Bethlehem: Its Old Testament Listing and Significance

Howard Stevens


The purpose of this article is to present a list of the Old Testament passages that pertain to the city of Bethlehem and, in so doing, to shed light on the city's Biblical, Davidic, and Messianic significance.


Bethlehem is located about five miles south of Jerusalem near the chief north-south route linking Jerusalem with Hebron and the Negeb.[1] The word Bethlehem means "house (place) of bread,"[2] and its significance lies in the fact that it is located in a fertile region characterized by an abundance of corn (for making bread),[3] as well as figs, vines, almonds, and olives.[4] It was originally called Ephrath or Ephratah, which means "fruitful."[5] It also refers to "house (place) of fighting" or "house (sanctuary) of (the god) Lahamu,"[6] due to the suggestion that the final word "lehem" is Lakhmu, an Assyrian deity. However, there is no evidence that this god was ever revered in Palestine.[7]

Historical and Old Testament Significance

The first historical mention of Bethlehem is found in one of the Amarna letters in the early fourteenth century b.c., in which "Abdu-Heba, prince of Jerusalem, complains that Bit-Lahmi has gone over to the Apiru."[8] The word Bit-Lahmi or Beit-lahm ("house of flesh") represents the Arabic attempt to translate the word Ephratah, just as Bethlehem appears to be the Hebraic attempt to translate Ephratah.[9] The first Biblical mention of Ephrath is in Genesis 35:16-19 and Genesis 48:7, where it is noted as being located just a short distance from the burial place for Jacob's wife, Rachel. From this we can deduce that the city (or town) of Ephrath existed as early as Jacob's return to Palestine, and perhaps even earlier.[10]

In the genealogical lists of 1 Chronicles 2:19,51 and 4:4, Ephrath appears as a person, the wife of Caleb and mother of Hur, and the title of "father of Bethlehem" is bestowed on both Hur (1 Chron. 4:4) and Salma, the son of Hur (1 Chron. 2:51,54).[11] The name Salma is strikingly similar to the name Salmah (or Salmon), who is recorded in the Book of Ruth as the father of Boaz (Ruth 4:20-21) and who also was intimately connected with Bethlehem. In addition, Hur is also the name of the father of Uri, the father of Bezalel (Exod. 31:2; 1 Chron. 2:20). This is significant because in the East a trade or calling remained fixed in one's family for many generations. Therefore, if there is any foundation for the tradition of the Targum that Jesse, the father of David, was "a weaver of the veils of the sanctuary" (Targ. Jonathan on 2 Sam. 21:19), he may have inherited the accomplishments and the profession of his art from his forefather, who was "filled with the Spirit of God" to work all manner of works, to include that of embroidery and weaving (Exod. 35:35).[12]

After the conquest of Canaan, the city bears the name Bethlehem-Judah (Judg. 17:7; Ruth 1:1-2; 1 Sam. 17:12), probably to distinguish it from the small and remote place of the same name in Zebulun, located approximately seven miles west-northwest of Nazareth (Josh. 19:15-16; Judg. 19:1).[13]

In the Book of Judges, Bethlehem is mentioned as the birthplace for both the Levite Jonathan (although it was not named as a Levitical city, it nevertheless appears to have been a residence of Levites), son of Gershom, who became the Danites' priest at their northern settlement (Judg. 17:7; 18:30), and for the Levite's concubine, whose cruel death at Gibeah resulted in the war between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of Israel (Judg. 19:1 to 20:48).[14]

In the Book of Ruth we see the possibility of some sort of connection or relationship between Bethlehem and Moab, whereby Elimelech, Naomi, and family flee to Moab to escape from the famine that was plaguing Bethlehem at that time (Ruth 1:1-2). Furthermore, this connection appears to be strengthened when Ruth, a Moabitess by birth, returns with her Israeli mother-in-law, Naomi, to Bethlehem, marries another Israelite (Boaz), and becomes not only an Israeli citizen, but also an important member of the Messianic line (Ruth 4:13-22).[15]

Bethlehem is also the birthplace of Israel's first two kings: Saul (1 Sam. 9:1 to 13:22) and David (1 Sam. 16:1-13). In fact, David himself was a descendant of Ruth (through her marriage to Boaz). The possible connection between Bethlehem and Moab again surfaces when David, while being pursued by Saul, sends his parents to the house of the king of Moab at Mizpah (1 Sam. 22:3-4). Although we have no written record as to the origin and source of this possible connection, we nevertheless find it fully in force, even though this event took place a century after the arrival of Ruth.[16] Also, with respect to the death of Saul, and prior to David's coronation as king, Bethlehem appears to have been overrun and occupied by the Philistines. We read in the Biblical account how David, while he and his followers were holed up in one of the cave strongholds, longed to taste the water from the well in Bethlehem, and three of David's "mighty men" broke through the Philistine ranks and brought back to David some of this water (2 Sam. 23:14-16; 1 Chron. 11:15-19).[17]

Shortly after the division of Israel into a northern and a southern kingdom after Solomon's death, King Rehoboam of Judah fortified it as a protective measure in case of invasion (2 Chron. 11:6).[18] In the time of Jeremiah, we see that Bethlehem was close to Geruth Chimham, which was the site of departure for travelers to Egypt (Jer. 41:17, NASB). In addition, when the Israeli exiles returned from Babylon in 538 b.c., over one hundred citizens of Bethlehem were among their number. This seems to indicate that a large number of Bethlehemites had been among the original captivity (Ezra 2:21; Neh. 7:26).[19]

Finally, in the Book of Micah, Bethlehem receives its crowning glory as the predicted birthplace for the Messiah (Mic. 5:2; cf. Matt. 2:5,6,8,16; Luke 2:4,15; John 7:42), in spite of the fact that from a worldly perspective, Bethlehem's significance was eclipsed by other more prominent places (Mic. 5:2; cf. Isa. 53:2).[20]

Davidic and Messianic Significance

Although Bethlehem was overshadowed by other more prestigious places, its Old Testament prominence is primarily the result of its association with David, as well as being the predicted birthplace of the Messiah. With respect to David, Bethlehem was his home (1 Sam. 17:12,15; 20:6,28); the scene of his anointing by Samuel (1 Sam. 16:1-13); the site of a Philistine garrison (2 Sam. 23:14-16; 1 Chron. 11:16-18); the home of Elhanan, one of David's "mighty men" (2 Sam. 23:24; 1 Chron. 11:26); and the burial place of Asahel, a close relative of David (2 Sam. 2:32; 1 Chron. 2:13-16).

Because of Bethlehem's close association with David and the events of his life, it became known as the "City of David."[21] However, it would seem that the elevation of David to the kingdom did not affect the fortunes of his native homeland, and it appears that the only recollection of it that he manifests is when he longs for the water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem (2 Sam. 23:15).[22]

With respect to its Messianic significance, Bethlehem was prophesied to be the birthplace of the Messiah (Mic. 5:2; cf. Matt. 2:6; John 7:42). This prophecy was fulfilled by the birth of Jesus Christ (Matt. 2:1,5; Luke 2:4,15), and it is as the birthplace of Jesus that Bethlehem achieves its worldwide recognition. The Biblical stories concerning the shepherds and Magi take place in Bethlehem; and there Herod sought the newborn Christ and, not finding Him, ordered the massacre of the infants of the city (Matt. 2:8,16).[23]

From the first century a.d. onward, Bethlehem has been a place of pilgrimage, and throughout the following centuries the city has continued to be a place of perennial interest to Christians.[24] According to very early church tradition, Jesus was born in a cave in Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity was erected over the cave and still stands as one of the most ancient church buildings in existence.[25]


Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2005.

Buttrick, George Arthur, ed. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. I. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962.

Douglas, J.D., ed. The New Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973.

Douglas, J.D., and Merrill C. Tenney, eds. The New International Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987.

Fausset, A.R. Fausset's Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966.

Hackett, H.B., ed., Smith's Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971.

Hastings, James, ed. Dictionary of the Bible. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963.

Palmer, Edwin H., ed. The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Vol. 1. Wilmington, Del.: National Foundation for Christian Education, 1964.

Pfeiffer, Charles F. Old Testament History. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973.

Strong, Robert. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. New York: Abingdon Press, 1970.

Young, Robert. Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972.

Zondervan Expanded Concordance. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971.

© 2006 by Howard W. Stevens

[1] Archaeological Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2005), 1487.

[2] J.D. Douglas and Merrill C. Tenney, eds., The New International Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 141.

[3] George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 394.

[4] A.R. Fausset, Fausset's Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 90.

[5] Douglas and Tenney, The New International Dictionary of the Bible, 318.

[6] Buttrick, The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 394.

[7] J.D. Douglas, ed., The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973), 145.

[8] Buttrick, The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 394.

[9] H.B. Hackett, ed., Smith's Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), 293.

[10] Fausset, Fausset's Bible Dictionary, 90.
[11] Hackett, Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, 293.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Fausset, Fausset's Bible Dictionary, 90.
[16] Hackett, Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, 293-94.
[17] Fausset, Fausset's Bible Dictionary, 90.
[18] Archaeological Study Bible, 1487.
[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 90, 210.

[21] Buttrick, The Interpreter's Bible Dictionary, 395.
[22] Hackett, Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, 294.

[23] James Hastings, ed., Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963), 100.

[24] Edwin H. Palmer, ed., The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Vol. 1 (Wilmington, Del.: National Foundation for Christian Education, 1964), 648.

[25] Archaeological Study Bible, 1487.