As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, it is interesting to note that Bethlehem has a rich Messianic significance in Judaism. Not only did the Jewish scribes in Jesus' day understand Bethlehem's destiny, but so did Jewish scholars prior to Christ's birth, and after the Lord's resurrection.
Matthew writes, "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and 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 all Jerusalem with 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.' "(Matthew 2:1-6)
When answering King Herod, the Jewish scribes quoted an Old Testament prophet. (Micah 5:2) They knew exactly where the Messiah was to be born. And so did all the other Jewish scholars of that day. As Kenneth Barker notes in his book, "Micah," this passage in Micah 5:2 was recognized by the Jews as a Messianic text, especially in all of the Jewish paraphrases and interpretations of the Old Testament known as Targums.
Ed Cook points out, "The targums are important to biblical scholars for several reasons. They are a witness to the Hebrew Bible text as it existed in the first few centuries CE, and references to them are frequent in the apparatus of the Biblia Hebraica. Since it was characteristic of their method sometimes to add interpretive or folkloric material to the translation or paraphrase, many of the targums preserve valuable information about Jewish theology, practice, and interpretation of Scripture from the early centuries of the Christian era. For linguists, the targums serve as an important source for the Aramaic dialects."
Jewish scholars have historically understood that the Messiah: (1) will be born in Bethlehem; (2) will be God's servant; and (3) will be from everlasting. There was no question among the Jewish scholars of Jesus' day concerning the meaning of Micah's prophecies.
Targum Jonathan renders Micah 5:2 this way: "And you, O Bethlehem Ephrath, you who were too small to be numbered among the thousands of the house of Judah, from you shall come forth before me the Messiah, to exercise dominion over Israel, he whose name was mentioned from before, from the days of creation."
And Targum Palestine is very similar: "Out of thee Bethlehem shall Messiah go forth before me to exercise dominion over Israel."
The Hebrew Bible commentaries known as the Soncino Books of the Bible summarize the 5th chapter of Micah this way: "A prophecy of the Messianic king and Israel's destiny among the nations."
So if Jewish scholars before, during and after the time of Christ understood Micah 5:2 to be Messianic in nature, why don't more Jews today understand the historical relevance of Bethlehem to their faith?
And for that matter, what about the clear reference to the Messiah in Isaiah 53? The oldest Jewish commentary on Isaiah (Targum Jonathan) teaches that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is the Messiah. And an honest reading of Isaiah 53 shines the spotlight clearly on the One who was born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, and later nailed to a cross for the sins of the world. It would be well worth your time to fill your heart and mind with Isaiah 53.
Jesus was either put to death for the salvation of Jews and Gentiles, or for no one. Jesus is either the everlasting God, or he was a phony. (see Isaiah 9:6) The targums were either an accurate interpretation of Micah's Messianic prophecies, or not.
If you interpret the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament honestly, fairly, and with an open mind, you can rather easily begin to see Yeshua (Jesus Christ) as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming Messiah.
And Bethlehem plays a monumental role in the divine drama which God has brought about for the redemption of Jews and Gentiles. But one must be connected to the Messiah through faith in order to reap the benefits He provides.
Unless you first make the connection about Bethlehem as detailed in Scripture, as well as in the targums, you can easily "miss the grace of God" (Hebrews 12:15) and fail to see that the Messiah has already "been there, done that."
And just in case you're wondering, no other Messiah is coming from Bethlehem to deliver anyone.