Bethlehem, Bethany, Bethel, Bethesda, Bethsaida, Bethphage and Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan—so many places in Scripture start with ‘beth’. And there’s lots more than just those seven just mentioned. They are just the common ones you might be likely to recognise. There’s also Beth Shean, Beth Shemesh, Beth Lebaoth, Beth Meon, Beth Ma’acah, Beth Peor, Beth Aven, Beth Horon, Beth Anath, Beth Barah, Beth Nimrah, Beth Jeshimoth and, well, you get the idea. There’s lots and lots and lots and more lots of them.
So just what does beth mean? Very simply it means house or tent or place. It’s a bit like ‘–ton’, meaning town, on the ends of names like Boston, Dayton, Kingston, Edmonton, Houston, Wellington, Washington and Southampton. Or like ‘–ville’, meaning town or city, in Nashville, Townsville, Jacksonville, Hicksville, Bourneville and dozens of others.
Bethlehem means house of bread or house of warfare. Bethany means house of dates or house of sorrow. Bethel means house of God. Bethesda means house of mercy. Bethsaida means house of fish or house of the hunter. Bethphage means house of figs.
‘Beth’ isn’t just a word meaning house or place. It actually comes from a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The first letter is ‘aleph’ and the second is ‘beth’—and if you run them together, you’ll actually see where our English word alphabet comes from.
Way back, these letters weren’t just random scribbles or shapes. They stood for things: ‘aleph’ stood for an ox and ‘beth’ stood for a tent. Now the shape of the letter beth might not look much like any modern tent but it represented the floor plan of an ancient dwelling. These were set up very carefully with the women protected in the inmost part of the tent and the men’s quarters closer to the door. There was a communal space as well.
It should be no surprise then that ‘beth’ also came to mean family. The ‘house of David’ meant the family descended from David, though most often it was used to mean the line of kings. The ‘house of Jacob’ meant the family descended from Jacob, which of course was all of the people of Israel.
In the letter to the Hebrews, God’s house is mentioned:
‘Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are His house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.’ (Hebrews 3:6 NIV)
And God’s house here means God’s family. We’re all part of His ‘beth’, if we’ve put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ.