Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Who will emerge from Bethlehem?

Michah 5:1(2)

Matthew 2:6

"Bethlehem—Ephratah—you are too small to be among the thousands of Judah, but from you someone will emerge for Me to be a ruler over Israel; and his origins will be from early times, from days of old."

The book of Matthew relates that when the Magi from the east came looking for the Messiah, Herod inquired to the sages of his day to determine where he would be born, so that he could direct them in the right direction, and he in turn could determine the exact location of the potential threat to his throne. Those sages, we are told, cited this passage from Michah as predicting that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. This verse is a favorite of Christian apologists and is referenced in nearly any list of verses they cite as predicting the Nazarene.1

To examine the validity of this inference, we must ask what does "from you" really indicate? While the Christian Bible and its apologists take it for granted that this refers to a place of birth, it is not that simple. Obviously the passage is lacking any specific verbiage indicating birth. Rather we are presented with the term מׅמְּך "from you", where the prefix מׅ is identical to the one found in Hosea 11:1 וּמִמִּצְרַים "and out of [or since] Egypt". One might recall that although the term is the same in the Hosea 11:1 passage, there it is taken to simply imply that the Nazarene lived in Egypt, not that he was born there. Similarly we cannot conclude that, based on the verse in Michah, the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. With such an ablaitive implication the most we could conclude that he lived there, or perhaps even just made a significant visit.2

The truth is that when we are speaking of Bethlehem-Ephratah we are not talking about the location per se, but a family. In the early Biblical period the land was to be divided up according to family. Michah says that Bethlehem-Ephratah is too small to be counted among the "thousands" of Israel, which the NIV correctly translates as "clan". The term "thousand," אלף, is an extended family unit. The smaller is a "father’s house" אב בית (see Bamidbar 2:2), related households constitute a "thousand" or "clan" אלף, and the clans combine to form the tribe. So as it turns out, the term "from you" is related to birth, not the location of the birth, but rather the lineage. "From" in the sense of spatial source can have a variety of meanings, but understanding that the significance of Bethlehem-Ephratah is as family rather than a place narrows down its implication. The verse is not expressing surprise at the location the Moshiach will be born, but at the humble origins of the Davidic dynasty. Similarly, when presented with his divine mission, Gideon initially objected "I beg of You, my Lord, with what shall I save Israel? Behold, my thousand is the most impoverished of Manasseh, and I am the youngest of my father’s house." (Judges 6:15).

In response it has been argued, "It is interesting to note that the Soncino Press commentary goes on to suggest, ‘Not that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but that his origin of old, through David, would be Bethlehem.’ However, it begs the question: if the prophet meant ancestry and not geography, why would such a statement be necessary?" ( The answer is by referencing Bethlehem-Ephratah, David’s family line, the verse is essentially identifying the individual being discussed as the Mashiach. Would one ask why Isaiah found it necessary to say that "A staff will emerge from the stump of Jesse" (Isaiah 11:1)? It is the subsequent verses in which we see the Mashiach’s activities, and once again we see that they were not fulfilled by the Nazarene. As we noted elsewhere, "It is noteworthy that many of the verses cited by Christians do have these indicators. The indicator, for example tribal affiliation or ancestors, are often cited as the prophecy which is fulfilled. Meanwhile the rest of the prophecy, containing the more significant issue of Mashiach’s activities". The passage from Michah goes on to describe in detail how the Messiah will assure peace from all of Israel’s adversaries and the return of the Children of Israel. Neither of these were accomplished by the Nazarene and have not been fulfilled to this day, yet they stand as the central mission of the true Messiah.

In addition to the birthplace of the Messiah, Christian interpreters generally 3 see another lesson from this passage, that the Messiah is eternal. Although this interpretation was used as early as Justin Martyr, it is not made in the New Testament. In fact the second half of the verse from which this is derived isn’t even included in Matthew’s quote. Insofar as the idea that the Nazarene is eternal is central to traditional Christian belief, it is more than a little surprising that Matthew would neglect to use the Hebrew Bible to establish this in favor of his birthplace.

The phrase in question is "and his origins (וּמוֹצאֹתׇיו) will be from early times, from days of old (מׅימֵי עוֹלם)." The last word in this verse is often, and correctly, translated as eternal or forever. Furthermore the classic Jewish commentator Rashi, based on a Midrash, comments that the Messiah’s name was established prior to creation. What then, does it mean that his "origins" are from days of old/eternity? We must first determine what "origin" refers too. The word "origin" shares the same root (יצא) as the early expression that the Messiah would "go out" from Bethlehem. In other words the Messiah would go forth from Bethlehem and his going forth would be from days of old/eternity. The second clause is referring to the same as the first, which gives further evidence that it doesn’t refer to birth per se.

To further clarify it is useful to know the phrase ימֵי עוֹלם "days of old", is used elsewhere in the T’nakh and does not indicate eternity.4 In fact only a few pages later it is used in Michah 7:14 in a request that God care for His people like he did in the "days of old". Likewise in Malachi 3:4 it is requested that God accept the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem like "the days of old". Clearly the term is being used in reference to a distant time, days of old, but not eternity past. I have seen an argument to the effect that since these other verses have the prefix כ they bear a different meaning than the phrase in our verse.5 This claim is simply incorrect, the prefix כ and מ do have different meanings, "from" and "like" respectively, but just like their corresponding English prepositions they do not magically alter of the subsequent words or phrases.

We should also note that, whether in Hebrew or English, the word "eternal" can refer to a finite time period just as it can refer to an infinite one. For example, when we speak of someone having eternal life, like in Daniel 12:2 (חַיֵי עוֹלׇם), we in no way intend that they lived from eternity past, uncreated and without a beginning. Unlike God, whose eternity is an infinite one, other uses of eternal are confined to the temporal world. The initial description of his "origins" as being "from early times" further suggests a temporal period. With this in mind we can understand Rashi’s embrace of the Midrashic interpretation of this verse. It is granted the term "days of old" clearly does not literally mean forever ago, but the term עוֹלם generally does have a much more expansive meaning than its use in this phrase. Even still, unless applied to God Himself we have no reason to understand it to apply beyond the realm of time. As such we can see in the choice of this word that from the beginning of time the Mashiach’s role, his "Name", has been part of God’s plan. The plain meaning, however, is that from the dynasty of David the son of Yishai of Beith Lechem, which started in the "days of old", the Mashaich will emerge and redeem Israel.

Briefly I would like to touch on a couple of variations on this argument. J. Vernon McGee alleges, without any Scriptural or historical evidence that "No members of the family of David were living in Bethlehem any longer."6 Yirmeyahu Ben David argues,7 "The Israeli government has given Beit Lekhem to the Arabs! Therefore, only Ribi Yehoshua can ever fulfill this messianic prophecy!" It seems more than a little ironic that only a few decades ago the Israeli didn’t exist, and many people thought it never would, and yet people still argue that the day can never come when a Jew could be born in Bethlehem?! God isn’t limited to "anointing" people in the past as the Messiah simply because the current political situation isn’t conducive to His prophecies!

A popular approach is defending the use of this passage by appealing to Jewish sources. In this vein Alfred Edersheim writes, "The well-known passage, Micah 5:2, is admittedly Messianic. So in the Targum, and the Pirqe de R. Eliez. C. 3, and by later Rabbis." (Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Appendix 9, page 1005). Of course this statement does not address whether these sources consider it to refer to the Messiah’s birthplace, and as a rule while such sources interpret the verse as Messianic they do not interpret it as referring to his birthplace. Others are more assertive in their claim: "Even the Talmud explains Micah 5:2, as declaring that Bethlehem should be Christ's birthplace" (Barton Warren Johnson,  And while this could be an example of someone over-zealously inferring a Messianic understanding of Michah 5 to mean it refers to the birthplace of the Mashiach, even more specific claims are made: "Here is an excerpt from the Jerusalem Talmud, which is a collection of Judaism-related writings completed about 1600 years ago: ‘The King Messiah... from where does he come forth? From the royal city of Bethlehem in Judah.’ - Jerusalem Talmud, Berakoth 5a." ( and "The King Messiah... from where does he come forth? From the royal city of Bethlehem in Judah." -Jerusalem Talmud, Berakoth 5a" (, originally compiled by Ben Burton of MessianicArt).

The Talmud Yerushalmi is not the most accessible work, and the method of citation is not as consistent as that of the Talmud Bavli. Notice that the last two citations of the Talmud are identical, both in their translation and transliteration, suggesting that we are not dealing with independent research and translation. Although neither gives credit, I am personally acquainted with writer of the later source which I also know has been up for close to, but not quite, ten years (as of 2009). While very ambitious, at the time he was not equipped to personally verify the sources to assure the accurately reflected the meaning of the original, or if even existed. To his credit, when I prompted him he did put up a disclaimer that some citations may be out of context.

The citation given by these sources is insufficient to locate the quote, and a less careful person would conclude it was fabricated, but with a little online research I discovered the following: "The Jerusalem Talmud (y. Ber.2.4*) comments, ‘... King Messiah is born...he is from the royal palace of Bethlehem.’"… "*As cited in Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Hendrickson edition, 1993) p. 143, who says that ‘in an imaginary conversation between an Arab and a Jew, Bethlehem is authoritatively named as Messiah's birthplace.’" (, though the phraseology quoted from the Talmud is not supplied by Edersheim and it seems as though an intermediary source may have been utilized.) The "5a" in the earlier citations, appears in Edersheim as a qualification of the 2:4 in the latter. The earlier citations omitted a detail which placed the quote significantly later than what they implied. In fact, this narrative from chapter 2:4 falls out on page 25b when the pages are enumerated from the beginning.

But while I cannot blame a Christian apologist for being a bit excited over this passage, it is not a game changer. First and foremost, it doesn’t cite Michah 5:1 as the source for the Moshiach being born in Bethlehem. In fact it gives no indication that the Mashiach will be born in Bethlehem at all, is says he was born in "Biras Malka" of Bethlehem, on the day the Temple was destroyed, and that his name was Menachem ben Chezkiahu. The story clearly wasn’t meant to teach a historical event but a lesson about the Messiah. Just pause and reflect on the quote as cited above, "he is from the royal palace of Bethlehem." Michah doesn’t mention anything about a royal palace and there is and was no royal palace in Bethlehem to be born in! While David was from Bethlehem he ruled from Jerusalem. The Talmud’s narrative isn’t telling us about the Messiah’s physical birthplace but rather like each detail it is intended to convey a message about the Mashiach and his mission. The notion of being born in the royal palace of Bethlehem clearly alludes to the Davidic lineage of the Mashiach rather than a location. The birthplace in the story is symbolic of his Davidic heritage. This is, after all, consistent with our reading of Michah 5:1 although the verse is not being cited.

We have noted that although Christians, following the lead of their Scriptures, understand the verse in Michah 5:1 as speaking of the birthplace of the Mashiach, the language of the verse itself doesn’t indicate birthplace. In the same language is used in Hosea 11:1 which is (mis)understood by Christian’s as indicating that the Nazarene merely left a location which he lived in but was not his birthplace. Bethlehem’s significance is as the birthplace of King David, whose extended family was it’s residents. Despite its relative insignificance the royal line, the Messianic line, was to descend from it. It is in this respect that the Mashiach and all David’s descendants were "from" Bethelehem. The Mashiach, as its legitimate heir, will establish a kingdom which hearkens back to the golden "days of old" when David reigned, God shepherded His people, and their offerings found His favor, as God intended he would from the beginning of Creation.

[1] "And hear what part of earth He was to be born in, as another prophet, Micah, foretold. He spoke thus: "And thou, Bethlehem, the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come forth a Governor, who shall feed My people." Justin Martyr, The First Apology, chapter 34 ( "And again the prophet Micah speaks of the place where Christ should be born, that it should be in Bethlehem of Judæa, saying thus: And thou, Bethlehem of Judæa, art thou the least among the princes of Judah? for out of, thee shall come a prince who shall feed my people Israel. " Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, page 63, (

"In the fifth chapter of his book, Micha records one of the most specific predictions about the coming Messiah. His birth place was to be in an obscure village in the province of Judea in Palestine; the city that King David had been born in, Bethlehem" Hal Lindsey, The Promise, page 58. "Some of the most important prophecies about Christ accurately predicted [his] birthplace (Mal. 5:2)" Dan Story, Defending Your Faith, page 78. "The Hebrew scriptures accurately foretold hundreds of years in advance that this Promised One would be born in Bethlehem….Michah 5:2) Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, page 56. "We must not be confused by all these places and deem them contradictory, for all were touched by [him] in the course of [his] divinely planned life. As Michah prophesied, Jesus was born in Bethlehem…" Herbert Lockyer, All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible, page 64. "Micah named the place where Christ was to be born seven hundred years before [he] was born there." J. Vernon McGee, Thru The Bible with J. Vernon McGee vol. 3 page 790. "Micah 5:2…Since Micah lived in the time of King Hezekiah, he made this prophecy some eight centuries before Jesus." Islam Revealed, Dr. Anis A. Shorrosh, page 122.

[2 ] I would like to again highlight our earlier citation “We must not be confused by all these places and deem them contradictory, for all were touched by [him] in the course of [his] divinely planned life. As Michah prophesied, Jesus was born in Bethlehem…” Herbert Lockyer, All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible, page 64. Implicit in his attempt at “clarifying” the prophecies ascribed to the Nazarene is the recognition that this passage does not specify that his birth would take place in Bethlehem in contrast to others which merely indicate areas he lived and ministered.

[3] While I have not extensively reviewed the question, it is noteworthy that the Watchtower publication cited above does not mention this interpretation of Michah 5:1, nor does Yirmeyahu Ben David. Both reject the traditional conception of the Trinity and the divinity of the Messiah.

[4] I must acknowledge that these verses were [most likely] brought to my attention from Rabbi Singer’s “Let’s Get Biblical” Study Guide, page 121.
[5] J.P. Holding, Tovia Singer on 5:2, [Dead Link]. An apparent quote from the article has been preserved on another site’s message board, “What Singer calls the "same expression" is NOT the same expression at all! Micah speaks of "from 'olam". The rest speak of "from days of 'olam." ( It has been a long time since I read this argument but based on this quote I believe my presentation may be even more plausible than the actual one since he seems to be denying that the word day even occurs. I would like to think that the article has been removed since it was recognized that it was fundamentally unsound.
[6] Ibid
[7], I recently saw a similar argument by an early Church authority, but I’ve had difficulty relocating it since I did not properly make note of it.


in the vanguard said...

I think you do a great disservice to Hashem and Judaism and Torah by interpolating your thoughts and comments with non-Talmudic "pundits"; As if we have to know what others are eating, as if what we have on our table full of delicacies is inadequate!

It may be, therefore, that you have a hidden agenda!

Yirmiahu said...

You do not seem to understand how persuasive arguments work, if I was interested in "preaching to the choir" I wouldn't write articles answering missionaries. These articles very clearly cites such opinions to respond and refute them. If you think this represents a "hidden agenda" then you do not have a clear grasp of what was written.

in the vanguard said...

Glad to hear that.

in the vanguard said...

Yirmiahu, is there a link where I can read your story? Or part of it, among your posts or elsewhere?