How Many Miles to Bethlehem?

Posted on: December 21st, 2011 by Kay Swatkowski

Mary filled her suitcase with all of the essentials.  A change of clothes, her comfortable shoes, pajamas, slippers and toiletries.  Where was her favorite sweater?  Maybe she should pack it for the cold wilderness nights.  A couple good books, a copy of What to Expect When You are Expecting and some trail mix in case Joseph got hungry. Tucking a few onesies and a blue sleeper into her bag, she was finally ready.  She slipped her boarding pass into her purse and they were off to Bethlehem!

This would have been a much easier scenario for Mary than the one that she faced.  Getting ready for the trip didn’t take long.  There was no packing to do.  Mary had one dress and she was wearing it.  The day before their journey, she baked some bread and wrapped some dried fruits in a cloth. She tenderly, and perhaps tearfully, gathered together a few meager supplies to care for the baby after his birth.  Before leaving, she took one last walk to the well for the water they would need at the beginning of their journey.

Did she ride a donkey? We can’t be sure. Even if they did not have their own donkey, a fellow traveler may have taken pity on the pregnant girl and allowed her to ride his short, bony donkey.  Mary would have bounced and weaved as the donkey made its way over the rocky terrain.

There were only a couple of possible routes for Mary and Joseph to take from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  Biblical scholars have mapped out the probable route they took on the almost 80 mile trip to Bethlehem.  Rocky, steep terrain made the trip slow and difficult.  Other travelers, camels and slow donkeys would have often crowded the narrow path as travelers made their way to their own hometown to register.

Sometimes they went through vast areas of wilderness.  There was little place to seek refuge from the sun or swirling sand and dirt.  Mary would have used her long veil to keep the stinging sand from her eyes and keep the dirt from coating her lips.  They had no tents or other means of shelter.  They spent the nights on the ground.  How DOES a pregnant girl get comfortable on the ground? Perhaps Joseph covered Mary with his own woolen coat or a goat’s hair blanket he had brought.

Meals were simple and eaten in a hurry.  They conserved water and the next well was always welcome.

Mary and Joseph’s 80 mile journey to Bethlehem led them past religious landmarks.  Everywhere they looked they were reminded of the story of the Jewish people and of God’s great promise.

If they took this route, someone may have pointed out Megiddo to the young girl.  Megiddo had been Solomon’s chariot city.  Rich Solomon.  Wise Solomon. Powerful Solomon.  His wealth was so vast that he constructed an entire city to house his chariots and prize horses.  The greatness of Solomon was legendary and a source of pride to the Jewish people.  But, sadly, his wealth was gone.  His chariot city had crumbled. His kingdom had disappeared.  His reign had ended.

I wonder if Mary ever thought of the words of the angel as he announced the birth of her son?  “He will sit on the throne of his father David and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  Solomon’s kingdom was gone. But, Jesus’ kingdom will last forever.

The route didn’t take them far from Dothan.  Surely one of their group remembered the story of Joseph and the coat of many colors.  There, among that grove of trees, can you see the pit where Joseph was thrown by his jealous brothers? Then,  those rascals  sold their brother into slavery to a caravan!  He was torn  from his family, stripped of not only his coat but of all his rights and was on his way to only the Lord knew what in Egupt. But, our beloved, heartbroken and mistreated Joseph was faithful to his God.  This  was the first step that led the children of Israel to spend 400 years under oppression and then to be freed by Moses at God’s command. Praise be to God that he kept his promise.

As they traveled on , they may have passed the very spots where Abraham and Jacob had built altars to God.  They did go through Bethel – the House of God – named that by Jacob after a dream.

Perhaps they stopped by the well of Sychar to rest and drink fresh cool water.  Mary had no way of knowing that 30 years later, her son Jesus would rest by that same well and have a conversation with a Samaritan woman and offer her living water.

The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem probably took them through Jerusalem.  They would enter through one of the many gates and probably head toward the noisy, chaotic marketplace.  They may have stopped at the Temple or felt a need to get through the ancient city as quickly as possible.  Twelve years later, Mary, Joseph and the boy Jesus would visit the Temple.  Jesus would be so engaged in conversation with the Temple leaders that he would get left behind.

Leaving Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph probably felt great relief.  Bethlehem was only about five miles away.  Finally, their journey would end.

Bethlehem, normally a sleepy, quiet town, was bursting at the seams.  The decree that everyone should register in their own hometown had filled the city of David with visitors.  It had been ten decades since David had been king.  Over the years, his proud descendants had increased and now swarmed through Bethlehem.  No wonder there was no place for weary Mary and Joseph.

For some, this trip was just a duty to be fulfilled.  For others, it may have been a celebration  –  a big family reunion.

Everyone thought they were there because of the census. Actually they were in Bethlehem for the birth of a King. Unknowingly, they were part of the greatest event in history.

Walking the narrow, crowded, unpaved streets of Bethlehem, they tried unsuccessfully to find a room but finally were given a place of rest and refuge in a shelter for animals.  After their long trip, even a stable must have been a welcome sight and they probably got off their feet as quickly as possible and refreshed themselves with water and bread or fruit they had bought in Jerusalem.

I wonder how far this stable might have been from where the shepherd boy, David, had cared for his sheep or written the Shepherd’s Psalm?

This had been quite a journey.  It began with Mary’s acceptance of the call of God.  It began with Joseph’s obedience to the angel’s command.  It began with a decree that sent them exactly where they needed to go  – Bethlehem.

There are no coincidences in this story.  God brought them safely to where they needed to be for the birth of the baby.  But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you were small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old. Micah 5:2 NIV

Luke 2 finishes the story of the journey for us. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloth, lying him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.  Luke 2:6,7 NIV

This very young couple, Mary and Joseph, were faithful to God’s call on their lives and followed his leading all the way to Bethlehem. The journey led them to a stable.  It led them to a manger.  It led them to place a babe carefully wrapped in cloths (My Savior) into a manger.

I am grateful for the humility, obedience and patience of Mary and Joseph. But, their journey was not yet complete.  Following God would mean hearing the words of Simeon that would strike at Mary’s heart.  Follow God’s leading would mean that Joseph would hurry the young family into Egypt to escape Herod’s hatred.  Eventually, Mary’s journey would take her back to Jerusalem, as she traveled with Jesus disciples for the Passover.  Her journey would end at the foot of the cross.

Mary  had a unique journey unlike any other.  She is an example of obedience and faithfulness.

We are all on a spiritual journey as well.  God is taking us somewhere, leading us on so that we too can worship this baby Jesus with wholehearted devotion.  My prayer this Christmas Season is that I will listen to his voice and follow the Lord’s leading all the way to the manger, all the way to worship the Savior.

Marjorie Holmes has said At Christmas all roads lead home. That is true.  At Christmas,spiritually, all roads lead to Bethlehem. All roads lead to the stable.  All roads lead to the manger.  All roads lead to the Son of God – our Savior- sleeping in a manger.  And when we find the Savior, we have found our heart’s true home.

May all the roads in your journey lead you home this Christmas.

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