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Jesus, Geography & Old Testament Prophecy

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Along the Road Online Biblical Study
Reading Assignment – Part 1
Listen to the Audio version | Reading Time: 6 minutes

We’re familiar with the Christmas story and how Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to the little town of Bethlehem for the census.  And it was there, amongst the animals, that Mary gave birth to Jesus, the Messiah of the world.  But in our remembrance and telling of this story, do we ever truly consider the geographical context of the Land and how it impacts the narrative we know and love?

Nazareth! Can any good come from there?

The words of Jesus’ disciple Nathaneal in John 1:46 immediately cause us to question the reputation of our Savior’s hometown.  What was so wrong with Nazareth?

Surprisingly, the small, off-the-beaten-path town of Nazareth – the home of Jesus’ earthly parents and the place where he grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:51-52, NIV), is never mentioned in the Old Testament.  

“It is unmentioned in Jewish traditional writings.  It is even unmentioned by the first-century historian, Josephus, although he did describe a battle that occurred in the vicinity.  Aside from Jesus, no one of historical significance came from this village.” 

John A. Beck, Along the Road, page 34

So why would Nathaneal offer such a critical statement?

Geographical Location:

32°42’07.0″N 35°18’12.0″E

Map from Google Earth

The small village is located in northern Israel, in lower Galilee, approximately 15 miles (24 kilometers) southwest of the Sea of Galilee, about 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) southwest of Cana, and about 23 miles (37 kilometers) inland from the Mediterranean Sea (holylandsite.com).

It is also approximately a 90-mile (150-kilometer) journey on foot (Google Maps) to Bethlehem.

Cultural Background:

Essentially, this small farming village can be found in the valley of the five hills that form the end of the Galilee Mountains.  In the time of Jesus, it was a relatively isolated region with a population of approximately 200-300 people.  The village was so insignificant that it was not included on early maps of the region.  

Jesus was considered a nobody from a nowhere town.  So it was difficult for others, including other Nazarites (Luke 4:14-28, NIV), to believe He was the Son of God.

Linguistic Context:

The etymology of Nazareth is not known. However, there is thought that the small village’s  name may come from the Hebrew word netzer נֵצֶר, which means “branch” or “shoot,” relating to Isaiah 11:1-3:

A shoot [netzer] will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots, a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

Isaiah 11:1-3, NIV

Scriptural References:

Matthew 2:23, Matthew 4:13, Matthew 21:11, Matthew 26:71, Mark 1:9, Luke 1:26, Luke 2:4, Luke 2:39, Luke 2:51, Luke 4:16, Luke 4:34, Luke 18:37, John 1:45, John 1:46, John 18:5, John 18:7, and John 19:19.

Resources to Study Further:

  1. https://www.britannica.com/place/Nazareth-Israel
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazareth 
  3. https://www.inisrael.com/main/?p=105 
  4. https://www.holylandsite.com/nazareth-overview
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gJrCyelcGU 
  6. https://www.timesofisrael.com/listen-what-do-we-know-about-nazareth-in-jesus-time-an-archaeologist-explains/amp/ 

O little town of Bethlehem

The genealogy of Matthew chapter 1 nicely lays out several of the main characters whose lives were impacted by the little town of Bethlehem, including Ruth, the Moabitess, King David, and the most well-known birth of Jesus.

Geographical Location:

31.7043° N, 35.2075° E

Bethlehem - points of interest | Intentionalfilling.com
Map from Google Earth

Bethlehem is situated along the Judean hillside, just 5 miles (8 kilometers) from Jerusalem.  (holylandsite.com) Not only was it home to some of our foremothers and forefathers in faith but also the evil King Herod, who instituted the murder of boys ages two and under shortly after hearing of Jesus’ birth, who moved earth to build a hill east of the grain fields for his fortress to reside.   

Cultural Background:

The village of Bethlehem, at the time of Jesus’ birth, had a population similar to Nazareth’s, with around 300 people residing along the hillsides outside of Jerusalem. This farming community was also well known for raising sheep.

“Historically, these were the fields where the Temple shepherds cared for the animals that were used for sacrifices in Jerusalem. If that is the case, we find the announcement of the angels taking on new meaning, for the lambs over which the announcement of Jesus’s birth was trumpeted — the lambs destined for sacrifice at the Temple — were about to find their true purpose as symbols of the Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world. No wonder these shepherds returned from the manger praising and glorifying God.”

James C. Martin, Carolyn and David G. Hansen, A Visual Guide to Bible Events, pg. 147

Linguistic Context:

The etymology of Bethlehem בֵּית לֶחֶם comes from the literal translations of the Hebrew words bet, meaning “house,” and lechem, meaning “bread,” likely due to the fertile fields for growing wheat and barley.  

Scriptural References:


Resources to Study Further:

  1. https://www.holylandsite.com/bethlehem-overview 
  2. https://www.britannica.com/place/Bethlehem 
  3. https://biblearchaeologyreport.com/2021/12/10/o-little-town-of-bethlehem-2/
  4. https://open.spotify.com/episode/3A3woAtzSFWSyC7b4lwnUE?si=uT1_OHUmRKynEjQQ-XVK7g
  5. https://firmisrael.org/learn/jesus-born-in-bethlehem-is-the-location-important/ 
  6. https://youtu.be/6eC-mFhfZJI?si=fAzhllTVCL6lGzYH 
  7. https://irp.cdn-website.com/8871cfca/files/uploaded/A%20tale%20of%20three%20cities.pdf

Savior of Humble Roots 

The prophet Isaiah gives us a glimpse in chapter 53, verses 2-3 of who Jesus was: 

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Isaiah 53:2-3, NIV

I have a deep appreciation for Jesus’ humble roots.

As my hometown of Wheeling, WV is historically known as the gateway to the West, it is also a town I’ve had to describe to those outside the area as residing nearly halfway between Pittsburgh, PA, and Columbus, OH, along I-70.  Like Nazareth, Wheeling is just a blip on the map.  

Though Wheeling is a bit of a blip, it comes with a rich past and heritage, just as the town of Bethlehem does.

These towns connected to Jesus’s birth and upbringing were key in shaping Him into the man He was, One who had deep compassion for the poor and the marginalized. He took these lessons with him as He moved 26 miles (41.9 km) northeast to Capernaum.

So why would He make such a move?

John A. Beck, the author of Along the Road, says on page 41,

“…the move changed the level of access people had to what Jesus said and did. If he had remained in Nazareth, the geography and culture would have resisted the spread of the news about him. Capernaum, sitting on an open plain, had a larger and more diverse population that entertained travelers from throughout the world–and in an era without electronic communication, the news of the day spread with such travelers, particularly merchants moving goods along the International Highway.”

Have you ever considered that? Though He spent the majority of His life in Nazareth, it wasn’t until He made the move to Capernaum His ministry began due to the ability to share His message widely.

Beck continues, “Everyone who has come to know Jesus did, in part, because he left Nazareth and moved to Capernaum.” And by doing so, He also fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.

“Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.” [Isaiah 9:1,2]

Matthew 4:13-16, NIV

Praise God for His humble roots and light to the world!

1. The demographics of Nazareth are surprisingly smaller than most imagine.
2. The significance of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, goes all the way back to the time of the judges in the book of Ruth.
3. Jesus’ move to Capernaum was necessary to spread His message.

What is the most memorable insight you have obtained from studying the Bible stories in this manner (geographical context)?

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Along the Road | John A. Beck

A 5-week study providing a fresh perspective of Bible stories separated by centuries, but related by shared geography, and delve into the conversations that would have happened along the road with Jesus in the first century.

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Along the Road by John A. Beck - Winter Online Biblical Study | Intentionalfilling.com

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One Comment

  1. I have learned that God uses places as well as people to spread the message of his love. The celts have an idea of a ‘thin place’ where heaven touches earth, where God can be met and felt more easily. I see this here. The layers of interactions at a place like Bethlehem over the centuries gives layers of meaning to each interaction, each building on those that have gone before. As I tune in to the geography of the Bible, those layers add a whole different dimension to the understanding of how God is trying to reach me and teach me. This is so fascinating, I am so looking forward to learning more.

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