Bethlehem: a little town with a name that has a triple meaning
The angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of Heaven—praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.’
When the angels had returned to Heaven, the shepherds said to each other, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’
Luke 2: 13–15 NLT
You know the rest of the story, of course. Dozens of Christmas carols give the details of Christ’s birth (and sometimes mangle them beyond recognition too!) It was in the little town of Bethlehem that Jesus was born. His parents went there because, a thousand years or so previously, King David had been born there and it had been prophesied that the Messiah would too.
Despite being ‘little’, it was therefore a very important place. So have you ever wondered what its name means? Well, here’s a tricky thing. We’re used to words having one meaning and, if there’s any ambiguity at all about it, the context should tell us what we’re looking for.
That’s not the way words are approached in the Hebrew language. Words can not only have a double or triple meaning—you might not be meant to choose one or other of the meanings but all of them!
And this is probably the case with Bethlehem. It’s made up of two parts: ‘beth’ and ‘lehem’. The first bit, ‘beth’ is pretty straightforward. It simply means house. The second part ‘lehem’ presents us with three possible options.
It means bread. It also means meat. It further means war.
Isn’t that a surprise? Bread and meat fit together in a way because they’re both things we eat, but war? Really? How does that work? Well, get ready for an even bigger surprise! Our word war goes way back in time and comes from the same idea as wurst, the German word for sausage, a mixture of meat and bread. Apparently, centuries ago, people thought of war as causing the same sort of chaotic mix of people all tossed together as you’d find in the ingredients of wurst.
Strange, huh? Maybe so. But it shows people didn’t always think like we do now. Still, if we hang on to our present-day idea that there should just be one meaning for Bethlehem, is it possible to pick, from the history of the town, which one of these best fits?
Well, they all do in some sense. Especially in the time of Jesus.
Bethlehem was famous for its harvests since the time of Ruth, an ancestor of Jesus. But it was also involved in warfare for many years. King David of Bethlehem was such a man of war God told him he could prepare for the Temple, but not actually build it.
When Jesus was born, there was actually a military garrison stationed at Bethlehem. Jerusalem was just 10 km away and it didn’t have a lot of water. However the Temple needed tremendous amounts, both to wash the area clean from the daily sacrifices and also for the enormous number of visitors who came up for the various festivals. Bethlehem had lots of water (and still does!) and it was ‘piped’ to Jerusalem via an immensely clever engineering system. The water was such a treasure it had to be guarded! So troops were garrisoned at Bethlehem to secure it.
Also at Bethlehem were fields, famous as the carol tells us, for shepherds watching their flocks by night. These shepherds were like sentries too—they tended the lambs being sent up to Jerusalem for the Temple. Unblemished lambs had to be selected from the flocks and taken to a watchtower on the northern outskirts of town. During lambing season, newborn lambs were placed in the mangers of this tower and wrapped in swaddling so they wouldn’t injure themselves.
How like the ‘Lamb of God’ all of this sounds. It’s probable the shepherds who were told by the angel they’d find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes knew exactly where to go look for the newborn King. The description seems to have given away the location as this watchtower.
So, after all this, we don’t have to choose between house of bread, house of meat or house of war for Bethlehem. They all make sense!