As we’ve studied the Old Testament this year, I’ve learned some things which will enhance my celebration of Christmas this week. Here are some of those new insights, with links to the original blog posts:
1. Bethlehem is a small but fruitful place.
I knew before this year that Bethlehem (בֵּית לֶחֶם), “house of bread,” was the home of Ruth after she immigrated from Moab with her mother-in-law Naomi. (See Ruth 1:19-22.) And I knew that it was the birthplace of David, whom the Lord selected as a young boy to be king of Israel. (See 1 Samuel 17:12.) What I didn’t realize was that Bethlehem was also near the place where Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin. At the time, it was known as Ephrath or Ephrathah (אֶפְרָת), which means “fruitful.” This adds meaning to Micah’s prophecy: “Thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel” (Micah 5:2, see also Matthew 2:4-6). Here is a blog post about Bethlehem’s history:
2. We can learn a lot from shepherds.
Long before the angel announced the birth of Jesus Christ to a group of shepherds, Old Testament prophets had held up shepherds as an example of what God expects us to be. Nahum reproved negligent leaders, comparing them with shepherds who had fallen asleep. (See Nahum 3:18.) And Ezekiel condemned “shepherds of Israel” who fed themselves instead of feeding their flocks. (See Ezekiel 34:2.) Years earlier, King David rejoiced in the loving care of God, saying, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1).
In the Book of Mormon, Alma speaks extensively about the responsibilities of shepherds. He identifies Jesus as our Good Shepherd and encourages us to follow Him.
Here are three blog posts on the topic:
3. Sometimes God leads us into Egypt, and sometimes He leads us out.
Immediately after God led Abraham to his promised land of Canaan, Abraham and his family relocated to Egypt for a time to escape a severe famine. (See Genesis 12:6-10, Abraham 2:18-21.) His great-grandson Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt and was therefore able to rescue his family from another famine years later. (See Genesis 45:17-28.) But their descendants had to be delivered from slavery in Egypt. And when Jesus was young, His parents saved His life by fleeing to Egypt. (See Matthew 2:13.) Matthew saw this as a fulfillment of a prophecy by Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matthew 2:15; see Hosea 11:1).
Abraham, Joseph, and Jesus all benefitted from their Egyptian experience without being absorbed by it. We can learn from their experience. Here is a blog post on the subject:
4. Our ancestors weep for us when we experience trauma.
Matthew saw King Herod’s slaughter of children in Bethlehem as a fulfillment of a prophecy by Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not” (Jeremiah 31:15, see also Matthew 2:16-18). It’s easy to imagine Rachel weeping as she looks down from heaven and sees her children suffering. But Jeremiah’s prophecy continues with a message of hope: “Refrain thy voice from weeping,” he said. “There is hope in thine end” (Jeremiah 31:16-17). Here is a blog post about Jeremiah’s prophecy:
5. Jesus Christ offers light to the whole world.
Psalm 98 offers an expansive message of the gospel: “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (Psalm 98:3). The psalm encourages “all the earth” to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” (Psalm 98:4).
In 1719, a congregational minister named Isaac Watts published a collection of poetic paraphrases of psalms. His poem inspired by psalm 98 has become a popular Christmas carol: “Joy to the World” (Hymns, 201). This Christmas, as I sing that hymn, I will think about the inclusive message of Psalm 98. All of God’s children can benefit from the light He has brought into the world through His Son. Here is a blog post on the topic: