("house of bread"), i.e. in a fertile region. Two hours journey, in a southward or rather southwesterly direction from Jerusalem, by the Jaffa gate. Existing at the time of Jacob's return to Israel; originally called Ephrath or Ephrath, i.e. fruitful (Genesis 35:16; Genesis 35:19; Genesis 48:7; Psalm 132:6). Hur and Salma, Hur's son, both have the title "father of Bethlehem" (1 Chronicles 2:51; 1 Chronicles 4:4). Hur is the father of Uri, father of Bezaleel (1 Chronicles 2:20; Exodus 31:2-11). Tradition made Jesse "a weaver of the veils of the sanctuary"; and as trades are hereditary in the E. he may have inherited the embroidering skill of his forefather whom Moses employed for the tabernacles being "filled with the spirit of God" (Exodus 25:35). Hence appears the appropriateness of the allusions to the "weaver's beam" in representing the spears of giants slain by David and his heroes.
After the conquest of Canaan it bears the name Bethlehem Judah; distinguishing it from Bethlehem in Zebulun (Joshua 19:15-16; now Beit-lahm, six miles W. of Nazareth). It was occupied once by a Philistine garrison, when David desired a draught from the well by the gate, so familiar to his childhood (2 Samuel 23:14-15; 1 Chronicles 11:15-19). The Levite Jonathan, son of Gershom, who became the Danites' priest at their northern settlement, and the Levite's concubine whose cruel death at Gibeah caused the destruction of Benjamin, came from Bethlehem (Judges 17:7; Judges 18:30; Judges 19:9.) The connection of Bethlehem with Moab appears in the book of Ruth. Hence the undesigned propriety appears of David, Ruth's descendant, choosing the king of Moab's house at Mizpeh as the safest retreat for his parents, when he was outlawed by Saul (1 Samuel 22:3-4).
Bethlehem was fortified by Rehoboam (2 Chronicles 11:6). In Jeremiah's time (Jeremiah 41:17) the caravansary of Chimham near Bethlehem (see 2 Samuel 19:37-40) was the usual starting place for Egypt. The inn (kataluma) mentioned in Luke 2 was a similar one, and possibly the same. At the return from Babylon, 123 "children of Bethlehem" accompanied Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:21; Nehemiah 7:26). Bethlehem is called the "city of David" (Luke 2:4), but the "town (Greek village) where David was" in John 7:42. Now Beitlahm, "the house of flesh." Solomon's pools and "gardens" (Ecclesiastes 2:5) lay S. of Bethlehem. Thekoa, built (fortified)by Rehoboam, lay S.E., the place of Amos' (Amos 1:1) birth (Amos 7:10-15). S.W. is the valley of Sennacherib's overthrow. N.E. is the traditional scene of the angels' vision to the shepherds; but the hills were more likely to have been the scene of the flocks being kept than the grain abounding valley.
Dr. Clarke identified a well of pure water here with that which David thirsted for; but the traditional site is a group of three cisterns half a mile away on the other side of the wady on the N., and Robinson denies the existence of any well of living water in or near the town (2 Samuel 23:15-18). Bethlehem is now a village with one chief street, and population (wholly Christian) of 3,000. The slopes outside abound in figs, vines, almonds and olives. The Church of the Nativity at the N. side was originally built by the empress Helena over the Lord's presumed birthplace; Justin Martyr in the 2nd century said that our Lord's birth took place in a cave close to the village. Justinian erected a more sumptuous church, with gray limestone columns and a lofty roof of cedar wood; but the present roof is of English oak, presented by Edward IV. The grotto of the nativity is beneath a crypt, 39 feet long, 11 broad, 9 high, hewn out of the rock and lined with marble.
A rich altar is over the supposed site of the Savior's birth, and a star of silver inlaid in white marble, with the inscription "Hie de virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est." A manger too is there of white marble (Luke 2:12). Jerome's sepulchre is near; Bethlehem being where he lived for 30 years, and diligently studied the Hebrew Scriptures, to prepare the Vulgate translation. In Micah 5:2, "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" seems to contradict Matthew 2:6, "Thou art not the least among the princes of Juda."
Really, Matthew by independent inspiration unfolds further Micah's prophecy. For "Ephratah," now become obsolete, he substitutes" in the land of Jude"; furthermore he implies, "though thou art little in a worldly point of view, thou art the reverse of least among Jude's princes, in the spiritual glory of being Messiah's birthplace" (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). The low state of David's line when Messiah was born is also implied in Micah (Isaiah 53:2).