“…in you [Abraham] all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3—read Genesis 12:1-9).
Several times in the book of Genesis God speaks a blessing upon Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The details change from occasion to occasion, but three parts of the blessing remain constant: God will make their family into a great nation, that nation will live on the land God showed to Abraham, and from that family on that land will arise a blessing for all people.
Already by the time of the exodus the Israelites have become numerous. However, the generation that followed Moses out of Egypt to Mount Sinai doubted God’s promise to give them the land. As a consequence, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and their children crossed the Jordan River to take the land under Joshua. When the land had been captured (for the most part), it was divided among the tribes and clans and families of Israel. Part of the Law of Moses stipulated that a family could not lose its inheritance. Even if they needed to raise money by selling land, that land would be returned to them at the next Jubilee year. (Those happened every fifty years.) The connection of the people to the land is a running theme in Moses and the prophets. The chief punishment that falls upon the Israelites is invasion from foreigners, the Assyrians and Babylonians who remove God’s people from the land and replace them with other people.
Under the Persians, the faithful remnant was allowed to return to the land and rebuild what had been destroyed. They no longer had political control over the land; they were part of Empires—first the Persian Empire, then Alexander the Great, then the Ptolemies and Seleucids, and finally the Romans. For a few years the Jews received a form of independence from the Seleucids in a series of events still celebrated as Hanukah. But when Herod the Great came to power, he ruled over the Jews because the power of Rome backed his government.
At that time, God chose to keep the final part of his blessing to Abraham. Therefore, Joseph left Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem to be counted there by the Romans, because he was a descendant of King David. Joseph brought with him his espoused wife, who was expecting a child. That child was born in Bethlehem and was given the name Jesus, from the Hebrew Y’shua, meaning, “the Lord saves.” His mission was to rescue God’s people, not from the Romans or other worldly empires, but from sin and evil and death.
The guest room (or “inn”) on the estate of David’s descendants was already filled when Mary and Joseph arrived, so they were given shelter (or found it on their own) where animals—probably sheep—were sometimes kept. For that reason, when Jesus was born, his mother swaddled him and placed him in a manger, a feeding trough for sheep and other animals. More than thirty years later, another guest room (or “inn”) would accommodate Jesus and his apostles. On that occasion, Jesus took the bread of the Passover meal and said, “Take, eat; this is my body, given for you.” The infant who once rested in a feeding trough—in a town whose name, Bethlehem, translates as “house of bread”—was still feeding his sheep as he made his way toward the cross to redeem the world from sin and evil.
That redemption was not only for the Jewish people; it was for all nations. In this redemption, God’s promise to Abraham was completed. From the nation that began as Abraham’s family, on the land that God promised to Abraham, all the families of the earth were blessed with the forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life, and victory over all God’s enemies. Thanks be to God! J.