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Meaning and etymology of the name Beth

Beth Beth

Whether the name Beth is actually a Biblical name is disputed. In our day and age we use the name Beth as truncated form of Elizabeth (meaning either God Is Oath or God Is Seven - please see our article on the name Elizabeth for more info), but in the Bible this doesn't happen.

The prophet Isaiah writes in 15:2 that 'they' have gone up to Beth and to Dibon. Jeremiah uses the same name Dibon in 48:18, and again in verse 22, now in conjunction with a town named Beth-diblathaim. Isaiah uses the definite article (the), so most exegetes safely translate with "the temple" (see below). The valiant BDB Theological Dictionary is not so sure, and points at the eminent theologians Ewald, Bredenkamp and Dillmann, who take this occurrence of Beth to be a shortened form of Beth-diblathaim. And that makes Beth a (disputed) Biblical name. The word beth is also a masculine noun.

The word Beth (bayit), roughly meaning house, is very common in the Bible. In regular text it's pronounced as a two-syllable word (bayit) while in names it's a one-syllable word (beth). This may be the case because names, specifically of locations, tend to be a lot older than the Biblical texts we have. The narrative language evolved while the names stayed the same. The exact opposite, however, occurs in the name David, which is pronounced dawid but is said to come from the word dud, meaning beloved. All this has to do with the invention of the vowel notation for which the Hebrews are famed.

Beth is also the name of the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This letter is used as regular part of words, but is also used as an inseparable preposition, meaning in, at or by or even from. As such it is the first letter of the Bible: Beth (bresheet), meaning in the beginning.

The fundamental meaning of the word Beth (bayit) appears to be a kind of enclosure, specifically for keeping, safekeeping or containing, and is contrasted by a wide array of specialized words meaning any kind of specific habitat, ranging from tent to palace. In that sense, the word Beth does not denote a specific kind of building, rather the function of container. It covers regular houses (Exodus 12:7), the temple of God (1 Kings 5:3), or rooms within other buildings, such as prisons (Jeremiah 37:15), treasuries (Isaiah 39:2), or drinking halls (Esther 2:3). The word Beth can even be applied to holders of any kind, of a tomb (Nehemiah 2:3), of carrier poles (Exodus 25:27), or even perfume (Isaiah 3:20).

One very important usage of the word Beth is to describe the entire membership and economy of one's household. Hence the Bible speaks of the house of Jacob (Genesis 35:2, 46:27), the house of David (2 Samuel 7:11) and the house of Israel (Exodus 16:31). That the word Beth emphasizes collectivity much more than a physical building or even biological descent becomes evident when Abraham (then the biological father of only Ishmael) is told to circumcise all males in his household, regardless of whether they were born there or bought (Genesis 17:12-13, 18:19).

Members of a household are usually referred to as benim, meaning 'sons.' Read our article on the name Ben for a closer look at that marvelous word.

The name Beth means House or Family.



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