🔼The name Bethlehem: Summary
- House Of Bread, House Of War
- From (1) the noun בית (beth), house, and (2) the verb לחם (laham), both to war and to eat.
🔼The name Bethlehem in the Bible
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 (Genesis 35:19).
Bethlehem's rise to stardom is set in motion by Elimelech the Bethlehemite (בית הלחמי, note that this frequently occurring ethnonym is spelled with a maqqep, or hyphen, only in 1 Samuel 16:1, but always comes with the particle of motion ה, he) 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 sons are Mahlon and Chilion, and his Moabite daughters in law are Ruth and Orpah. When after ten years all the men are dead, Orpah goes home and Naomi goes back to Bethlehem and takes Ruth with her. In Bethlehem 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 prophecy 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 (Micah 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 (Βηθλεεμ, Bethleem) 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 Ramah, [...] 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 Ramah 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 אב, 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 Rehoboam 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 is written without the maqqep in Genesis and Judges and on, but sporadically in Samuel, Chronicles and the Prophets it occurs spelled with a maqqep (בית־לחם). It occurs a mere 8 times in the New Testament; see full concordance.
For the "true meaning of Christmas," read our article on the name Nazareth and the paragraph on the Titulus Crucis in our article on the name Mary. Here at Abarim Publications we're pretty sure that although the Word became embodied in Bethlehem, the gospel that told of this originated with the Jews of the Diaspora in Persian Babylon.
🔼Etymology of the name Bethlehem
The name Bethlehem consists of two words. The first word is בית (bayit), the Bible's regular word for house:
The noun בית (bayit) means house. It sometimes merely denotes a domestic building, but mostly it denotes the realm of authority of the house-father, or אב (ab). This ab is commonly the living alpha male of a household, but may very well be a founding ancestor (as in the familiar term the "house of Israel"). The אב (ab) may also be a deity, in which case the בית (bayit) is that which we know as a temple.
In the larger economy, a house interacts with other houses. These interactions are governed by the אב (ab), or "father" and executed by the בנים (benim), or "sons": those people living in the house, irrespective of any biological relation with the אב (ab). The "sons" combined add up to אם ('em), which means both "mother" and "tribe".
The second part of the name Bethlehem comes from the curious root group לחם (laham), meaning either make war or use as food:
The verb לחם (laham) means to fight or do battle and is used frequently in the Bible. Noun מלחמה (milhama) means battle or war and occurs even more. A noteworthy detail, however, is that very often God is the active subject in statement concerning both verb and noun, such as the enigmatic statement that the Lord is a "man of war."
The identical verb לחם (laham) means to eat or use as food, which appears to suggest that the act of military conquest and the act of eating (and thus of learning) is essentially the same. Before modern economy, nations would acquire wealth by invading others and taking their wealth, precisely the way a predator would kill a prey and feast of its flesh. Modern economy made man a plant eater, who only consumes what will grow back. The very common noun לחם (lehem) means food, bread or grain.
The name Bethlehem means House Of Bread, with the strong connotation of House Of Battle.