(Arabic: بيت لحم Bayt Laḥm “House of Meat” Bēt Laḥm, lit. “House of Bread”; Hebrew: בֵּית לֶחֶם Bēṯ Leḥem, Modern: Bet Leḥem [bet ˈleχem], lit. “House of Bread”; Ancient Greek: Βηθλεέμ [bɛːtʰle.ém]) is a Palestinian city located in the central West Bank, about 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem. Its population is approximately 25,000 people. It is the capital of the Bethlehem Governorate. The economy is primarily tourist-driven.
It is thought the original name was Beit Lachama, from the Canaanite god Lachama. The earliest mention of the city is in the Amarna correspondence c.1350-1330 BC as “Bit-Lahmi”. The city of Bethlehem, located about six miles southwest of Jerusalem, is the birthplace of our Savior Jesus Christ. Bethlehem was also the renowned City of David. The Hebrew Bible identifies as there in young David’s hometown that the prophet Samuel anointed him to be king over Israel (1 Samuel 16:1-13). The city is inhabited by one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
Control of Bethlehem passed from the Ottoman Empire to the British Empire at the end of World War I. Pursuant to the proposed United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine of November 1947, Bethlehem was to be included in an international zone, controlled by Britain. The Arab League states rejected the Partition Plan, and launched the 1948 Arab-Israeli War to prevent the creation of a Jewish state. During the war Jordan forcibly seized Bethlehem and occupied it – Jordan claimed to annex the west bank territories in 1950, though this was only ever formally recognized by Britain. Bethlehem was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, and since 1995 – per the Oslo Accords – Bethlehem has been governed by the Palestinian National Authority.
Israelite and Judean period
Archaeological confirmation of Bethlehem as an Israelite city was uncovered in 2012 at the archaeological dig at the City of David in the form of a bulla (seal impression in dried clay) in ancient Hebrew script that reads “From the town of Bethlehem to the King,” indicating that it was used to seal the string closing a shipment of grain, wine, or other goods sent as a tax payment in the 8th or 7th century BC.
Biblical scholars believe Bethlehem, located in the “hill country” of Judah, may be the same as the Biblical Ephrath, which means “fertile”, as there is a reference to it in the Book of Micah as Bethlehem Ephratah. The Bible also calls it Beth-Lehem Judah, and the New Testament describes it as the “City of David”. It is first mentioned in the Tanakh and the Bible as the place where the matriarch Rachel died and was buried “by the wayside” (Gen. 48:7). Rachel’s Tomb, the traditional grave site, stands at the entrance to Bethlehem. According to the Book of Ruth, the valley to the east is where Ruth of Moab gleaned the fields and returned to town with Naomi. It was the home of Jesse, father of King David of Israel, and the site of David’s anointment by the prophet Samuel. It was from the well of Bethlehem that three of his warriors brought him water when he was hiding in the cave of Adullam.
Micah 5:2-5 King James Version (KJV)
2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.
3 Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God; and they shall abide: for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth.
5 And this man shall be the peace, when the Assyrian shall come into our land: and when he shall tread in our palaces, then shall we raise against him seven shepherds, and eight principal men.
Bethlehem in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, Bethlehem was an early Canaanite settlement connected with the patriarchs. Situated along an ancient caravan route, Bethlehem has harbored a melting pot of peoples and cultures since its beginning. The geography of the region is mountainous, sitting about 2,600 feet above the Mediterranean Sea.
In times past, Bethlehem was also called Ephrathah or Bethlehem-Judah to distinguish it from a second Bethlehem located in Zebulunite territory. It was first mentioned in Genesis 35, as the burial site of Rachel, Jacob’s favored wife.
Genesis 35:19 King James Version (KJV)
19 And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.
Members of Caleb’s family settled in Bethlehem, including Caleb’s son Salma who was called the “founder” or “father” of Bethlehem in 1 Chronicles 2:51.
The Levite priest who served in the house of Micah was from Bethlehem. And the Levite of Ephraim brought home a concubine from Bethlehem.
Judges 17:7-13King James Version (KJV)
7 And there was a young man out of Bethlehemjudah of the family of Judah, who was a Levite, and he sojourned there.
8 And the man departed out of the city from Bethlehemjudah to sojourn where he could find a place: and he came to mount Ephraim to the house of Micah, as he journeyed.
9 And Micah said unto him, Whence comest thou? And he said unto him, I am a Levite of Bethlehemjudah, and I go to sojourn where I may find a place.
10 And Micah said unto him, Dwell with me, and be unto me a father and a priest, and I will give thee ten shekels of silver by the year, and a suit of apparel, and thy victuals. So the Levite went in.
11 And the Levite was content to dwell with the man; and the young man was unto him as one of his sons.
12 And Micah consecrated the Levite; and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah.
13 Then said Micah, Now know I that the Lord will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to my priest.
Judges 19:1King James Version (KJV)
19 And it came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel, that there was a certain Levite sojourning on the side of mount Ephraim, who took to him a concubine out of Bethlehemjudah.
The poignant story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz from the book of Ruth is set primarily around the town of Bethlehem. King David, the great-grandson of Ruth and Boaz was born and raised in Bethlehem, and there David’s mighty men lived. Bethlehem eventually came to be called the City of David as the symbol of his great dynasty, and it grew into an important, strategic, and fortified city under King Rehoboam.
In addition, Bethlehem is noted in connection with the Babylonian exile (Jeremiah 41:17, Ezra 2:21), as some of the Jews returning from captivity stayed near Bethlehem on their way to Egypt.
Bethlehem in the New Testament
By the time of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem had declined in significance to a small village. Three gospel accounts (Matthew 2:1–12, Luke 2:4–20, and John 7:42) report that Jesus was born in the humble town of Bethlehem.
In summary, around the time Mary was due to give birth, Caesar Augustus decreed that a census be taken. Every person in the entire Roman world had to go to his own town to register. Joseph, being of the line of David, was required to go to Bethlehem to register with Mary. While in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to Jesus. Most likely due to the census, the inn was too crowded, and Mary gave birth in a crude stable.
First shepherds and later wise men came to Bethlehem to worship the Christ-child. King Herod who was ruler in Judea, plotted to kill the baby-king, ordering the slaughter of all male children two years old and younger in Bethlehem and surrounding areas.
Matthew 2:16-18King James Version (KJV)
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,
18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
Christmas rites are held in Bethlehem on three different dates: December 25 is the traditional date by the Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations, but Greek, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6 and Armenian Orthodox Christians on January 19. Most Christmas processions pass through Manger Square, the plaza outside the Basilica of the Nativity. Roman Catholic services take place in St. Catherine’s Church and Protestants often hold services at Shepherds’ Fields.
Present Day Bethlehem
Under control of the Palestinian National Authority since 1995, Bethlehem city has experienced chaotic growth and a constant flow of tourism. It is home to one of the most sacred Christian sites in the world. Built by Constantine the Great (circa 330 A.D.), the Church of the Nativity still stands over a cave believed to be the very spot where Jesus was born. The place of the manger is marked by a 14-pointed silver star, called the star of Bethlehem.
The original Church of the Nativity structure was partially destroyed by the Samaritans in 529 A.D. and then rebuilt by the Byzantine Roman emperor Justinian. It is one of the oldest surviving Christian churches in existence today.
Ugaritic: bt il, meaning “House of El” or “House of God”, Hebrew: בֵּית אֵל, also transliterated Beth El, Beth-El, or Beit El; Greek: Βαιθηλ; Latin: Bethel) was a border city described in the Hebrew Bible as being located between Benjamin and Ephraim and also a location named by Jacob. Edward Robinson identified the village of Beitin in the West Bank with ancient Bethel in Biblical Researches in Palestine, 1838–52. He based this assessment on its fitting the location described in earlier texts, and on the philological similarities between the modern and ancient name, arguing that the replacement of the Hebrew el with the Arabic in was not unusual. During Israelite rule, Bethel first belonged to the Tribe of Benjamin, but was later conquered by the Tribe of Ephraim. Eusebius of Caesarea and Jerome describe it in their time as a small village that lay 12 Roman miles north of Jerusalem, to the right or east of the road leading to Neapolis.
Ten years after the Six Day War, the biblical name was applied to an Israeli settlement Beit El constructed adjacent to Beitin. In several countries – particularly in the US – the name was given to various locations.
A second biblical Bethel, in the southern Judah, is mentioned in the Book of Joshua (Joshua 8:17 and Joshua 12:16), and seems to be the same as Bethul or Bethuel, a city of the tribe of Simeon.
Located about ten miles north of Jerusalem, famous for its shrine. According to the biblical account, altars were established at Bethel by both Abraham and Jacob, and the latter described it as a place of awesome spiritual power (Gen. 28:17). Bethel also housed the Ark of the Covenant during the period of the judges, when it was also a sacred place to offer sacrifices to God and receive oracles from God.
During the period of divided kingdoms, Bethel was an official shrine of the northern Kingdom of Israel, founded by Jeroboam I as a pilgrimage site competing with the southern Temple of Jerusalem. As such, it was the subject of intense criticism by the biblical writers. The prophets condemned its allegedly decadent priesthood, and it was accused by writers of Kings and Chronicles of housing an idolatrous statue of a golden bull calf. The shrine was thus destroyed by King Josiah of Judah during his reforms of the seventh century B.C.
Bethel nevertheless remains a sacred place in the collective memory of both Jews and Christians.
Bethel was known as Luz in pre-Israelite times (Gen. 28:19). The name “Bethel” (beit el) means the “house (or place) of God.” Abraham, according to Genesis 7:8, built an altar east of Bethel shortly after arriving in Canaan from Haran. Later, Jacob, believing the place to be the “gate of heaven,” named it Bethel. He is depicted as erecting a sacred pillar there shortly after having the dream of “Jacob’s Ladder” (Gen. 28:18). The early shrine was apparently outside of the town of Luz, probably at a “high place.” The exact location of either the primitive altar or later shrine at Bethel remains undetermined by archaeologists, although some believe the town may have been uncovered.
Joshua and Judges
In the Book of Joshua, Bethel was temporarily abandoned by the Canaanites when Joshua’s forces encamped between Ai and Bethel and drew its residents out (Josh. 8:17). The king of Bethel is listed among 31 monarchs reportedly conquered by Joshua and the Israelites (Josh. 12). The fate of the residents of Bethel is not mentioned, but the citizens of nearby Ai were reportedly all slaughtered by the Israelites. It may be notable that, in renewing the covenant between God and the people in Canaan, Joshua bypassed the ancient altar at Bethel in favor of constructing a new shrine at Mount Ebal, opposite Mount Gerezim, near Shechem.
Bethel was of particular importance in the period of the Judges. As the narrative of the Book of Judges opens (1:22-26), Bethel was not in Israelite hands. Still apparently known as Luz, it still had to be captured by the Tribe of Joseph (which included both Ephraim and Manasseh). Later, the judge Deborah held court near Bethel in the territory of Ephraim (Judg. 4). During a time of bitter warfare between the Tribe of Benjamin and the other tribes, Bethel was known as a holy place where oracles from Yahweh could be received. The sacred Ark of the Covenant resided there, and the priest Phinehas, a grandson of Aaron, was its minister. Thus:
The Israelites went up to Bethel and inquired of God. They said, “Who of us shall go first to fight against the Benjaminites?” The Lord replied, “Judah shall go first.” (Judg. 20:18)
When the Israelites suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of Benjamin, they returned to Bethel to weep, fast, and pray “before the Lord.” Directed again by Yahweh to attack, this time they won a mighty victory.
The shrine at Shiloh, a few miles north of Bethel, housed the Ark during the ministry of the judge Eli and his sons, but Bethel was still prominent. The prophet Samuel’s circuit included a stop at the shrine, and 1 Samuel 10:3 identifies Bethel as a holy place where people offered sacrifices to God. The future king David sent gifts to certain elders of the Tribe of Judah residing at Bethel to gain their favor (1 Sam. 30:27). We do not hear of Bethel again until it assumed a far different role in the biblical narrative.
Bethel is mentioned several times in Genesis. It is first mentioned in Genesis 12, but the best-known instance is probably Genesis 28, when Jacob, fleeing from the wrath of his brother Esau, falls asleep on a stone and dreams of a ladder stretching between Heaven and Earth and thronged with angels; God stands at the top of the ladder, and promises Jacob the land of Canaan; when Jacob awakes he anoints the stone (baetylus) with oil and names the place Bethel. Another account, from Genesis 35 repeats the covenant with God and the naming of the place (as El-Bethel), and makes this the site of Jacob’s own change of name to Israel. Both versions state that the original name of the place was Luz, a Canaanite name.
Bethel was an important religious center for the northern Kingdom of Israel following the break-up of the united kingdom of David and Solomon. The Second Book of Kings describes how Jeroboam, first king of Israel, set up centers for Golden Calf worshippers at Bethel on the southern boundary of his kingdom and Dan on the northern boundary, and appointed non-Levites as his priests (1 Kings 12:25–33). Jeroboam’s decision to pass over the Mushite priests of Shiloh, the original religious center for Israel, deeply offended the Shiloh priesthood and seems to lie behind much of the animosity directed at Jeroboam and the golden calf, which probably emanated from the Mushite priestly clan.
Bethel escaped destruction during the Assyrian conquest of Israel (721 BC), but was occupied by King Josiah of Judah (c.640–609 BC), who, according to the book of Kings, destroyed the ancient Israelite religious center.
Bethel was again inhabited and “fortified by Bacchides the Syrian in the time of the Maccabees.” Josephus tells us that Bethel was captured by Vespasian. Robinson notes that after the writings of Eusebius and Jerome, he found no further references to Bethel in the written historical record. However, he notes that the ruins at Beitin are greater than those of a village and seem to have undergone expansion after the time of Jerome, noting also the presence of what appear to be ruins of churches from the Middle Ages.
Bethel vs. Jerusalem
After the establishment of the Israelite monarchy and its subsequent division under Rehoboam of Judah and Jeroboam I of Israel, Bethel became a center of controversy. Jeroboam expanded and improved the shrine, hoping to make it—together with a major northern altar in the territory of Dan—a spiritual center of his kingdom. The Bethel shrine also competed spiritually and financially with the Temple of Jerusalem.
In dedicating the new altar at Bethel, Jeroboam is quoted as declaring to his people: “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem.” His next sentence could have been one of several meanings depending on how it is translated. The Hebrew reads: “‘elohiym Yisra’el `alah ‘erets Mitsrayim.” Its probable intent was “God who brought you out of the land of Egypt is here (in Bethel).” Its usual translation is “Here are your gods who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
While Jeroboam clearly intended the shrine to be devoted to Yahweh (or El, the two names now referring to the same deity), the biblical account portrays Bethel, from this point on, to be a center of idolatry. The focus of this accusation was the golden (possibly bronze) statue of a bull calf erected by Jeroboam to adorn the shrine’s entrance.
Despite this, Yahwist prophets continued to reside at Bethel (2 Kings 2:3). However, the earliest literary prophets name Bethel as one of the centers of Israelite spiritual degeneracy (Amos 3:4, 4:4-5; Hosea 4-15, etc.). Amos’ famous denunciation is directed at this shrine, along with those of Gilgal and Beersheba.
Amos 5:21-22King James Version (KJV)
21 I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies.
22 Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts.
Throughout the narrative in Kings and Chronicles, the kings of Israel are condemned for repeating the idolatrous “sin of Jeroboam” in failing to shut down Bethel’s shrine. Even King Jehu, who “destroyed Baal worship in Israel,” was criticized because: “He did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam, son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit—the worship of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan” (2 Kings 10:29).
It has come to my attention that from Bethel came the oracles of God, Whereas Babylon is the seat of the devil. What that means right now I do not know.