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Ancient Testaments: Before His Manger: Ch. 23, A Bethlehem Story

In Chapter 22, Eleazar and the two young men traveling with him were making their way toward the top of a steep mountain where they have been told they would find the little village known as Nazareth, "The Branch." Their trek began on Tuesday, and they were ascending that bluff on Thursday. They hoped that by midnight they would be in a long-awaited slumber, and that the Friday morning sun would reveal to them a new home for their branch of Israel. We will see what awaits them in a later chapter. In Chapter 23, our attention returns to Bethlehem. Tova is once again gathered with several children and parents in the synagogue. It is Friday. The Sabbath is drawing near. It is a good time to hold another Shat Sippur, a "Story Telling."

Chapter 23 — A Bethlehem Story

A larger number were present for this Shat Sippur than for their first effort a few days before. Most of the children were accompanied by their mothers, and even a few men were able to be there.

Tova had decided that today's story should be about things that happened anciently in their own little town. Her husband, Rabbi Shayah, sat at a bench along the side of the room. As he smiled and gave her a supporting nod, she began.

We have all heard of Ruth, a non-Israelite maiden, who devoted herself to the God of Israel. And you know that she settled in this very place, Bethlehem, more than a thousand years ago. Here it was that she married Boaz, a wonderful, gallant man of Judah's royal line.

Well, Boaz and Ruth had a son named Obed. We shall not tell of Boaz and Ruth today, nor of their son Obed. We shall tell of Obed's son, the grandson of Boaz and Ruth. This man's name was Jesse.

Jesse of Bethlehem — descendent of Judah, of a special royal lineage in the House of Israel — was easy to look upon and easy to meet. He was a tall man. In conversation, he was soft-spoken. In his work and manly endeavors, he was determined and optimistic.

These qualities made Jesse a real attraction in the eyes of a girl named Ivana. The smartest thing he ever did, except for his devotions to God, was to marry this graceful woman.

Jesse was not interested in fame or wealth, though he had a measure of both. Fame attended him in part because of his lineage. Added to this were his older sons, whose character and appearance confirmed the idea in some people that this was a family of destiny.

The family's wealth, on the other hand, stemmed from hard work and wisdom. Their flocks were excellent breeding stock, populating many Judean hills. Their wheat fields waved high and golden in the early fall. The harvest kept their mill and bakery busy all year long. This family helped Bethlehem ("House of Bread") live up to its name.

The biggest reason for good things in Jesse's family was Ivana herself. If you met her, you would at first think she was mostly a quiet person. Then you would notice her kind and soothing way of speaking. But only after getting to know her well would you realize the vision and vigor that guided her as a mother in Israel. In Jesse's view, her parents had chosen her name prophetically: Ivana ("God's Gracious Gift").

Such a woman might well raise up a king.

So this man was known well beyond our Bethlehem hills. Jesse's years had taken him across many pastures and along many roads. He had sold wool products to merchants throughout the southern parts of Israel. And further north, in Shiloh, the priests who officiated at the Tabernacle trusted the quality of Jesse's animals. They also were glad to know that the animals were bred and raised by just and faithful shepherds.

But do you know what? Not everyone thought well of Jesse. There were jealous hearts in those days, even as there are now. For one thing, not everyone felt that a descendant of Ruth should be reckoned in the royal line. This grandmother to Jesse had been a mere Moabite! Some folks viewed her as a shameless intruder, throwing herself at Boaz to get her hands on his wealth.

A few of these envious people were also descendants of Judah living in Bethlehem. To them it seemed that Jesse was just a little too nice, and too successful. How could you take seriously a man who started out as a lowly shepherd? And how could you not be jealous when you met that modest and cheerful wife of his, and those handsome, friendly sons?

Raavi of Bethlehem was one of these critics. Now, Raavi was a man who could keep up a very dignified, impressive bearing for hours without a break, and he had trained his teenaged son, Elrad, to do likewise. Their connection back to Judah was not strictly through sons in every generation, but at least that connection was not soiled by a grandmother like Ruth, of dubious heart and untouchable blood!

Jesse's lands were on the east and north of Bethlehem; Raavi's inheritance — mostly orchards and vineyards — stretched to the south. In every way he could, Raavi saw to it that his home and family had a regal, elite appearance.

"Listen to me, Elrad," Raavi would sometimes say to his son, "should the day ever come when King Saul is replaced by a king to rule all the tribes of Israel, the job must fall to an unspotted man of Judah. You must be ready for that day."

And then Raavi would add, with a bit of thunder in his voice, "Let there be no reason for Jesse's line to be considered. I grew up with that man. He's nothing more than a bad-smelling sheep herder who got a taste for money and nice clothes. Such men belong in the wilderness, not on thrones."

Tova looked carefully at her listeners, who were imagining these people and scenes in their own streets of long ago. They were mostly attentive, but she announced that it was time to take a little break. She knew, when it came to holding the minds of children, too many breaks was better than too few.

In a few minutes, all were settled again. Their minds were again ready to think about Jesse and his family, and the envious man Raavi and his son Elrad. But as she continued, she spoke of another person.

Now you must let me tell you about the prophet Samuel, for he will be an important part of our story.

Samuel's career as a prophet of God began in childhood, when he was the age of some of you! So, by the time he was of middle age — the age of your rabbi over there! — Samuel had vast experience in detecting the voice of the Lord.

Many responsibilities rested upon the prophet in his adult years. Of course, he watched over the ordinances of the priesthood at Shiloh and other places around the land. But it was also important that he travel from time to time, to visit among the people.

Samuel was more jovial than most people expected a prophet to be. He had a nice way of catching them off guard. But whether he was at a formal gathering or in a home, or in conversation along some dusty road, it was his constant labor to strengthen, in the hearts of his people, their loyalty to the God he knew so well.

In those days, people had struggles with illness, poverty, illiteracy, and local disputes. In addition, the people of Israel were at war. Samuel frequently pointed out that their only real hope lay in righteousness. I am sorrow to say that his words were often ignored.

And Saul, the reigning king, was becoming Samuel's worst listener. The spiritual illness in Israel seemed to reflect the private life of their king. His influence somehow invited them to new depths of sin. He was destroying the nation.

Samuel wished his people would embrace the biggest reality of all: the Messiah. If they would live as they should, they would feel close to the divine being called Shiloh. Though his coming was still in the distant future, he was poised even now to pour out saving blessings upon them.

In public, Samuel's goodwill took the form of good cheer. In private, that goodwill often brought him to his knees, pleading for some intervention to reverse the disastrous, downward trend in Israel.

So it was, in answer to the longings of a prophet, that the voice of the Lord came one day. Samuel was directed to choose a replacement for Saul! "How long wilt though mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him? ... Fill thine horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Bethlehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons."

The Lord spoke with urgency. Samuel left Ramah on the very day the revelation was given, leading a young cow that now belonged to God, an animal to serve as a sacrifice. This offering would tell the inhabitants of a Judean village that they had found favor with God.

In his hurried preparations, Samuel did not forget to bring with him that all-important horn filled with consecrated olive oil.

The oil in Samuel's horn — representing the golden light that fills the universe — would be daubed upon the head of a new king. Thereafter, the might of God would attend that king.

Ahh, and what a king this anointed one would turn out to be. In history, he would become Israel's beloved. His very name would be cherished. So prophetic in writing of Messiah, so gifted in singing of Messiah. And, so much in need of Messiah's mercy. One of Jesse's would inspire Israel to long for a Savior. In fact, the throne of that king would someday become the throne of Messiah himself.

And think of it. Samuel's job was to be God's instrument in choosing just which son of Jesse would be this king of destiny.

Tova's story continues in Chapter 24.

Notes to Chapter 23

** Regarding the Ruth and Obed and their son Jesse — ancestors of Jesus — see the Book of Ruth, along with 1 Chronicles 2:11-12 and Matthew 1:5.

** Regarding Samuel assignment to go to Bethlehem and anoint a king, see 1 Samuel 16:1-3.