Bethlehem, Bethlehemite

See also Bethlehem

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.

Bibliography 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.