Bethlehem: City of David?


When did Bethlehem become the “city of David”?

That title had always been given to Jerusalem. Forty times in the Old Testament Jerusalem is referred to as the city of David, and no other city in the Bible is ever called by that name.

Until Luke’s gospel.

“Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David….But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’” (Luke 2:4; 10-11)

What is Luke up to?

Jerusalem was a Jebusite city that David captured and made his capital when he consolidated power after being proclaimed king over the northern tribes. (He had already been king of Judah for seven years, with his capital at Hebron.)

Solomon further consolidated power at Jerusalem through his construction projects, particularly the Temple. Worship and sacrifice were no longer permissible in the “high places,” the tribal shrines in places like Shechem and Bethel.

The reason given was because of the idolatry that easily made its way into these places. The reign of Solomon, however, made it clear that idolatry could and did take root even in Jerusalem.

The real reason for the centralization was concentration of power and wealth. Not only were sacrifices brought to the worship sites, providing food for the Levites serving at them, but also the tribal tithes, which were essentially the Israelite form of taxation.

Mandating that the Temple was the only place to bring sacrifices enriched the power structures already in place in Jerusalem.

And while this might have worked out fine for Solomon and subsequent kings, it did not work out so well for the common person living in the far reaches of the kingdom.

In addition there was the forced labor that required each man to leave his own fields or herds for a month to work on the king’s projects in Jerusalem. This was more than the tribes outside of Judah could take. After Solomon’s death they rebelled and anointed their own king.

In Jesus’ day Jerusalem still represented the consolidation of power. The Temple, rebuilt after the exile, had been essentially torn down and greatly enlarged by Herod in the first century B.C.E. This was an effort to establish himself as the true king of the Jews, even though he was not of the line of David.

It was in Jerusalem where the High Priest led the Sanhedrin. In the minds of the common person , it was the seat of religious and political power. Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect residing at Caesarea, knew that on important days he needed to be in Jerusalem.

Jesus challenged these powers, and they each played a hand in crucifying him. Luke is thus making a political statement by naming Bethlehem the city of David.

Jesus challenged Herod’s claim to be king, and asserted that Herod’s temple, with it’s wealth and corruption, was not the center of religious life. He cleansed the temple of its money-changers that took advantage of peasant pilgrims and enriched the temple cult. He confronted the High Priest and the Sanhedrin who claimed to represent the interests of the people before a righteous God

By calling Bethlehem the city of David Luke highlights Jesus’ opposition to the powers that be in Jerusalem. He reminds his readers that David didn’t come from a place of great power, but from a little town known as least of all the cities of Judah.

The true Anointed One would come from there also, and he would stand up for the little guys like the shepherds outside of Bethlehem.

The Messiah would stand up against the wealth, power and corruption of Jerusalem and would rule with justice and equity, not favoring the have’s but blessing the have-not’s.

In the words of his mother Mary, through this child from Bethlehem the Lord “…has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / albund

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7 Responsesto “Bethlehem: City of David?”

  1. Jim says:

    Hi Larry, Thanks for your thoughts. I grew up hearing the Nativity stories, and studying the OT as well and don’t know why this never struck me. My small group was reading 2 Sam. where David conquers the “City of David” and it got me thinking. I honestly NEVER remember hearing any mention of this discrepancy, let alone an attempt at explanation.

  2. James says:

    Actually, the Hebrew Bible, which says that the city of Bethlehem was built up as a fortified city by Rehoboam, identifies it as the city David was from and where he was crowned as the king of Israel. The New Testament identifies Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus. Hence, Bethlehem is the city of David.

    • Yes, the Hebrew Bible says that David was from Bethlehem, but it also says that David named Jerusalem the “City of David.” See 2 Samuel 5. Jerusalem is called that forty times in the Hebrew Bible. There is only one place where Bethlehem is called the City of David, and that is in Luke.

  3. I’m convinced that “City of David” always refers to Bethlehem, same with Zion. Psalm 132 unambiguously identified Zion with Ephratah, and Micah 4 calls the Migdal Eder the Stronghold of Zion.

    • I’m not sure how you can be convinced that “City of David” always refers to Bethlehem when 2 Samuel 5 describes David conquering Jerusalem and twice says he named it the City of David. Plus, Psalm 132 doesn’t unambiguously identify Zion with Ephratha–if anything it points to them as separate places. “We heard of it [the dwelling place of God i.e. Zion, i.e. Jerusalem] in Ephratha,” is pretty clear that Ephratha is a different place from the place that they heard of. It also doesn’t reference the phrase “City of David,” nor does Micah 4. You seem to think that Zion is another name for Bethlehem when it is absolutely clear that it always refers to Jerusalem. No one even questions that.

  4. Laraine says:

    Thank you for your very informative writing! I’ve been a Christian for a long time, but this time, reading Luke 2:4, I came up with this question, googled it, and up popped your answer. Thank you very much, and I’m thankful for the world-wide web where I can get such quick answsers to my questions, thanks to people like you!

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