In Jeremiah’s time (Jer.41.17) the caravan inn of Kimham (see 2Sam.19.37-2Sam.19.40) near Bethlehem was the usual starting place for Egypt. The inn mentioned in Luke.2.1-Luke.2.52 was a similar one and may have been the same. Here the Messiah was born (Matt.2.1; Luke.2.1-Luke.2.7), for whom this town that was “small among the clans of Judah” (Mic.5.2) achieved its great fame. Its male children under two years of age were murdered in Herod’s attempt to kill the King of the Jews (Matt.2.16).
Justin Martyr, second century a.d., said that our Lord’s birth took place in a cave close to the village. Over this traditional manger site the emperor Constantine (a.d. 330) and Helena his mother built the Church of the Nativity. Rebuilt more sumptuously by Justinian in the sixth century, it still has part of the original structure and is a popular attraction for tourists today. The grotto of the nativity is beneath a crypt, thirty-nine feet (twelve m.) long, eleven feet (three and one-half m.) wide, and nine feet (three m.) high, hewn out of the rock and lined with marble. A rich altar is over the supposed site of the Savior’s birth. In a part of this cave Jerome, the Latin scholar, spent thirty years translating the Bible into Latin.
Modern Bethlehem is a village of fewer than ten thousand inhabitants. The slopes abound in figs, vines, almonds, and olives. The shepherds’ fields are still seen to the NE.
2. A town of Zebulun (Josh.19.15), now the village of Beit Lahm, seven miles (twelve km.) NW of Nazareth.
BETHLEHEM, BETHLEHEMITE bĕth’ lĭ hĕm (בֵּ֥ית לָֽחֶם, LXX Βαιθλεέμ or Βηθλεέμ, Βαιθλεεμίτης or Βηθλεεμίτης; house (place) of bread or food; Bethlehem; patronymic of an inhabitant of Bethlehem). It has been suggested that leḥem refers to the Assyrian deity Lakhmu thereby making the name mean “house of Lakhmu.” There is little evidence, however, that this god was ever worshiped in Pal. The modern name is Bayt Lahm, the Arab. equivalent of the Heb. Two towns of this name have existed from early times.
1. A town in Judah famous as the “city of David” and as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. It lies about six m. SW of Jerusalem near the main N-S road connecting Hebron and the S. It is over 2300 ft. above sea level. This gives it a position of strength and, indeed, it was occupied by a garrison of Philistines in David’s time (2 Sam 23:14; 1 Chron 11:16) and was fortified by Rehoboam (2 Chron 11:6). The area surrounding Bethlehem is quite fertile.
Little is known of the origin of the town, though in 1 Chronicles 2:51 Salma, the son of Caleb is described as the “father of Bethlehem.” The town is first mentioned in one of the Amarna letters of the 14th cent. b.c. where ’Abdu-Heba, the prince of Jerusalem complains that Bit-Lahmi has gone over to the ’Apiru (EA no. 290; see ANET, 489). It was known first in the OT as Ephrath (Gen 35:19) but in general as Bethlehem Ephrathah or Bethlehem Judah to distinguish it from the second Bethlehem (see 2 below).
Rachel’s tomb was remembered (and still is) as being near Bethlehem (Gen 35:19). Bethlehem was the home of the young Levite who served as priest to Micah in the hill country of Ephraim and later also to the tribe of Dan (Judg 17; 18). Bethlehem also was the home of the Ephraimite Levite’s concubine whose death at the hands of her master precipitated a war between Benjamin and Israel (Judg 19).
After David’s time, the town seems to have declined in importance as far as the historical events of the OT are concerned. Bethlehemites are mentioned, however, as participating in the Exile and there were many who returned to take up residence in their home town (Ezra 2:21; Neh 7:26; cf. 1 Esd 5:17). Bethlehem’s future fame is spelled out in Micah 5:2 as being the birthplace of the “ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”
By NT times there was the expectation that the Messiah should arise in Bethlehem (Matt 2:5, 6; John 7:42) and the birth of Jesus is recorded to have taken place there (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:4-7). The story of the shepherds, the Magi and the slaying of the infants therefore center upon the town.
In a.d. 325 Helena built a church over a series of caves in Bethlehem prob. on the tradition, recorded as early as Justin Martyr (Dialogue, 78), that the scene of the nativity was a cave (see Jerome, Letter to Paulinus, 58.3). Justinian I (a.d. 527-565) built a new and larger church on the same site upon the destruction of Helena’s chapel. This so-called “Church of the Nativity” still stands, though with some medieval modifications. Whether the church actually marks the exact spot of the nativity is uncertain, however. By a.d. 132 Hadrian had devastated Bethlehem and no remains of the first three centuries a.d. have been found there.
2. A town in Zebulun (Josh 19:15), prob. the home and burial place of Ibzan, an early judge of Israel (Judg 12:8, 10; cf. however, Jos. Antiq. V. vii. 13). The town is some seven m. NW of Nazareth and some remains have been found indicating its importance as a town in earlier times.
R. W. Hamilton, “Excavations in the Atrium of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem,” QDAP, III (1933), 1-8; E. T. Richmond, “Basilica of the Nativity: Discovery of the Remains of an Earlier Church,” QDAP, V (1936), 75-81; H. Vincent, “Le Sanctuaire de la Nativité d’après les fouilles récentes,” RB (1936), 545-574; F. M. Abel, Géographie de la Palestine, II (1938), 276, 277; J. W. Crowfoot, Early Churches in Palestine (1941), 22-30, 77-85; Y. Aharoni, The Land of the Bible (1962, 1967), passim; C. Kopp, The Holy Places of the Gospels (1963), 1-47.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
(bethlechem; Baithleem, or Bethleem, "house of David," or possibly "the house of Lakhmu," an Assyrian deity):
I. Bethlehem Judah:
Bethlehem Judah, or EPHRATH or EPHRATHAH (which see) is now Beit Lahm (Arabic = "house of meat"), a town of upward of 10,000 inhabitants, 5 miles South of Jerusalem and 2,350 ft. above sea level. It occupies an outstanding position upon a spur running East from the watershed with deep valleys to the Northeast and South It is just off the main road to Hebron and the south, but upon the highroad to Tekoa and En-gedi. The position is one of natural strength; it was occupied by a garrison of the Philistines in the days of David (2Sa 23:14; 1Ch 11:16) and was fortified by Rehoboam (2Ch 11:6). The surrounding country is fertile, cornfields, fig and olive yards and vineyards abound. Bethlehem is not naturally well supplied with water, the nearest spring is 800 yds. to the Southeast, but for many centuries the "low level aqueduct" from "Solomon’s Pools" in the ArTas valley, which has here been tunneled through the hill, has been tapped by the inhabitants; there are also many rock-cut cisterns.
1. Early History:
In 1Ch 2:51 Salma, the son of Caleb, is described as the "father of Bethlehem." In Ge 35:19; 48:7 it is recorded that Rachel "was buried in the way to Ephrath (the same is Beth-lehem)." Tradition points out the site of Rachel’s tomb near where the road to Bethlehem leaves the main road. The Levites of the events of Jud 17; Jud 19 were Bethlehemites. In the list of the towns of Judah the name Bethlehem occurs, in the Septuagint version only in Jos 15:57.
2. David the Bethlehemite:
Ruth, famous chiefly as the ancestress of David, and of the Messiah, settled in Bethlehem with her second husband Boaz, and it is noticeable that from her new home she could view the mountains of Moab, her native land. David himself "was the son of that Ephrathite of Bethlehem-judah, whose name was Jesse" (1Sa 17:12). To Bethlehem came Samuel to anoint a successor to unworthy Saul (1Sa 16:4): "David went to and fro from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem" (1Sa 17:15). David’s "three mighty men" "brake through the host of the Philistines, and drew water out of the well of Beth- lehem, that was by the gate, and took it, and brought it to David" (2Sa 23:14,16). Tradition still points out the well. From this town came those famous "sons of Zeruiah," David’s nephews, whose loyalty and whose ruthless cruelty became at once a protection and a menace to their royal relative: in 2Sa 2:32 it is mentioned that one of them, Asahel, was buried "in the sepulchre of his father, which was in Bethlehem."
3. Later Bible History:
After the time of David, Bethlehem would appear to have sunk into insignificance. But its future fame is pointed at by Micah (Mi 5:2): "But thou, Beth-lehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting."
In the return of the Jews captive Bethlehemites re-inhabited the place (Ezr 2:21; Ne 7:26 "men"; 1 Esdras 5:17 "sons").
4. The Christian Era:
In the New Testament Bethlehem is mentioned as the birthplace of the Messiah Jesus (Mt 2:1,5; Lu 2:4,25) in consequence of which event occurred Herod’s "massacre of the innocents" (Mt 2:8,16). Inasmuch as Hadrian devastated Bethlehem and set up there a sacred grove to Adonis (Jerome, Ep. ad Paul, lviii.3) it is clear that veneration of this spot as the site of the Nativity must go back before 132 AD. Constantine (circa 330) founded a basilica over the cave-stable which tradition pointed out as the scene of the birth, and his church, unchanged in general structure though enlarged by Justinian and frequently adorned, repaired and damaged, remains today the chief attraction of the town. During the Crusades, Bethlehem became of great importance and prosperity; it remained in Christian hands after the overthrow of the Latin kingdom, and at the present day it is in material things one of the most prosperous Christian centers in the Holy Land.
II. Bethlehem of Zebulun:
Bethlehem of Zebulun (Jos 19:15) was probably the home of Ibzan (Jud 12:8) though Jewish tradition is in support of (1). See Josephus, Ant, V, vii, 13. This is now the small village of Beit Lahm, some 7 miles Northwest of Nazareth on the edge of the oak forest. Some antiquities have been found here recently, showing that in earlier days it was a place of some importance. It is now the site of a small German colony. See PEF, I, 270, Sh V.