(Bethʹle·hem) [House of Bread].
1. A town in the Judean highlands overlooking the principal highway leading from Jerusalem down to Beer-sheba. It is today called Beit Lahm (Bet Lehem), located about 9 km (5.5 mi) SSW of the Temple Mount. Its altitude of some 777 m (2,550 ft) above sea level is about the same elevation as Jerusalem itself. The countryside, though rocky, produces olives, grapes, and various cereals.
The earlier name of Bethlehem evidently was Ephrath (or, Ephrathah). Jacob buried Rachel “on the way to Ephrath, that is to say, Bethlehem.” (Ge 35:19; 48:7) Among the early descendants of Jacob’s son Judah are mentioned “Salma the father of Bethlehem” (1Ch 2:51, 54) and “Hur the firstborn of Ephrathah the father of Bethlehem.” (1Ch 4:4) This expression may point to these men as forefathers of the Israelites who later occupied Bethlehem. (See EPHRATHAH No. 2.) When the Israelites entered Canaan, Bethlehem fell within the territory of Judah, though it is not specifically mentioned in any list of Judean cities nor is there anything to indicate its size or prominence at that time. Since there was another Bethlehem in the territory of Zebulun (Jos 19:10, 15), the town in Judah was usually distinguished by reference to Ephrath, or by calling it “Bethlehem in Judah.”
Thus Judge Ibzan may have been from Bethlehem in Judah, but the absence of any reference to Judah, or Ephrath, causes many to view him as from Bethlehem in Zebulun. (Jg 12:8-10) Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their sons were from Bethlehem, and here Naomi returned with Ruth the Moabitess. (Ru 1:1, 2, 19, 22) Boaz was also of Bethlehem, and the remaining events of the book of Ruth involving ancestors of Jesus (Mt 1:5, 6) center around this town and its fields.
David the son of “Jesse the Bethlehemite” was born in Bethlehem of Judah, tended his father’s sheep in that area, and was later anointed there by Samuel to be Israel’s future king. (1Sa 16:1, 4, 13, 18; 17:12, 15, 58; 20:6) Later, as a fugitive, David longed for a drink of water from a cistern at Bethlehem, then the site of a Philistine outpost. (2Sa 23:14, 15; 1Ch 11:16, 17) It may be noted that three wells are still found on the N side of the town. Elhanan, one of David’s outstanding warriors, was the son of a man of Bethlehem (2Sa 23:24), as were David’s nephews Joab, Abishai, and Asahel. Fleet-footed Asahel was buried there following his being slain by powerful Abner.
Despite its being in a central location, on a major highway, and in a good position militarily (since it was at a high altitude and built on a site commanding a limestone ridge), and although it was David’s hometown, Bethlehem was not chosen to be David’s capital. It is not until the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam that Bethlehem is directly mentioned again, when it was included among the cities fortified by that king. (2Ch 11:5, 6) Near Bethlehem the remnant of the people left in Judah after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon made a stopover before going on down to Egypt. (Jer 41:17) Men of Bethlehem were among those returning from Babylon following the exile.
As noted previously, Bethlehem was not listed among the cities of Judah in the accounts of the tribal divisions. Though Bible books mention it in connection with certain individuals, it does not otherwise seem to have been a prominent town nor did it have a large population
Thus, though Mary became pregnant in Nazareth of Galilee, she gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem of Judea, in order to fulfill the divine prophecy. (Lu 1:26-38; 2:4-7) This meant a trip that, on present roads, covers a distance of about 150 km (93 mi) through hilly country.
At the time of the birth, shepherds were living outdoors in the fields and keeping watches at night over their flocks. (Lu 2:8) While sheep may be led out to pasture during the daytime at any season of the year, the fact that the shepherds were living out in the fields and spending the night there with their flocks provides a definite time indication for the period of Jesus’ birth. The rainy season for Palestine begins about mid-October, lasting several months. By December, Bethlehem, like Jerusalem, experiences frequent frost at night. Thus the fact that shepherds of Bethlehem were in the fields at night points to a time prior to the start of the rainy season. It is also most unlikely that Caesar Augustus would unnecessarily provoke the Jews by ordering a registration in the wintry and rainy month of December, when traveling is particularly difficult.
The original location of the stable in Bethlehem in which Jesus was born is unknown. Sometime after Jesus’ birth when his parents were residing, not in a stable, but in a house, Bethlehem was visited by some Oriental astrologers searching for “the young child.” (Mt 2:1-12) Although divine action prevented their visit from bringing death to the child Jesus, the town of Bethlehem and its surrounding territory suffered the loss of all its male children of two years of age and under, murdered at the order of King Herod. (Mt 2:12, 16) At Matthew 2:17, 18 the inspired writer quoted the prophecy at Jeremiah 31:15 as applying to what then occurred.
2. A town in the territory of Zebulun. (Jos 19:10, 15) It was probably from this Bethlehem that Judge Ibzan proceeded, and it was in this town that he was buried, since no mention is made of Ephrath or of Judah in the account. (Jg 12:8-10) Bethlehem of Zebulun has been identified with Beit Lahm (Bet Lehem Ha-Gelilit) about 11 km (7 mi) WNW of Nazareth.
[Picture on page 299]
Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, as it appears today