Born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2)
Matthew 2:4-6 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Messiah should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
John 7:42 Hath not the scripture said, That Messiah cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?
Micah 5:2 But 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; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.
The New Testament claims that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in fulfillment of Micah 5:2. In order to judge the accuracy of this claim, we need to establish two facts. First, is this in fact what Micah prophesied, and secondly, was Jesus actually born in Bethlehem?
In order to answer the first question, we need to take a closer look at the context of Micah 5:2. The book of Micah claims that it was written in the days of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah (1:1), that is, about 742 to 687 BCE. This seems to fit the general tone of chapters 1-3, which speak of a coming destruction of Samaria and Jerusalem in somewhat vague terms. The style and theme of chapters 4-5, however, is markedly different, and has led many scholars to conclude that these chapters were written by a much later author. In chapters 4-5, the place of Exile is said to be Babylon (4:10). Like second Isaiah, Micah 4-5 is structured around the theme of restoration. These chapters are in fact a commentary and expansion on Isaiah 2:2-5, which is quoted almost verbatim at the start of chapter 4.
Like Isaiah, Micah looks forward to a time when the kingdom will be restored and unified. Of necessity, this will require the restoration of the Davidic line of kings (4:9). With this in mind, we can turn once again to the start of Micah 5, and see if we can figure out what Micah is trying to say.
Who is the subject of these verses? The Messianic interpretation is partly correct: Micah sees a king once more on the throne of Israel, a king, moreover, descended from the line of David. And it is this that gives us a clue to the interpretation of 5:2. The phrase "Bethlehem Ephratah" is a reference not only to the town of Bethlehem, but also to the clan of Ephratah which originated in that town. It is thus quite likely that Micah 5:2 refers backwards, to the origins of the Davidic line, which the prophet then sees stretching forward into eternity. The Bible makes it quite clear that it was David himself who was born in Bethlehem, of the clan of Ephratah.
I Samuel 17:12 Now David was the son of that Ephrathite of Bethlehemjudah, whose name was Jesse...
A second, but related possibility is that Micah was referring not to the town of Bethlehem, but rather to the man Bethlehem, the grandson of Caleb by his wife Ephratah.
I Chronicles 2:50-51 These were the sons of Caleb the son of Hur, the firstborn of Ephratah...Salma the father of Bethlehem...
In this context, the phrase "Bethlehem Ephratah" refers to the clan from which David sprang, not specifically a geographic location. This interpretation receives support from the Septuagint, which reads "...Bethlehem, house of Ephratah...". In addition, the word translated "thousands" in the KJV rendering of Micah 5:2 is elsewhere used in the sense of "clans" (Joshua 22:30). Most modern versions translate this phrase in Micah as "...though you are little among the clans of Judah...".
Note that Matthew dropped the word "Ephratah" from his quote of Micah. It seems that not even Matthew (or the Holy spirit according to Christians) was above misquoting the Old Testament in order to support his views.
That Micah had David in mind seems to be supported by his turn of phrase in 5:4, where the ideal King is said to "...shepherd his flock in the strength of Yahweh...". This recalls the words that Samuel spoke to David, when he was anointed King over the united Kingdom in Hebron.
If we assume that Micah was in fact referring to David as the originator of the Royal line, how are we to understand the phrase "...whose origins are from of old, from ancient times..."? This is most likely a reference to the fact that the Davidic house was established centuries in the past, from the perspective of the author. (The KJV has "from everlasting" in this verse, but the Hebrew word olam can also mean "ancient times", as in Deuteronomy 32:7, where it is translated "days of old".)
Micah may also be referring to the fact that the Jews understood the Davidic line to be the fulfillment of several promises made by God to the Patriarchs.
Genesis 49:10 The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.
Numbers 24:17 "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.
So, it seems that Micah 5:2 is in fact a prediction of the restoration of the Royal Davidic line, the line which originated in Bethlehem, of the clan of Ephratah. If, as many claim, this is in fact a prophecy of Jesus, it has to be asked at what time Jesus was a "ruler in Israel"? Obviously, he never was a ruler in his lifetime. Christians tend to claim that this part of the verse has yet to be fulfilled, and will come to pass in the future kingdom of God, when Christ rules over all the world. The logical flaw present in this reasoning is that claiming a future fulfillment automatically invalidates the prophecy, since, obviously, it has not yet come to pass, and there is no assurance that it will. Micah 5:2 therefore remains an unfulfilled prediction, from the Christian point of view.
The same problem presents itself in 5:3, where the prophet speaks of the re-unification of Israel. The phrase "rest of his brothers" is probably a reference to the Northern tribes, who were lost in the Assyrian conquest during the eighth century BCE. Obviously, Jesus never reunited Judah with the Northern tribes, and it now seems that he never will. These tribes are long extinct, having been assimilated into the Assyrian race thousands of years ago.
The second point that needs to be established is whether Jesus was in fact born in Bethlehem. This may seem a very strange question to a Christian, to whom the answer is self-evident, but it is in fact a valid concern. Of all the books of the New Testament, only two, the gospels of Matthew and Luke, record the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Paul never once refers to this fact, even though it would have strengthened his claim that Jesus was a descendant of David (Romans 1:3). The gospels of Mark and John also never record that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. 'John' even asserts that those who knew Jesus and his family knew for certain that he was born in Galilee:
John 7:41-43 Others said, "He is the Messiah." Still others asked, "How can the Messiah come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David's family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?" Thus the people were divided because of Jesus.
John 7:27-28 But we know where this man is from; when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from." Then Jesus, still teaching in the temple courts, cried out, "Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from..."
The people did not believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and knew that he is from Galilee. They were even divided because of this. The priests were certain that he came form Galilee:
Jn 7:52 They replied, "Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee."
The priests knew for certain that Jesus came from Galilee, hence not from Bethlehem.
Christians will often counter that these people were simply mistaken in their belief that Jesus was born in Galilee. However, it seems strange that not even the author of John ever corrected their perception for the benefit of his readers. Further, Jesus himself confirmed in 7:28 that their knowledge of his origin was correct "Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from...".
What about the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke? A cursory examination of these two stories will quickly reveal that they are completely different. Matthew begins with Joseph and Mary living in a house in Bethlehem, were Jesus was born (2:1 and 2:11). Following the threats of Herod, Joseph fled to Egypt with his family (2:13-14), and remained there until Herod died (2:15). Upon learning that Herod's son reigned in his place, Joseph decided not to return to Bethlehem (2:22), but instead took his family to Nazareth (2:23).
Luke, on the other hand, begins his story with Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth. In order to comply with a Roman census, Joseph takes the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem (2:4-5), where Jesus was born in a barn, as there was no room at the local inn (2:6-7). Following the birth, Joseph took his family to the Temple in Jerusalem (2:22) and then returned to his home in Nazareth (2:39).
It should be obvious that the only point that these two stories have in common is that they both claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Aside from that, all the characters and events in these two stories are completely different. They are even set ten years apart in chronology. Matthew states that Jesus was born when Herod was still alive, no later than 3 or 4 BC. Luke states that Jesus was born when Cyrenius was governor of Syria, which did not take place until at least ten years after Herod's death (see proof: Date of birth of Jesus). This raises the suspicion that these birth narratives were in fact concocted simply to bolster the claim that Jesus was the promised Messiah, in accordance with the Christian understanding of Micah 5:2.
To summarize therefore, this prophecy fails on two counts: we cannot be sure that Micah intended his prediction to mean that a future king would be born in Bethlehem, and we also cannot be certain that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We have further seen that parts of Micah 5:2 remain unfulfilled, according to the Christian interpretation.