Bethlehem PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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The name "Bethlehem"

In popular etymology, the name Bethlehem means "House of Bread." (In Hebrew, beth = house, lehem = bread.) Often in the Bible, the name Ephrata is attached, meaning "fruitful." Thus both names seem to refer to fertility, although only the soil west of the town can rightly be called fertile.

Scholars dispute the name's original meaning. An Amarna letter (#290) refers to a town "of the region of Urusalim (= Jerusalem)" that has joined the enemy of Pharaoh. This town is designated in cuneiform by the sign bet nin.ib, which is preceded by the sign for a god. In 1915 a German scholar named O. Schroeder, using cuneiform name lists, equated Ninib with Antu and Antu with Lachama, an old Accadian divinity. This pair of equations gave rise to the widely accepted notion that the town of the Amarna letter was a Beth-Lachamu, the original of our Bethlehem. Schroeder's equations, however, are by no means certain.

Bet nin.ib could refer to a Sumerian warrior god named Ninurta. In this case, the town of the Amarna letter could still be our Bethlehem: we can discern, in lehem, another possible Hebrew root: the word "to fight." Bethlehem, then, would be "the place of fighting." This designation would suit the strategic reason for the town's existence.

As for Ephrata, a Calebite clan of Ephrathites apparently settled here: Caleb married Ephrath, who bore him Hur, who bore Salma, "father of Bethlehem" ( 1 Chronicles 2:19,24,50-51 ).

For more on all these points, see our source, Keel, Vol. I, pp. 613-14.