(behth' lih hehm) Place name meaning, “house of bread,” “fighting,” or “Lahamu” [god]. 1. Approximately five miles southwest of Jerusalem just off the major road from Jerusalem to the Negeb lies the modern Arabic village Bethlehem. The popular understanding is that the name, beth lehem, means “house of bread.” Perhaps the first mention of the village occurred before 1300 B.C. in the Amarna letters (No. 290) where the ruler of Jerusalem complained to the Egyptian pharaoh that the people of Bit-Lahmi had gone over to the side of the “Apiru,” apparently a people without local citizenship who caused disturbances in Canaanite society.
In the Old Testament the parenthetical reference to Bethlehem in
Genesis 35:19 is perhaps derived from a traditional burial site for Rachel near the village. Bethlehem appears in
Judges 17:7-13 as the home of the Levite who became priest to Micah. The concubine of the Levite of Ephraim was from the village of Bethlehem (Judges 19:1). The Book of Ruth takes place in the region of Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1-2,Ruth 1:19,Ruth 1:22;
Ruth 4:11). This story leads to the events that gave major importance to the village as the home and place of anointing of David (1 Samuel 16:1-13;
1 Samuel 17:12,1 Samuel 17:15).
Other Old Testament references to the village include the mention of a Philistine garrison being there during David's early kingship (2 Samuel 23:14), Elhanan's home (2 Samuel 23:24), the burial place of Asahel (2 Samuel 2:32), and a fort of Rehoboam (2 Chronicles 11:6). Bethlehem is also mentioned with reference to the Babylonian Exile (Jeremiah 41:17;
It is the relationship of Bethlehem to Christ that has insured its place in Christian history.
Micah 5:2 was understood to indicate that the Messiah, like David, would be born in Bethlehem not Jerusalem. Matthew (Matthew 2:1-12), Luke (Luke 2:4-20), and John (John 7:42) report that Jesus was born in that humble village. It appears that early Christians believed that some caves east of the village were the holy site of the birth. After the Bar-Kochba revolution during Hadrian's reign, Jews were expelled from Bethlehem. Tertullian indicated that no Jews lived there even at the end of the second century A.D. During the reign of the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine, the Church of the Nativity was constructed (ca. 326 A.D.), supposedly by his mother Helena. It was destroyed during the Samaritan revolt (ca. 529 A.D.) and rebuilt by Justinian I (527-565). That structure forms the basic unit that is still in use today although many modifications have occurred, especially during the Middle Ages. (According to “Christian legend” during the Persian Conquest, 614 A.D., the church was preserved when the invaders saw the three magi in a mosaic of the birth of Jesus and recognized their clothing as Persian.)
A field southeast of town has been identified as the place where the shepherds had the vision of the angels. 2. A town in the territory of Zebulun, about seven miles northwest of Nazareth (Joshua 19:15), which was the burial site of Ibzan (Judges 12:10), in modern beit Lahm. 3. A personal name as in
1 Chronicles 2:51,
1 Chronicles 2:54.
George W. Knight