(Bethʹle·hem) [house of bread].
1. A town in the Judean highlands located about five miles (8 kilometers) S of Jerusalem, overlooking the principal highway leading from Jerusalem down to Beer-sheba. It is situated at an altitude of some 2,550 feet (777 meters) above sea level and hence at a higher elevation than Jerusalem itself. The countryside, though rocky, produces olives, grapes and different cereals.—Ruth 1:22.
The earlier name of Bethlehem appears to have been Ephrath, meaning “fruitfulness; fertility.” Jacob buried Rachel “on the way to Ephrath, that is to say, Bethlehem.” (Gen. 35:19; 48:7) Among the early descendants of Jacob’s son Judah are mentioned “Salma the father of Bethlehem” (1 Chron 2:51, 54) and “Hur the first-born of Ephrathah the father of Bethlehem.” (1 Chron. 4:4) This expression may point to these men as forefathers of the Israelites who later occupied Bethlehem. (See ATROTH-BETH-JOAB; 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 (Josh. 19:10, 15), the town in Judah was usually distinguished by reference to Ephrath, or by calling it “Bethlehem in Judah.”—Judg. 17:7-9; 19:1, 2, 18.
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. (Judg. 12:8-10) Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their sons were from Bethlehem, and here Naomi returned with Ruth the Moabitess. (Ruth 1:1, 2, 19, 22) Boaz was also of Bethlehem, and the remaining events of the book of Ruth involving ancestors of Jesus (Matt. 1:5, 6) center around this town and its fields.—Ruth 2:4; 4:11.
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. (1 Sam. 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. (2 Sam. 23:14, 15; 1 Chron. 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 (2 Sam. 23:24), as were David’s nephews Joab, Abishai and Asahel. Fleet-footed Asahel was buried there following his being slain by powerful Abner.—2 Sam. 2:18-23, 32.
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, as included among the cities fortified by that king. (2 Chron. 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.—Ezra 2:21; Neh. 7:26.
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—a “village” when Jesus was on earth. (John 7:42) Hence the prophet Micah in his Messianic prophecy at Micah 5:2 could refer to Bethlehem Ephrathah as “the one too little to get to be among the thousands of Judah.” Yet his prophecy showed that small Bethlehem would have the singular honor of being the town from which the Messiah would proceed. The Jewish people understood this prophecy as meaning that the Messiah or Christ would be born in and proceed from that town (John 7:40-42), a belief also expressed by their chief priests and scribes.—Matt. 2:3-6.
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. (Luke 1:26-38; 2:4-7) This meant a trip that, on present roads, covers a distance of some ninety miles (145 kilometers) through hilly country.
At the time of the birth, shepherds were living outdoors in the fields and keeping watches at night over their flocks. (Luke 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 in the latter part of 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.—Luke 2:1-6; compare Matthew 24:20.
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.” (Matt. 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. (Matt. 2:12, 16) The inspired writer here quoted the prophecy at Jeremiah 31:15 as applying, so that Rachel, whose grave lay near Bethlehem, and whose children through Benjamin had throughout Israelite history been loyal supporters of the Davidic dynasty, is in effect represented as rising up and weeping over these slaughtered infants.—Matt. 2:17, 18.
The original location of the stable in Bethlehem in which Jesus was born is unknown. While what is called the “Church of the Nativity” is built over a cave located about twenty feet (6 meters) below the floor of the church, this cave, to which one must descend by steps, hardly fits the description of a stable into which cattle could be led. Additionally, history shows that Emperor Hadrian devastated Bethlehem along with Jerusalem in the early part of the second century C.E. and is said to have planted a grove to the god Adonis in the area then traditionally held to have been the place of Jesus’ birth. This grove is stated to have remained there for some two centuries, after which Constantine’s mother, Helena, erected the church called the “Church of the Nativity.” Thus, the identification of the exact place of the stable is quite conjectural.
2. A town in the territory of Zebulun. (Josh. 19:10, 15) As noted above, it was probably from this Bethlehem that Judge Ibzan proceeded and in which he was buried, since no mention is made of Ephrath nor of Judah in the account. (Judg. 12:8-10) Bethlehem of Zebulun is located some seven miles (11 kilometers) W-NW of Nazareth.
[Picture on page 223]
Bethlehem as it now appears