths of their souls.
See there in that manger, the boy swaddled, the child fresh-born: he is that light. And in him there is no darkness.
Jesus is the Light of the world. Our hope. Our Life. Our Everything.
Oh come, let us worship him.