Where Was Jesus Born?
Note: The following Post is taken from an upcoming book by Joseph Lenard entitled Mysteries of Jesus’ Life Revealed—His Birth, Death, Resurrection, and Ascensions. For an overview and complete chapter listing of this fascinating study, click here.
Jesus’ Birth – The Case for Migdal Edar
John the Baptist exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, KJV). I believe he was making a statement which, among other things, pointed to a particular place in Bethlehem as the birthplace of Christ. How so?
As we have seen many times, bits and pieces from Scripture, taken together, often provide a road map. In this case, I believe the road map supports my position that Jesus was actually born at a place called Migdal Edar (Heb. “Tower of the Flock”) in Bethlehem. In addition to the statement by John the Baptist referring to Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” these bits and pieces of Scripture come from diverse sources, from both the Old and New Testaments in the Bible. I believe all of the following will ultimately be shown to point to Migdal Edar as the birthplace of Jesus:
The shepherds who – while “watching their flocks by night” – became aware of exactly where to find the newborn Messiah “in Bethlehem”
The special lambs born and raised in the fields of Bethlehem, to be used specifically as Temple sacrifices
The account of the death of Jacob’s wife Rachel, on the outskirts of Bethlehem
Why is it that most of us have never heard of Migdal Edar, let alone in reference to the birth of Jesus? Once again, we have Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena, to thank for the erroneous selection of the site of Jesus’ birth. The church was led astray in the 4th Century AD and has since steadfastly supported the traditional site of the cave under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus.
Let’s see where key statements in the Old and New Testaments lead us in our search to confirm the actual birthplace of Jesus. I give credit to Cooper P. Abrams, III and his article Where Was the Birth Place of the Lord Jesus? for bringing together many of the details in support of the case for Migdal Edar.
Old Testament Account – Micah’s Prophecy
When the Magi from Persia came to Jerusalem in search of the Jewish Messiah, they called upon King Herod as a courtesy and inquired of him where the Messiah was to be born. The Jewish religious authorities gave their answer from an Old Testament passage from Micah:
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he [Messiah; Jesus] come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2, KJV).
In the Bible we find several other names for Bethlehem, including Ephratah (Micah 5:2) and Ephrath (Genesis 35:16, 19; 45:7; 48:7). It should be noted that Ephrath (or Ephratah) was the ancient name for the area which later was called Bethlehem. Ephrath means “ash heap” and “place of fruitfulness,” and seems to refer to Isaiah 61:3, which mentions “beauty from ashes . . .” It is also widely known that the word “Bethlehem” means “house of bread.” This too may be a reference to Jesus, as He stated during the Seder (Last Supper) with His Disciples that He is the bread which is broken for each of us (Luke 22:19); and He had previously said that He is the true bread which came down from heaven (John 6:32–33) and that He is the bread of life (John 6:35).
We know from Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. But where in Bethlehem?
One would think that the New Testament would tell us precisely where the Messiah would be born “in Bethlehem.” It does not. Surprisingly, the Old Testament gives us the answer. An earlier verse in the book of Micah tells us exactly where to expect His birth:
And thou, O tower of the flock, the strong hold of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion; the kingdom [the Messiah shall bring the Kingdom] shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem [Mary the mother of Jesus].” (Micah 4:8, KJV)
This “tower of the flock” mentioned in Micah 4:8 is in Hebrew “Migdal Edar” and literally means “watch tower of the flock.” Consequently, the Old Testament tells us that the Messiah, Jesus, would be born at Migdal Edar, in Bethlehem.
What about the “watch tower of the flock?” Undoubtedly, this was a military tower used to watch over the valley at the edge of Bethlehem and to provide protection to the city. These types of towers were common and are mentioned in various Old Testament books (Judges 8:71; 9:46, 51; 2 Kings 9:17, 18:8; Nehemiah 3:1). Cooper P. Abrams III states in his article regarding Migdal Edar in Jerusalem:
“This watch tower from ancient times was used by the shepherds for protection from their enemies and wild beasts. It was also the place ewes were safely brought to give birth to the lambs. In this sheltered building/cave the priests would bring in the ewes which were about to lamb for protection. These special lambs came from a unique flock that was designated for sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem.”
Abrams then states the following:
Typically, “Migdal Edar”, (the tower of the flock) at Bethlehem is the perfect place for Christ to be born. He was born in the very birthplace of tens of thousands of lambs, which had been sacrificed to prefigure Him. God promised it, pictured it, and performed it at “Migdal Edar”. It all fits together, for that’s the place where sacrificial lambs were born! Jesus was not born behind an inn, in a smelly stable where the donkeys and other animals of travelers were kept. He was born in Bethlehem, at the birthing place of the sacrificial lambs that were offered in the Temple in Jerusalem which Micah 4:8 calls the “tower of the flock.”
The Sheep and Shepherds of the Fields at Migdal Edar
In his classic book, The Life and Times of Jesus The Messiah (1883; Latest Edition, 1993), Alfred Edersheim (1825 – 1889), a Messianic Jew, had great insights regarding the birth of Jesus from a Hebrew-Christian perspective. In his work, Edersheim referenced the Jewish Mishnah (The Mishnah was the first recording of the oral law and Rabbinic Judaism. The word in Hebrew means “repetition,” which means that it was memorized material. It is the major source of the rabbinic teachings of Judaism. After the Scriptures, the Mishnah is regarded as the basic textbook of Jewish life and thought and is traditionally considered to be an integral part of the Torah, as revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai.)
Edersheim also referenced the Targum (The Targum is an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible (Tanak), which was written during Israel’s seventy-year captivity in Babylon. Aramaic is one of the Semitic languages, an important group of languages known almost from the beginning of human history and including Arabic, Hebrew, Ethiopic, and Akkadian [ancient Babylonian and Assyrian]).
Edersheim’s book was the result of a seven year effort. In it he states:
“That the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem was a settled conviction. Equally so was the belief, that He was to be revealed from Migdal Eder, ‘the tower of the flock’. This Migdal Edar was not the watchtower for the ordinary flocks which pastured on the barren sheep ground beyond Bethlehem, but lay close to the town, on the road to Jerusalem. A passage in the Mishnah (Shekelim 7.4) leads to the conclusion that the flocks, which pastured there, were destined for Temple-sacrifices , and, accordingly, that the shepherds, who watched over them, were not ordinary shepherds.”
In summary, we can state with some certainty that the flocks which were pastured around Migdal Edar were sheep destined for Temple sacrifices, and the shepherds who tended them were special shepherds, trained to take care of these sheep from birth until the time they were delivered to the Temple. I believe that Jesus was born in this same “Tower of the Flock,” and these shepherds went to see Jesus and His mother and father in that structure.
New Testament Account of the Birthplace of Jesus
Luke has the most complete account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as recorded in Chapter 2:
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and linage of David) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 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 Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, 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.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. (Luke 2:4–20 KJV)
We see from the New Testament Scripture that Jesus was, indeed, born in Bethlehem. But the New Testament does not state the exact place in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Nativity scenes displayed at Christmas depict the birth of Jesus in a stable surrounded by donkeys, sheep, and cows. This is due to the tradition that there was no room for Joseph and Mary in the inn, so Jesus was born in the stable behind the inn, where the animals were kept.
However, all that is stated in Scripture is that Mary gave birth to Jesus, that she laid Him in a manger, and that she wrapped Him in swaddling clothes. We know that these things occurred somewhere in the city of Bethlehem. But from Micah 4:8 we now know that He was actually born at “the Tower of the Flock” (Migdal Edar).
The Terms “Manger” and “Swaddling Clothes”
The account of the birth of Jesus in Luke includes the terms “manger” and “swaddling clothes.” What specifically are these referring to? And why are these items a “sign”, given to the shepherds by the angel as they tended their flocks in the field?
The Greek word which is translated “manger” in our English Bibles is Yatnh phat-ne. It is defined as a “stall” where animals are kept, and in Luke 13:15 it is translated that way. In Proverbs 14:4, in the Septuagint [Greek translation of the Old Testament], the word means a “stall” or a “crib.” What, then, was the “stall” or “manger” referred to in the New Testament; and what kind of animals were fed or housed there?
Is there a “logical” place where God would choose to have His Son born, one which would be described by the angel to the shepherds in the country as being “. . . a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger?” To be a “sign,” it would have to be distinctive, understandable, and unique.
From the description of the “swaddling clothes” and the “manger,” the shepherds knew right where to go to find the babe. Where was that? My position is that they went to where the newborn lambs were typically wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger – in the “Tower of the Flock” (Migdal Edar), not far from where they were tending the sheep which birthed the lambs used for sacrifice in the Temple.
The “Lamb of God,” as John the Baptist called Jesus, was born in the unique place where the other lambs used for sacrifice were born. Indeed, that was a unique “sign” to these shepherds – that this baby was, indeed, the “Savior, Christ the Lord,” the promised Messiah, as told to them by the angel which appeared to them, and as foretold by the Prophets of Israel.
Note what is said of the shepherds: “And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” They did not have to go around Bethlehem searching each and every stable for this newly born baby. The impression given is that they were able to go “with haste” because they knew from the description of the “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and “lying in a manger” exactly where to go – to the “Tower of the Flock,” Migdal Edar. It was not just any stable in Bethlehem. There was no need for the angel to give the shepherds directions to the place of Jesus’ birth – they already knew exactly where to find him!
Key Statement by John the Baptist
The father of John the Baptist was Zacharias, a priest who served in the Temple in Jerusalem. John the Baptist was the only son of Zacharias, and he was also of the priestly line. In a sense, John the Baptist was the first of several things: First Christian, first Christian witness, first Christian preacher, first Christian prophet, and first Christian martyr. He was also the first to baptize converts, and he might have even started the first “church” as the disciples of Jesus were initially following John before they were instructed to follow Jesus (John 1:35–37; Acts 1:15–26).
Before we look at the famous statement by John the Baptist upon seeing Jesus, it is helpful to first review the problem of sin, which relates to the statement of John and gives us a better understanding of the context.
The Bible teaches us that mankind has a sin problem. Sin is violation of God’s Word, a rebellion against God. This is a big problem with God and, consequently, with man. God is holy and He cannot have sin in His presence. Sin came into the world through Adam in the Garden of Eden, as presented in the early chapters of Genesis. Fortunately, God had His plan of redemption through Jesus, which He had established from the very foundations of the world (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Peter 1:18–20; Revelation 13:8; John 1:29).
The need for a substitutionary sacrifice and shedding of innocent blood to atone for sin is well established in Scripture, beginning in Genesis 3:21, where God made use of animal skins to cover the nakedness and shame of Adam and Eve following their disobedience. A blood sacrifice is required by God, as presented in Leviticus:
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul” (Leviticus 17:11).
God’s ultimate plan of redemption is further seen in the account of Abraham’s willingness to offer his son, Isaac, on an altar at God’s command (Genesis 22). Abraham’s hand was stayed, and God provided a substitute sacrifice, just as He would provide in His Son, Jesus.
Lastly, God’s ultimate plan of redemption is reflected in the Feasts of the Lord, which God established as yearly rehearsals by the people of Israel, beginning with the Feast of Passover and the shedding of the blood of an innocent lamb (Leviticus 23). My first book, The Last Shofar! – What the Fall Feasts of the Lord are Telling the Church (which I co-authored with Donald Zoller and which is also presented on this website) provides an excellent description of God’s plan of redemption in Jesus, as foreshadowed in the Feasts of the Lord.
This background of the problem of sin and God’s remedy through the sacrifice of His one and only son, Jesus, offers us a better understanding of John the Baptist’s statement upon seeing Jesus approaching, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus is the perfect lamb sacrifice, which God provided to pay for the sin debt of mankind. He is, indeed, “the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.”
The lambs sacrificed daily in the Temple ceremonies – as well as the lamb sacrificed annually for the nation’s sins at Passover in the Temple – were but a foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, the perfect sacrifice of God. This sacrifice was meant to be sufficient to atone for the sin-debt of all mankind. John the Baptist likened Jesus to those lambs carefully chosen for sacrifice in the Temple.
Rachel and Migdal Edar
What does Rachel, the wife of Jacob, have to do with the birthplace of Jesus? It involves a veiled prophecy in Genesis, and it has to do with the first mention in Scripture of the term Migdal Edar, at the time of Rachel’s death. Let’s look at two passages in Genesis (Genesis 35:5–21 and Genesis 45:7):
“And they journeyed: and the terror of the God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob. So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bethel [Heb. literally “House of God”], he and all the people that were with him. And he built there an altar, and called the place El-beth-el: because there God appeared unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother [Esau].
“But Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and she was buried beneath Bethel under an oak: and the name of it was called Allon-bachuth. And God appeared unto Jacob again, when he came out of Padan-aram, and blessed him. And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel. And God said unto him, I am God Almighty, be fruitful and multiply: a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins; And the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee will I give the land. And God went up from him in the place where he talked with him. And Jacob set up a pillar of stone: and he poured a drink offering thereon, and he poured oil thereon.
“And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was a little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour. And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also. And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Ben-oni: but his father called him Benjamin. And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day. 21 And Israel journeyed, and spread his tent beyond the tower of Edar” [Heb. Migdal Edal: “Tower of the Flock”]. (Genesis 35:5–21)
And the second passage:
“And as for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died by me in the land of Canaan in the way, when yet there was but a little way to come unto Ephrath: and I buried her there in the way of Ephrath; the same is Bethlehem.” (Genesis 45: 7, KJV)
Reflecting on these passages in Genesis regarding to the death of Rachel, it is easy to imagine Jacob’s anguish. After Jacob buried Rachel, he traveled on “. . . and spread his tent beyond the tower of Edar”. Jacob loved Rachel more than all his other wives, from the time he first laid eyes on her (Genesis 29:17–18, 30). When she died, he was heart-broken.
But why would Moses record that Jacob pitched his tent at Migdal Edar at Bethlehem? What is significant about that place? We know that every word of Scripture has meaning (Deuteronomy 32:47), so there must be a reason. Although it is not known for certain, I can offer some thoughts which I believe have merit.
We know now that the Tower of the Flock would be the birthplace of the Messiah, who would take away all death, heartache, and tears. Rachel and Jacob would one day weep no more, as both would share eternal life in the presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I believe that God intended that from the place of Jacob’s greatest sorrow, where his beloved Rachel died, would later come the Messiah, who would bring eternal life and joy for all those who trust in Him.
Did Jacob fully understand all of these things? Probably not. But he did understand that God was all-powerful and that He was good, holy, and righteous. I believe that Jacob trusted in God for redemption and that he knew God would eventually make all things right, including the removal of death and heartache.
I concede that the evidence related to Rachel is not definitive in supporting the case for Migdal Edar. However, the other evidence provided here is strong; and I believe the case for confirming Migdal Edar as the birthplace of Jesus is compelling.
Note: In my next Post I will discuss the significance of Migdal Edar.