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Bethlehem

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Bethlehem

    (Map 1:X5). Village in Judah, ca. 10 km (6 mi) south of Jerusalem. The site was settled in the Paleolithic era, but is first mentioned in the Amarna letters (fourteenth century BCE); the meaning of its name is probably “house of (the deity) Lahmu” rather than the traditional “house of bread.” It appears first in the Bible as home of a Levite who became a household priest in the hill country of Ephraim and was carried off by the Danites to their new city Dan (Judg. 17–18). Ruth came to Bethlehem with her mother Naomi, married Boaz, and became the ancestor of David (Ruth 4.13–22).

    One account of how David's career began says that he was brought to play the lyre for Saul (1 Sam. 16.14–23), the other that he was a shepherd whom Samuel anointed as king (1 Sam. 16.1–13). Hope for a king like David persisted in the postexilic period, and Micah 5.2–4 prophesies a shepherd king from Bethlehem. According to Matthew 2 and Luke 2, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and Matthew interpreted this as the fulfillment of Micah's prophecy.

    Christian tradition, perhaps as early as the second century CE, identified a cave as the site of Jesus' birth. About 338 CE, Constantine had a church built over the grotto (and Justinian reconstructed it in the early sixth century). Jerome settled in Bethlehem in 386; here he made the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible.

    Among other traditional sites in or near Bethlehem are the shepherds' field, the tomb of Rachel (Gen. 35.19), and the well from which David's warriors brought him water (2 Sam. 23.13–17; 1 Chron. 11.15–19).

    Sherman Elbridge Johnson

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