This city is pleasantly situated in the land of Judea, and lies, like many other places mentioned in Scripture, upon the top of a hill. It is only six miles south of Jerusalem, and as one travels towards it from that city, it suddenly bursts upon his view, stretching itself on from east to west with enchanting loveliness. The traveler passes through a deep valley, and then wending his way up the road, approaches the gates of the city, near which of old was the famous well of water of which David drank in his youth, and for which he afterwards longed in time of war. 2 Sam. 23:15.
Bethlehem has been visited by many modern travellers, and they all unite in describing the first view of it as very imposing. From its higher points the eye takes in at one view "the mountains that are round about Jerusalem," the deep and luxuriant valleys nearer at hand, and the far distant mountains that lie in the land of Moab. Every thing around it is beautiful and sacred.
Considering that Bethlehem has stood nearly or quite four thousand years, and been the home or tarrying place of many of whom we read in Scripture, we cannot fail to be interested in tracing the history of some distinguished characters and events most intimately associated with it.
The first mention we find made of Bethlehem is in Genesis 35:19, and that record presents to our view a scene of sadness and mourning. It was the death and burial of RACHEL, the wife of Jacob the patriarch.
Twenty-seven years previous to this time, Jacob had passed through Bethlehem on a journey. How many changes had since occurred. He had previously resided with his father Isaac at Beersheba, in the southern part of Canaan; but his father and mother, that he might avoid the wrath of his exasperated brother Esau, and be prevented from marrying a heathen wife, sent him away from home on a journey of over six hundred miles, to their pious kindred in Haran.
With only his staff and a small bundle of provision for the way, Jacob walks on in a northerly direction, through an inhospitable region, alone and unprotected. Hebron lies on the route, and we may naturally suppose that his footsteps would turn towards the cave of Machpelah, which lay in its suburbs. There slept in unbroken rest Abraham and Sarah, Jacob's grandparents, of whom he had hears so much; and he undoubtedly stood before their graves in deep communings with his own spirits; for unto them and their children were "the promises."
With a softened and saddened heart he leaves this hallowed spot, and walks on over the hill-tops and through the deep passes of the mountains, gathering perhaps ever and anon the juicy grapes that hung in large clusters from the bending vine, or partaking o f the honey that dropped from the rocks by his pathway.
Having journeyed about fourteen miles from the graves of Machpelah, suddenly, on the distant hill-top, Bethlehem bursts upon his sight. But as he was ignorant of the sad events that were to transpire there affecting himself, and of that greater event which was to affect the whole world, he passes through it, and down the valley, and up the hillside, with his feelings undisturbed; and after six more miles the city of Jebus, afterwards Jerusalem, receives the weary traveller.
Melchizedek, the king of Salem, the priest of the most high God, lived here but a short time before, and blessed Jacob's grandfather Abraham: and if this distinguished type of Christ was now dead, yet his history and lineage were without doubt familiar to Jacob, though so little is recorded of them in holy writ.
The sun was sinking fast towards the Mediterranean sea on the west, when the traveller, perhaps on the second day of his journey, had gone about twelve miles north of Jebus, and cast about for a resting-place through the night. Finding no hospitable roof to offer him a shelter, he took the stones of the place for his pillow, while the ground was his bed, and laid him down to rest. This was the time which he afterwards calls "the day of my distress." But "man's extremity is God's opportunity;" and we find that the angels of the Lord encamped round about him, and ascended and descended upon the ladder which reached form his resting-place to heaven.
Here God talked with him, and renewed the promises which he had before made to Abraham and Isaac, that the land of Canaan should be theirs and their children's for ever.
Early the next morning Jacob awoke, and said, "Surely God is in this place, and I knew it not." And he arose, and took the stone, his pillow, and set it up, and poured oil upon it, and called the place Bethel, or "the house of God." And there he vowed to the Lord, and worshipped the God of his fathers.
He then continued his journey, and probably crossed the Jordan soon after; and many days of weary and toilsome travel ensued before he arrived in the vicinity of Haran. This place is situated in the country of Mesopotamia, which lies between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, and is supposed by many to have contained the garden of Eden, and the first home of some of Noah's descendants after the flood.
It was towards the close of the day when Jacob drew near to his journey's end; and seeing men standing by a well watering their sheep, he approached to make some inquiries in regard to the friends he was seeking. They told him they were from Haran, and were acquainted with the family of Laban, who was the brother of Rebecca, Jacob's mother; and as they were speaking, Rachel, Laban's beautiful daughter, was seen approaching with her father's sheep, coming to the well for water.
Jacob seems to have refrained himself while he rolled away the stone from the well and watered Rachel's sheep; but then his pent-up feelings could no longer be controlled: he kissed her, and lifted up his voice and wept, exclaiming, "I am Rebecca's son."
In joyful surprise Rachel left Jacob to care for her sheep, while she hurried back to tell her father of his arrival; and from that time, probably, Jacob dated the love which he ever after felt for Rachel. Laban received him gladly into his family and service, and a month passed away before any thing was said of wages. Jacob was but too happy of being under the same roof with Rachel to think of wages; and when Laban finally proposed to remunerate him for his labor, he replied in the fulness of his heart, "I will serve seven years for Rachel." Laban accepted the offer; and those seven years, which might have appeared long to Jacob, "seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had to her."
Jacob patiently toiled on fourteen long years for Laban, and received in return his two daughters Leah and Rachel.
Six years more he labored for wages; in which time the Lord greatly blessed him, and increased his substance. Thus twenty years passed by with no intimation from the Lord that he ought sooner to return to the land so long before promised to him and his descendants. But at the expiration of that period, when Jacob was one hundred years old, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and said, "I am the God of Bethel, where thou anointedst the pillar, and where thou vowedst a vow unto me; now arise, and return unto the land of thy kindred, and I will be with thee."
Fearing that Laban would do him some injury if he were apprized of his design of leaving him and his service, Jacob planned a secret removal, which was carried into effect while Laban went to shear his sheep. Leah and Rachel, dissatisfied with their father's treatment of Jacob, were willing to go; and the large distance over which the numerous flocks of Jacob and of Laban were necessarily separated from each other, favored a departure unobserved. Three days passed by, after Jacob left, before Laban heard that he had gone.