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Meaning and etymology of the Hebrew name Bethlehem

Bethlehem Bethlehem

There are two towns named Bethlehem mentioned in the Bible; the famous one in Judah, the other one in Zebulun (Joshua 19:15). Bethlehem-Judah is first mentioned as the place formerly known as Ephrath (Genesis 35:16), where Rachel gives birth to Benjamin and dies (v19).

Bethlehem's rise to stardom is set in motion by Elimelech the Bethlehemite who finds himself and his family driven out of Israel and to Moab by a famine (Ruth 1:1-2). His wife's name is Naomi, his Moabite daughters in law are Orpah and Ruth. When after ten years all the men are dead, Naomi and Ruth go back to Bethlehem. There Ruth meets and marries Boaz. Their son is Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David who would be the king who united the tribes of Israel. It is for this reason that Micah writes his Messianic prophesy referred to in Matthew 2:6:

"But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah. From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity (5:2)."

Perhaps he should have left it a surprise because some 700 years later king Herod, fearing rivalry from an infant, has all the children of Bethlehem and environs murdered. Matthew reveals how far those environs stretch by referring to what Jeremiah wrote, 100 years after Micah, "Thus says YHWH, 'a voice is heard in Rama, [...] Rachel is weeping for her children...'" (Matthew 2:18, Jeremiah 31:15).
Rachel's tomb is somewhere on the border of Benjamin (1 Samuel 10:2) and Rama is a Benjamin town north of Jerusalem.

In 1 Chronicles 2:51 it reads that Salma was the father of Bethlehem, and it seems that this Bethlehem is a person. However, this Bethlehem is mentioned along groups of people and towns, and it is much more likely that Salma was a mayor (the ab) of the town of Bethlehem-Judah. Something similar happens with Tekoa in 1 Chronicles 2:24. In 2 Chronicles 11:6 we see both these towns as 'built' by Rehoboam. That means either that these existing towns were fortified, or Rehobam erected new forts with old, nostalgic names. (Compare with 2 Chronicles 8:2, where Solomon 'builds' cities that were given to him by Huram).

The name Bethlehem consists of two words. The first word is bayit (bayit), the Bible's regular word for house but with connotations of one's family, household or direct sphere of economy. It is also used to mean temple, or place, or depository of certain items. Another name that uses this word bayit is Bethel, meaning House Of God. Please see the name Beth for a closer look at this marvelous word.

The second word of the name Bethlehem is the Hebrew noun lahem (lehem), bread. The Bible uses this word frequently in a much broader sense of food in general (proverbial: Genesis 3:19; Manna: Exodus 16:4; honey: 1 Samuel 14:24), and comes from he verb lahem (laham), eat, use as food. The concept of food is used often in a figurative sense: bread of wickedness (Pr 4:17), idleness (31:27); target of conquest (Numbers 14:9). It is against this broad background that the words of Jesus should be understood: "I am the bread of life," (Joh 6:35); "Give us this day our daily bread," (Matthew 6:11), as well as the bread part of the communion ritual (Matthew 26:26).

Perhaps the usage displayed in Numbers 14:9 illustrates the curious link with the identical root lahem (laham), do battle, fight. (A similar thought is found in Psalm 124:3, although without the verb lahem). Perhaps both ideas have to do with le (the preposition that usually translates into the Indo-European dative case: to, at, in, into) plus Ham, heat (see the name Ham).

HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament argues that the wars of Israel are essentially fought by YHWH, or rather that instead of God coming to the aid of Israel, Israel is an agent active in bringing forth the purpose of the Lord, along with such agents as large stones (Joshua 10:11), darkness and sea (24:7), and stars (Judges 5:20).
An obvious derivative of this verb is the Hebrew noun lahem (milhama), battle, war. This word is used in the almost paradoxical statement of Exodus 15:3: Exodus 15:3, meaning 'YHWH is a man of war, YHWH is His Name.'

An alternative etymology is offered by HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament in a reference to a god named Lahamu (The Oxford Companion to the Bible reads Lahmu), who apparently had a temple somewhere named bit lahamu. Since the Bible contains no reference to this, this possible and possibly original etymology should not be taken into account when assessing the Biblical function of the meaning of the name Bethlehem.

The name Bethlehem means House Of Bread, with the strong connotation of House Of Battle.

Other names that contain the word lehem are Jashubi-lehem, Lahmas and Lahmi.



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