Unreached Network

Book Review: The Bethlehem Story by Andy McCullough. Reviewed by Keith Fraser-Smith

The Bethlehem Story – Mission and Justice in the Margins of the World

By Andy McCullough[1] 2021, Resource Publications. 180 pages, ISBN: 978-1-7252-6927-9 Pb.

It only seems like yesterday that I read and reviewed “Global Humility” in 2017, Andy’s first publication. In “The Bethlehem Story” he ventures into new territory as he leads his reader “up the hill” to Bethlehem.

In the introduction, Andy clearly states his four-fold methodological approach; “The Bible is one big story”, “The Bible is a Middle Eastern story”, “The Bible is a global story”, and “The Bible is a mission story”. In 21 short, immensely readable, and gripping chapters he surveys Biblical references to Bethlehem and the key Scriptural personalities and events associated with the “little town”, the “hinge of history”. They have the feel of sermons and his exegesis and exposition of the texts model good pulpit practice.

He begins with Genesis 36:16-20, the first reference to Bethlehem in the Bible. Rachel’s tomb is located on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, around which the security wall now makes a detour, cutting off this pilgrim site from the West Bank. “Lament” is a strong theme in the book and Rachel epitomises it. We are also introduced to the etymology of Bethlehem – the House of Meat (Arabic) and the House of Bread (Hebrew) which are frequently referenced motifs.

Chapter 2, “The Seed”, can be summoned up in Andy’s own words, “The Bethlehem story traces this Seed-promise through sacred history until its fulfilment in Jesus Christ, who was born of a woman in order to crush the snake.” A study on Judah follows. The point made is that Bethlehem will be the jousting ground between Judah and Benjamin, with their respective “logo” qualities of Lion/Lamb and Wolf. Chapter 3, “Balaam – The Star and the Sceptre”, connects Balaam’s prophesies over the Israelites (Numbers 22 – 24) with the magi of Matthew and the camels, gold, and frankincense of Isaiah 60:6, so introducing the mission theme.[2]

Chapters 5 to 8 cover the period of the Judges; “Rahab”, “Ibzan”[3], “The Concubine”, and “Ruth”. All four chapters focus on the concept of hospitality, shame, honour, and mission, particularly at the “edges”. The “liminality” of Bethlehem, located at the “thin place”, the margin between sedentary society and nomadic tribes is a recurring refrain and metaphor. Salvation history is played out at the margins of society by the oppressed and the socially, economically, and politically borderline personalities.

Chapter 9, “Saul – Wolf with a spear”, transitions us into the period of the kings and chapters 10 – 13 are entitled “David” with different sub-titles, like, “Rise of the Shepherd” and “Burying the Benjamin Problem”. Andy writes about the tension between Saul and David as one being humanly qualified and the other divinely ordained, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, honour and shame, power and humility, rulers and shepherds. Shame-removal, covering, and atonement become more prominent in the text. Typologies, metaphors, analogies, and illustrations abound, with memorable sentences worthy of any preacher. “As soon as David peaks, he unravels.”[4]

Chapter 14 has a contemporary title, “Rehoboam – You Can’t Weaponise Bethlehem”, making the point that “meekness has no defensive strategy.”[5]

As the Northern and Southern kingdoms implode Andy considers the Messianic passages embedded in the prophets, Micah (Chapter 15) – God making the bigger (Jerusalem) a bit smaller and the little (Bethlehem) a bit greater[6]. Isaiah (Chapter 16) – Jesus the child of Bethlehem whose meekness subversively undermines the powerful, and Jeremiah (Chapter 17) – the place of prophetic lament as witnessed in Rachel’s tears for the slaughtered of Bethlehem.

Chapter18, “Joseph” unpacks the options for Mary’s fiancé and his character, reiterating qualities already associated with the place and people of Bethlehem. However, I am not sure I would agree with Andy calling him a “prophet”[7].

Andy rounds off his fascinating journey with two chapters on Jesus (Chapters 19/20) and an epilogue focusing on the Book of Revelation (12:5-6). Sub-titled, “Under Empire” Chapter 19 pays particular attention to the voice of the Palestinians. Andy summarises, “Bethlehem is stubborn, but not bitter. She weeps, but she has always wept. She protests but not with violence. She endures. She is emblematic of Middle Eastern Christianity.”[8] You would not be surprised that Chapter 20 concentrates on Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God.

At the request of Andy, David Devenish[9] has written an “Afterword”. He highlights the necessity of leaders to celebrate their “un-importance”, to challenge prejudice, to listen to Christian voices in the global South and East, to embrace “common grace” as a means to proclamation, and to appreciate Biblical theology.

There is an excellent bibliography.

You may ask, “Who is this book written for?”

You certainly need to be Biblically literate and theologically astute. There are times when you may wonder, “Where is Andy going with these verses?”

You need to be able to appreciate good preaching prose. There are some lovely, emotive, and illustrative sentences.

You need to be prepared for seeing familiar (and not so familiar) Scriptures through fresh eyes.

You need to be prepared to view Biblical location in a new way, especially Jerusalem.

You need to be ready to hear the voices of local 21st Century Bethlehemites.

Does he achieve his four objectives?

One big story? Yes, in so much as the narrative coalesces around Bethlehem. However, I came away thinking, “Is Bethlehem ‘the hinge of history’? Has Andy put too much weight on it?” There are rare occasions when he tempers his enthusiasm[10], stretches a point[11], needs more information[12], or misquotes[13]. They may niggle the reader, but they will keep you on your toes.

A Middle Eastern story? Yes. Andy sets the events, traditions, and behaviour in their Middle Eastern cultural context and extensively quotes local Christians identified with Palestinian liberation theology, allowing the Biblical texts to encourage today’s residents of Bethlehem and the Holy Land. Chapter 16 has a particularly good section on non-violent, creative resistance.

A global story? Yes. He consistently applies the great Biblical themes to the world beyond Bethlehem.

A mission story? Yes. We have a great “Gospel” to proclaim in Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World.

Buy yourself a copy, “go up the hill to Bethlehem”, and be stretched.

Reviewed by Keith Fraser-Smith

August 24, 2021

Keith Fraser-Smith, a British citizen from the north of England, served eight years as an Anglican pastor in the Middle East, eight years as a director of a media ministry (six years of them France), five years as an Arab world Regional Leader with Arab World Ministries (four in Cyprus), five years as a pastor in the UK, seven years as AWM’s Director of Global Mobilisation, and three years as Pioneers UK Area Leader. He is married to Janet, and they have three adult children and five grandchildren. Keith currently ministers to asylum seekers, disciples BMBs, mentors, and writes. His hobbies include walking, reading and gardening.

[1] Andy McCullough is teaching pastor at Reading Family Church, UK. He has an MTh in Contextual Theology with Mission and is the author of Global Humility: Attitudes for Mission (2017).

[2] A novel suggestion and worthy of consideration.

[3] Judges 12:8-10 – Biblical texts usually call the town, Bethlehem of Judah, as there is another Bethlehem in the north of Palestine. This reference in Judges is thought by some scholars to refer to the northern Bethlehem. This would make more sense regarding the marriages and the succession of the next judge, Elon the Zebulunite (Judges 12:11). Marrying outside the “clan” (“family”) may not mean marrying “foreigners” but marrying others of Israelite extraction.

[4] “The Bethlehem Story” by Andy McCullough page 106

[5] Ibid. page 116

[6] Ibid. page 120

[7] Ibid. page 144

[8] Ibid. pages 151/152

[9] David Devenish led the Newfrontiers Together Team from 2012 until October 2020. He has served in church planting mission in different parts of the world and authored several books.

[10] Ibid. 107 – “Of course, there are many, many positive threads concerning Jerusalem running through Scripture.”

[11] Ibid. 143/144 – In John 8 Jesus was not threatened with stoning because he had protected the woman caught in adultery. He was threatened with stoning because he claimed to be God, the “I am” in verse 58.

[12] Ibid. 14 – The mother of Jesus has a tomb in Jerusalem as well as in Ephesus. It’s in the Kidron Valley.

[13] Ibid. 76 – Saul does not lose his donkeys. 1 Samuel 9:3 states that his father’s donkeys were lost. His father merely sent him on a donkey finding mission.