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Bethlehem Ephratah

by Rev. Willard D. Pendleton

"Thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to be ruler in Israel." (Micah 5: 2)

In the days when Herod was king of the Jews, Bethlehem was a small village lying in the hill country of Judea. Unlike the great city Jerusalem, it had no profitable markets or palaces of kings. Yet despite the fact that it had no place in the affairs of men, it was a place of historical importance in that it was here that David, the greatest of Israel's kings, had been born. Thus among the inhabitants of the land it was commonly known as the city of David. Of even greater interest, however, was the prospect held out by the prophet Micah, who in speaking of the Messiah who was to come, had identified Bethlehem as the place where He was to be born. Had he not said: "Thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto Me that is to be ruler in Israel"? Yet in all probability there were few in the days of Herod who recalled this saying of old, for in these later days few were concerned with these things.

But it came to pass in the darkness of the spiritual night which enveloped all humanity, that the angel of the Lord appeared to certain shepherds who were watching over their flocks in the hill country round about Bethlehem. "And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2: 10, 11) That which had been promised by the prophets had at last been fulfilled. Thus "the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us." (Luke 2: 15)

Who these shepherds were we know not, but what they represented is revealed, for by shepherds are signified the truths of faith which lead to the good of life; and in this instance the reference is to those truths which are acquired in childhood from the letter of the Word. It is by means of these primitive truths that the Lord inspires in the heart of the child an affection for what is good. Hence in the Writings they are referred to as remains of truth, in that they remain with man as long as there is in him any disposition to be led by the Lord.

Thus at this season of the year, when the story of the Divine Child is retold, there are many who are momentarily affected by the delight which as children they perceived in the reading of the Word. But Herod is king in Jerusalem, and in their concern for the things of this world, few give more than a passing thought to what seems to many to have been nothing more than an historical event which took place almost two thousand years ago. Hence the familiar persuasion that the Scriptures, while they may be of use in the moral training of children, have no place in the determination of human affairs in this advanced and enlightened age. But what men fail to perceive is that the Word in its letter contains a spiritual sense, and it is in the spiritual sense of the Word that the Lord is born among men at this day.

We can understand, therefore, why the Lord was born in Bethlehem, and not in some other place. Had He been born in any other place the Scriptures could not have been fulfilled, for by Bethlehem is signified the spiritual sense of the Word; and by Ephratah, as it was known in former times, is signified the letter of the Word. Hence it is said in the Writings that the Lord chose to be born there because He is the Word. (AE 700: 9) That also is why the prophet Micah referred to Bethlehem as Bethlehem Ephratah, in that the Word in its spiritual sense and in its letter are not two, but one Word.

There is reason to believe, therefore, that of all the cities of Judah which are mentioned in the Word, Bethlehem was the most ancient in origin. We have no direct evidence of this. We assume it from its representation; for "in the beginning was the Word," (John 1: 1) and in order that the antiquity of the Word might be represented, it is highly probable that Ephratah was selected to represent the Word because of its antiquity. One thing, however, is certain: Ephratah was a habitation in the days of the Ancient Church, and in the minds of the men of that church it was associated with the Lord's coming. How else can we account for the statement in the one hundred and thirty-second Psalm, where David, in speaking of Him who was to come, referred to Bethlehem as Ephratah, saying: "Lo, we have heard of Him in Ephratah; we have found Him in the fields of the forest; we will . . . [come] into His habitations, we will bow ourselves down at His footstool." (Psalm 132: 6, 7 See AE 684c: 27)

It cannot be said that this obscure reference to Ephratah as the place where the Lord was to be found constitutes a specific prophecy of the place where He was to be born. It does indicate, however, that the later day prophecy of Micah was not without precedent. It also suggests that the men of the Ancient Church knew where the Lord was to be born. But with the fall of this church and its gradual decline into idolatry, the knowledge of representatives and significatives was lost. Nevertheless, some knowledge of these keys to the Scriptures must have persisted among the descendants of the Ancient Church who inhabited the land of Canaan at the time of the conquest. It could have been through them, or through some fragment of the Ancient Word which they possessed, that David was introduced into the knowledge of the function and significance of Bethlehem. All prophecy must have had some basis of reception in the mind of the revelator.

In this the reception of the Divine doctrine by the individual does not differ from the spiritual history of the race. The acknowledgment of the Lord in His Divine Human has its origin in the deeply hidden states of childhood. Were it not for the fact that in infancy and childhood the Lord inspires in the mind those affections of innocence which receive Him at His coming, no man would be disposed to faith. It is this which prompts the cynic to say that all faith is emotional. There is a truth in this, although as stated it is intended to disparage man's inclination to believe in God. The truth is that in its origin all faith is affectional. Were the child not stirred with delight by the thought of God, faith would not be possible. But the time comes when faith must be supported by reason; that is, when that which is received in the will must be presented to the sight of the understanding. If not, it will in time be rejected. That is why He of whom we have heard in Ephratah must in time be born in Bethlehem; or, what is the same, why He to whom the letter of the Word testifies must in time be made visible to the sight of the understanding as the Divine doctrine. "Let us . . . go [therefore] . . . unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us." ( Luke 2: 15)

That which the Lord hath made known to us is the doctrine of the Divine Human. It is in this that the faith of the New Church differs from every other faith. This faith is that there is one God, who is the Lord Jesus Christ, and that it is He who is born to us this day in Bethlehem of Judea, that is, in the spiritual sense of the Word. To understand the doctrine of the Divine Human, however, we must elevate our thought above the idea of the Lord as a person and think of Him from His essence; that is, from the acknowledgment that He is Divine Man who in essence is Divine love and wisdom. If this seems abstract it is only because we are not accustomed to thinking in these terms. It can be understood, however, by way of analogy. Our analogy is found in the man whom He created after His own image and likeness. For what is man but a form receptive of love and wisdom? Were this not so he would not be man; for man is not man because he possesses a human figure, nor because he is motivated by instincts, but because he is capable of doing what is good and perceiving what is true. It is in this that man differs from all other forms of creation, and it is in this that his humanity consists.

To know man, therefore, we must elevate our thoughts above the idea of man as a person. While it is true that he is a person, his personality is but a manifestation of a deeper reality which in essence is man. The same is true of the Lord. He, too, is a person, for He came into the world as a person, and it is as a personality that He is known to men at this day. But in essence He is love and wisdom, even as we are forms receptive of His love and wisdom. To know Him, however, we must seek Him where He may be found, that is, in His Word, for it is in the Word that His love and His wisdom are revealed to the sight of man's understanding. There is no other way in which we may come to know Him. The reason for this, as the Writings teach, is that the Word is the medium of conjunction between God and man. Hence the statement from the work, Conjugial Love, that "the Word is the medium of conjunction; because it is from the Lord and thus is the Lord." (CL 128) It is this which men fail to perceive at this day.

For the most part, men think of the Word as a book which testifies to those things which were seen and heard by the prophets and the evangelists. Some hold that in this they were inspired, whereas others do not. But in either case what they fail to perceive is that the Word contains a meaning that is not apparent in the letter of the text. It is in this sense, the Writings say, that the Divinity of the Word resides.( SS 18) It is, then, as the Word that the Lord is presented to the sight of the understanding. In no other way can we form a true idea of Him. Hence the repeated teaching of the Writings that "the Lord is the Word." (SS 100; DP 172; TCR 263, 272, 777) And because He is the Word, He is also the Divine doctrine, for as the Writings state, "the Word is doctrine." (AC 3364) Thus it was that in later days a great wonder was seen in heaven; namely, a woman clothed with the sun, who gave birth to a Man Child who was to rule all nations. (Revelation 12: 5) He it was of whom the prophets had spoken, and He it was who was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king. Yet there was a difference, the difference being that He who was born in the days of Herod is revealed to us in the Scriptures as Divine Man in His own Divine person; whereas He who was born in heaven is revealed to us in the spiritual sense of the Word as Divine Man in His own Divine Human; that is, as the Divine doctrine.

Because few at this day credit the possibility of an authoritative statement of truth, there are few who are prepared to receive Him. Nevertheless, in this day as then, there are shepherds abiding in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night. (Luke 2: 8) In every affection for good there is interiorly present a disposition to faith, and it is to these affections that the Writings are addressed. That is why it is so important that the letter of the Word be preserved among men. While it is true that men do not understand it, and in their confusion they have lost sight of its purpose, nevertheless it is the source of those primitive truths which open the way to the perception of the Divine doctrine. They are those shepherds who watch over their flocks throughout the long watches of the spiritual night which has descended upon all mankind; and it is they to whom the glad tidings of the nascent doctrine of the Divine Human will yet be revealed. "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2: 11)

In this let us not underestimate the power of those primitive states of innocence which the Lord Himself has provided in order that men may be led to the perception and acknowledgment of His Divine Humanity. While it is true that with the race, as with the individual, it may seem as if there is no hope of a return to faith in Him, it is because we think from appearances rather than from the reality. The reality is that at this day the Lord is born again in the spiritual sense of the Word, and while there are as yet few who perceive His Divinity, this will not always be so. For as the prophet Isaiah said: "There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of His roots. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding. . . . And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set His hand . . . the second time to recover the remnant of His people." (Isaiah 11: 1, 2, 11)

There can be no mistaking the meaning of this prophecy. The reference is to the Word in its second coming. This is the Branch which shall grow out of the stem of Jesse; that is, out of the Word as revealed in its letter. At this day, therefore, "the Lord [has again] set His hand . . . to recover the remnant of His people." (Ibid.) With the birth of the Divine doctrine, the Lord has opened the way whereby men may at last enter with understanding, and therefore with conviction, into the acknowledgment that He who was, and is, born to you in the city of David is He of whom all the prophets from the beginning have spoken. He is that Child of whom Isaiah said: "His name shall be called Wonderful" (Isaiah 9: 6) ; He is that Son who is barn of a virginal affection of truth, which is represented in the Scriptures by Mary; He is the Man Child who was born in the wilderness mentioned in the Apocalypse; and He it is who at this day is revealed in the doctrine of the Divine Human, which is the spiritual sense of the Word. "Let us . . . go [therefore] . . . unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us."

* * * * * * * *

WHY THE LORD CAME ON EARTH

"Lest therefore men who have removed themselves so far from the Divine, and have become so far corporeal, should worship wood and stones; and lest they should worship some man after his death, and thus under him some devil, and not God Himself, because they could not in any way perceive Him, and thus everything o f the church should perish, and with the church the human race, the Divine itself willed to assume the Human and to make it Divine" (Arcana Coelestia 4733: 2).

New Church Life 1966;86:573-578

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Bethlehem Ephratah

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