For centuries, Israel awaited the fulfillment of the great Messianic promises that a Messiah would be established upon the throne of David forever.
At last, in an obscure Galilean town named Nazareth, the angel Gabriel came to a betrothed girl named Mary to announce the fulfillment of the promises—to herald the greatest birth in the history of the world. Yet, it was prophesied that the promised Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judaea (see Micah 5:2; John 7:42). Since Mary was living in Nazareth, how could the prophecy of the birth be fulfilled in Bethlehem—nearly one hundred miles away? Surely it was not by chance that Roman administrators decided to conduct an enrollment for the purpose of taxation, which sent thousands throughout the country back to their ancestral hometowns.
Joseph and Mary had to set out on an arduous journey southward to Bethlehem. We have only a single passage of scripture describing their travels:
“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 lineage of David:)
“To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child” (Luke 2:4–5).
They would probably have made the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem by one of two routes. One would have taken them south across the Jezreel Valley, then through the hills of Samaria into Judaea. This is the more direct route in straight-line distance—but there are two reasons it probably was not the way Joseph and Mary went: It is physically demanding, with constant ups and downs through the hills—and it took the traveler directly through Samaritan country, and “the Jews [had] no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9).
The other possible route is the one Joseph and Mary more likely traveled. It would have taken them southeast across the Jezreel Valley, connecting with the Jordan Valley, then level or slightly down in elevation all the way to Jericho, then up through the Judaean Desert to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
To discover for myself what each of the routes would have been like, I have walked both of them. Both routes are about ninety-two miles long. Normal walking pace, even with a camel or donkey, is three miles per hour. So a traveler can usually walk between seventeen and twenty-four miles each day. Each route took me about thirty hours to walk—seventeen to twenty miles a day for five days.
At that rate, the journey would have taken Joseph and Mary at least four to five days. We wonder where they stayed each night, where and with whom they camped along the way. It would have been a wearying journey for anyone, but especially for a pregnant woman soon to give birth. It was early spring, which can still be very chilly at night in the hill country. However, in the Jordan Valley—which is below sea level—the temperatures would have been mild and pleasant.
The last leg of the eastern route would have been the hardest of all. Jericho is the lowest city on the globe, and Jerusalem and Bethlehem are situated right in the top of the hills. From Jericho’s desert to Bethlehem is an uphill hike of 3,500 feet. How exhausted Mary must have been! How anxious Joseph must have been to find a comfortable room at the inn! Desperate to find adequate shelter, they may have resorted at last to a limestone cave used for a stable.
On that sacred night, an angel announced to shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem that the long-promised birth had actually occurred: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Announcement of a Savior might have come as no surprise to the shepherds, or other Judaeans, because many were awaiting a Savior to deliver them from Roman oppression. Nor would the announcement of a Christ have greatly surprised them. The word Christ is the exact Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Messiah—meaning “the Anointed One.” Jews had long awaited their Messiah.
But the word Lord may have caused those shepherds solemn reflection. Lord was a title for Jehovah, the Creator, the One who gave the law to Moses on Sinai, the God who was worshipped in the temple just five miles away.
Little did they comprehend that it was the great Jehovah who was born as a babe in nearby Bethlehem.