Response to…”The Fabulous Prophecies of the Messiah”
Part III – Micah 5.2: TheBethlehemIssue
A second claimed birth prophecy is that Jesus would be born in the city of Bethlehem, cited in Matthew (2:1-6), Luke (2:4-7), and John’s (7:42) gospels. Of these, Matthew and John specifically refer to prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures. The passage referred to is Micah 5:2, which reads: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” “Ephrathah” is the ancient name of Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19, Ruth 4:11) but, to confuse matters, “Bethlehem Ephrathah” is also the name of a person: Bethlehem the son (or grandson) of Ephrathah (1 Chronicles 4:4, 2:50-51). This prophecy could therefore refer to either a native of the town or to a descendent of the person. If the latter, Jesus does not qualify since neither of his alleged genealogies (more on these below) list either Bethlehem or Ephrathah.
How possible is it that Micah 5.2 could be referring to a PERSON named ‘Bethlehem Ephrathah’? Although Jim discounts this later in the paragraph, he does raise this issue as something that ‘confuses the matter’. So we should probably investigate this issue briefly.
First of all, we need to verify that there WAS such a person mentioned in the verses cited.
Let’s look at the passage first…
- 1Chr. 2:50 These were the descendants of Caleb. The sons of Hur the firstborn of Ephrathah: Shobal the father of Kiriath Jearim,
- 1Chr. 2:51 Salma the father ofBethlehem, and Hareph the father of Beth Gader.
- 1Chr. 2:52 The descendants of Shobal the father of Kiriath Jearim were: Haroeh, half the Manahathites,
- 1Chr. 2:53 and the clans of Kiriath Jearim: the Ithrites, Puthites, Shumathites and Mishraites. From these descended the Zorathites and Eshtaolites.
- 1Chr. 2:54 The descendants of Salma:Bethlehem, the Netophathites, Atroth Beth Joab, half the Manahathites, the Zorites,
- 1Chr. 2:55 and the clans of scribes who lived at Jabez: the Tirathites, Shimeathites and Sucathites.
Could theBethlehemof verses 51 and 54 have been a PERSON instead of a CITY? What data do we have from the passage?
- Ephrathah was an alternate spelling of Ephrath (v. 19)–the WIFE of Caleb.
- Bethlehem(vs. 51) is in the middle of the following literary structure:
- Shobal the father of Kiriath Jearim (a city name)
- Salma the father ofBethlehem(a ? name)
- Hareph the father of Beth Gader ( a city name)
- This literary structure argues STRONGLY thatBethlehemin this verse is a CITY NAME as well.
- The word for ‘father’ in these passages, in light of the numerous place names, is generally understood as ‘chief’ or ‘ruler’ in verses 24,42,45,49-52 (Brown, Driver, Briggs ,Hebrew Lexicon of the Old Testament, 3d.9).
- Bethlehemitself is understood as a place name in ALL OT REFERENCES (and NEVER as a person) in the scholarly reference works (BDB, 111d.1; TWOT, I.106f).
- in verse 54,Bethlehemis in parallel to Atroth Beth Joab–a Place name.
- in verse 4.4 (also cited by Lippard) the phrase ‘father ofBethlehem’ is paralleled in verse 5 with ‘father of Tekoa’–a known place name (and not a person).
Additional data that supports the position that IT COULD NOT BE A PERSON’s name:
- “Beth” compound words occur hundreds and hundreds of times in the OT Hebrew, and they NEVER refer to human beings. [The two ‘exceptions’ are foreign loan-words: Abraham’s brother inMesopotamia(e.g. Gen 22.22) and a foreign deity (e.g. Zech 7.2)]
- IF ‘Bethlehem Ephratah’ was referring to a ‘Bethlehem SON of’, the Hebrew form would have typically been “Bethlehem BEN-Ephratah” which of course is NOT what the passage says. (cf. Ben-Hadad, Ben-Hur, Ben-Hail).
- Early Hebrew lineage descriptions ALWAYS used the FATHER’s name as surname–NOT the MOTHER’S (esp. with a living father). So a person would have been referred to as “Bethlehem Ben-Salma” (father); “Bethlehem Ben-Hur” (grandfather); or “Bethlehem Ben-Caleb” (great-grandfather).
- Finally, the 1st century Jews all understood the reference to be the town ofBethlehem(the passages cited by Jim above).
So…the data is rather conclusive that the phrase in Micah 5.2 COULD NOT HAVE BEEN referring to a PERSON.
If the former (more likely since Bethlehem was the birthplace of King David, from whom the Messiah is supposed to be descended), then Jesus qualifies by birthplace
the footnote says:
 The gospel of John says nothing about Jesus being from Bethlehem, but instead says that he is from Nazareth in Galilee. See John 1:45-46 and 7:41-42,52.
I am glad that Jim recognizes that this point is NOT a substantial argument within the controversy (by relegating this to a footnote). John was written much later than the Synoptic gospels, and no mention of the birth events were really necessary at that point. The controversies with the Jews, on the other hand, were.
For what its worth, the fact that John says Jesus was from Galilee doesn’t make an argument that he WASN’T fromBethlehemtoo…I personally was born inGreenville, grew up in Leland…so where am I “from”? Multiple locations are generally acceptable in popular discourse.
But now for the MAINissue…!
but fails to meet the condition of being “ruler in Israel.” Christians claim that this is a prophecy which will be fulfilled at the Second Coming.
First of all, I am a Christian and I claim it was fulfilled at his birth (if not sooner!)…But this is simply to say that the prophecy was of a BIRTH inBethlehem–NOT the beginning of a reign per se. (The prophecy in vs. 4b, on the other hand, I see as yet future.)
So the question here is ‘was Jesus a ruler’ in the sense of Micah 5.2?
But actually there is one prior question we need to address–what kind of ‘ruler’ was expected, on the basis of this verse? (THEN we can get to the issue of whether He WAS such a ruler.)
What data do we have to work with?
- The immediate context in the passage (4.9-5.1) [5.1 in the Hebrew is part of chapter 4.] is that God’s judgment onIsraelwill result in the loss of their king (4.9). This king (‘melek’–civil authority) is called a ‘counselor’ (vs. 9b) and ‘judge’ (5.1EV). It is against this backdrop of God deposing their king, that the promise in 5.2 is made. God will bring forth a ruler –that will be effective in leading the people in doing justice and mercy.
- The word for ‘ruler’ in 5.2 is NOT ‘melek’ (King) but ‘mashal’ (ruler). Melek was generally used of a wide range of civic or economic leadership positions (kings, princes, powerful merchants, etc. — see Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol I.507-509). Mashal is an even wider term, used of, for example, civic rulers, the stars (ruling over the night), a servant ( Gen 24.2)–even self-control (Prov 16.32). [see TWOT,volI. 534-5 and BDB, 605d.1]. Thus the individual WOULD NOT NECESSARILY HAVE to be called ‘king’, for the verse to still be fulfilled–he would just need to be exercising significant oversight or influence over his people. (But, notice, that the REST of the passage places extra ‘conditions’ on this individual, that probably pushes the requirements BEYOND kingship.)
- This figure in 5.2-4 has a distinctly ‘supernatural’ cast. His coming ‘onto the scene’ for God is YET FUTURE to Micah, but his “activities” (lit. ‘goings forth’ — NOT ‘origins’!–see 2 kgs 19.27) have been in progress ‘from ancient times’ and from ‘old’. This tension between an ‘already’ and a ‘not yet’–in the same verse!–shows the mystery of this messianic figure. He may be a great ruler, but He is something much more than that–something beyond the normal descriptions of regal language.
- A final piece of data from this passage concerns the actual birthplace itself. By Micah’s time there would have been at least 10 Davidic Kings, only one of which was born inBethlehem–David. The other descendants would have been born inJerusalem, theRoyalCity. The fact that the prophecy points specifically toBethlehem(instead ofJerusalem) draws attention to the fact that at the time of the ‘rulers’ arrival, the Davidic monarchy would NOT be on the throne! And, when coupled with the obvious corollary that some OTHER line would be ruling inJerusalemat that time, the stage is set for a clash of houses. What this means is that when the Ruler comes, the ‘fake rulers’ would undoubtedly resist his claims, challenge his authority, and refuse to admit His rulership. (Funny how it turned out that way!).
- By the time we get to the NT era, the messianic traditions had associated this ‘ruler’ with both the title ‘Messiah (Christ)’ and ‘King of the Jews’ (Matt 2.1-6):
After Jesus was born inBethlehemin Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came toJerusalemand asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and allJerusalemwith him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ” ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’ ”
Here the Magi sought the one ‘born’ King of the Jews (not ‘appointed’). They planned to worship him (perhaps an indication of their expectation of his divine character?). Herod then asked the priests NOT ABOUT the ‘King of the Jews’ phrase, BUT about the ‘Messiah’ (Equating the two). And the priests/teachers cite the ‘ruler’ passage of Micah 5.2. So the ‘ruler’ of Micah 5.2 was expected to be both Messiah and King.
- In John 7.42 you have a similar equation of The Ruler of Micah 5.2 with the Christ (Messiah).
So all the available data we have suggests that the ‘ruler’ of Micah 5.2 would be
- a ‘superhuman’ figure’;
- at least a powerful leader/ruler/influence over the nation;
- The Messiah;
- The King of the Jews
So, finally, we can get to the question–WAS JESUS A RULER IN THE SENSE OF MICAH 5.2?
We are confronted here with an interesting methodological puzzle. IF (as the prophecy suggests) the EXISTING RULING GROUP would resist His claims to the kingship, HOW WOULD WE show that He was indeed King?
[It would actually be easy to satisfy the ‘ruler’ word requirement of the verse, for that general of a term would certainly apply to a rabbi-like teacher who taught daily in the temple and in front of large crowds, and was even acknowledged by the leaders as a spiritual authority (John 3). This would BY ITSELF answer the issue/objection raised by Jim. But we can actually go one step farther and make a relatively strong case that he was recognized as King by the important constituents of day (other that the ‘rival rulers’ of course).]
Let’s look at four incidents:
- The Birth of Jesus — we already examined the passage about the Magi from the East already. Their testimony was that he was ‘born King’ and when they found him, even in extremely impoverished and non-regal circumstances(!), they worshipped him as such, and presented the ‘babe in the stable’ the gifts of royalty.
- The Inauguration of his ministry–the Calling of Nathaniel. Immediately after his baptism with John the Baptist we have this passage:
When Jesus saw Nathaniel approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” “How do you know me?” Nathaniel asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Then Nathaniel declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” (John 1:47-49)
- The End of His Ministry–the Triumphal Entry intoJerusalem. After all the plots of the Jews, and all the arguments of the rulers against the common Jewry, they still recognized their true King (John 12:12-13, 17-19):
The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way toJerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the King of Israel!
Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet him. So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”
The ‘great crowd’ and ‘whole world’ expressions seem to indicate a widespread acceptance by the mainstream populace of Jesus as their true King.
- The Night before His Death–the Encounter with Pilate.
The exchanges between Jesus and Pilate, and between Pilate and the Ruling Jews leads me to believe that Pilate accepted the truth of Jesus’ claim to be King of the Jews (although in a different sense than the rabble of John 6:15 wanted him to be). Here are the salient facts:
- The Jews hand Jesus over to Pilate with charges of political sedition (i.e. being a king!) (Lk 23.1-2)
- Pilate asks Jesus if He IS the King of the Jews–Jesus answers ‘Yes’ (Lk 23.3-4; Mr 15:2; Mt 27:11).
- Jesus explains that His kingdom, although real, is not ‘from this world’ and defended the claim by the non-violence of his disciples (John 18:36-37).
- Pilate begins to struggle to free Jesus! (John 19:4)
- Pilate hears that Jesus ALSO claimed to be the Son of God–he then becomes even more fearful of Jesus, resulting in more questions to him (John 19:7-11).
- Pilate escalates efforts to free Jesus, but is shouted down by the crowd. (John 19.12).
- For the rest of the scene, Pilate refers to Jesus exclusively as ‘King’ of the Jews!
- The “crime announcement” (the piece attached to the cross, to announce to the world the Crime of the executed) was set by Pilate to “Jesus ofNazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19).
- When the “rulers” asked him to change it to ‘He SAID he was the King of the Jews”, Pilate refused…I think he knew…The sobriety of the interchanges is of a markedly different tone than that of the soldiers who called Jesus “King” (The NT writers actually used the work ‘mock’ to indicate this–Mrk 15.20; Mt 27:27ff; JLk 23:36.)
- Pilate knew that the ‘fake rulers’ were ‘jealous’ of the acceptance and following of Jesus (read: “recognition of His royalty”)–Mt 27:18).
This data STRONGLY suggests that Pilate (who had been alerted by his wife about the righteous character of this ‘criminal’–Mt 27:19) KNEW that Jesus spoke the truth, and understood as well (from the explanations of Jesus about His kingdom being not ‘from this world’) that He was NOT a treat to the Roman empire at that time. This makes the most sense of his questions to Jesus, his fear, his attempts to free Jesus, his word choices in dialogue, his Crucifixion Announcement, and his desire to be free ‘from this man’s blood’ (Mt 27:24).
So we have acceptance by foreigners, by a cynical Israelite, by the majority of the populace, and probably by Pilate (a representative of the ‘real’ ruling class–Jesus pointed out that Pilate’s authority was actually from God–John 19:11).
A final note or two about the ‘rival rulers’: Although we would not expect them to accept the royalty of Jesus for obvious reasons, this doesn’t in any way DETRACT from His royalty. (In some sense, it actually SUPPORTS it–the OT data consistently pictures the messiah as ‘rejected’, ‘smitten’, ‘scorned’ etc.) We have many precedents in OT times of where the ‘rightful’ king is NOT accepted by the “rulers”. For example, from the life of David:
- In I Samuel 15 we have God’s rejection of Saul as King overIsrael. In 16:1 we have God’s explicit statement: “The LORD said to Samuel, ‘How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king overIsrael? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.’ ” God has selected David as King, and Samuel subsequently anoints him king in 16:13. BUT IT IS STILL MANY, MANY years before the ‘fake king’ is off the throne and the ‘true king’ is on it…Does David’s ‘non-acceptance’ by the ruling powers of Saul’s house nullify his kingship? Of course not.
- Even after Saul’s death and David’s acceptance by the ruling families ofIsraelin II Samuel 2, there is a residual war between Saul’s descendants and David’s line. In other words, EVEN WITH EXTERNAL acceptance by the ruling families, there are ALWAYS those who will not accept the reality of ‘real’ authority.
- David later flees from one of his sons, who reigns in Jerusalem while David hides again…does the ‘pretender-King’ and his following by the ruling families REMOVE David’s ‘rulership’? Of course not.
The point here is basically this: The fact that the ‘ruling Jewish families’ of Jesus’ day did not publicly admit his kingship is fully expected, and DOES NOT NEGATE the acceptance of His ‘rulership’ by the other ‘normal’ constituents.
[See also Zeph3:15, where YHWH calls Himself “King” overIsrael–in spite of the royal personage of the time!]
To sum up: Micah 5.2 does predict the birth of a super-human Ruler in the town ofBethlehem. This ruler was to be not just a ‘ruler’ but also the King of the Jews. The NT data indicates that Jesus of Nazareth was both born inBethlehemand was accepted by the mainstream groups and by the more-careful individuals (e.g. Pilate, Nathaniel). The prevailing political and religious authorities were predictably hostile to his claims. Micah does indeed seem to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ.