The First to Hear the News

Panoramic view to Bayt Sahour. Image from here.

Packs on our backs, Issa and I follow a ridge out of Bethlehem. The asphalt drops down sharply. We swing east to face the morning haze. Bethlehem’s sister villages rise to meet us. They huddle on desert’s edge.

Among them is Bayt Sahour.

Map of greater Bethlehem area showing urban build up and connecting routes. Bethlehem is in the yellow circle; Bayt Sahour is in the light blue circle. The dashed line at the top of the map represents the path of the security barrier that isolates the West Bank from Jerusalem. Image from here.

The Arabic label, Bayt Sahour, suggests the “house of the night watch” (parallel to the Hebrew term shahar, describing the “deep dark” or “early dawn”). Early Christian testimony, however, refers to this area below Bethlehem as “the shepherds place” or the place of the “sheepfold.” See, for example, Bagatti’s Ancient Christian Villages of Judea and the Negev (2002: 46).

The shepherds of this tradition, however, are not your usual sort of herders. This village embraces them as an important piece of the Christmas story. Their Christmas story.

Angelic announcement. Image from here.

Consider the familiar words of Luke.

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the LORD appeared to them, and the glory of the LORD shone around them, and they were terrified” (Luke 2:8-9).

Bayt Sahour is the place of angelic announcement. Folks have been writing that since the fourth century AD. They may have been saying it even earlier.

A taxi honks for our attention. We wave. The driver waves back. But Issa and I don’t need a ride. We are determined to walk into the wilderness on foot.

The streets of Bayt Sahour are quiet in the morning hours.

By one measure, Bayt Sahour is the most Christian village in all of Palestine. Something like 75% of its 15,000 residents claim this heritage. Some will point out that their roots go all the way back to that single starry night, some two thousand years ago.

“We were the first to hear the news,” a local once told me. “We have been here ever since.”

Iyyad, a Palestinian Christian and the bearer of these good tidings, is fond of telling folks not just this tidbit, but how a recent DNA test demonstrated that he is 60% Jewish. He gestures to the other side of the Great Barrier Wall. “I’m more Jewish than many people living in Jerusalem!” He grins.

Such claims, of course, go nowhere in this world of iron-fisted security. Whatever his heritage, Iyyad has the “wrong” ID card. For this reason, he cannot escape the walled prison known as the West Bank. He also is a living demonstration of how ethnic labels (that create power or deprive people of it) are so problematic in this land. Who is in? Who is out? Modern politics can be so arbitrary.

Iyyad tells how his father was born in a cave that was part of a traditional Palestinian house. It is a reminder of just how slowly lifeways change. According to tradition, Jesus was also born in a cave in Bethlehem, less than two miles upslope.

Issa and I arrive at the Boaz Field store in central Bayt Sahour. Iyyad often works here, but is not around at the moment. I make arrangements for a car to pick us up at the monastery later in the day. We drink some cold juice and enjoy the company of other friends.

Friends are a good thing. So are cars. The day is too hot to walk the round trip.

With an agreement in place, Issa and I resume our hike.

We head out the door of the air-conditioned store, directly opposite the gate to Khirbet Syar el-Ghanam. It is the first of three sites connected to the memory of the Christmas shepherds.