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  • Jordan Kastrinsky

The Hebraic and Jewish Connection to Bethlehem: A Historical Overview

Introduction

Bethlehem, a city nestled in the Judaean Hills of the West Bank, is a place of profound historical and religious significance. Known in Hebrew as Beit Lehem (בֵּית לֶחֶם), meaning "House of Bread," Bethlehem's rich tapestry of history spans thousands of years. This article explores the Hebraic and Jewish connections to Bethlehem, its historical importance for both Jews and Arabs, major historical events, and its relationship to modern Israel.


Origin and Name
Bethlehem
Bethlehem. Source: Canva, public domain.

As stated above, the name "Bethlehem" originates from the Hebrew "Beit Lehem" (בֵּית לֶחֶם), translating to "House of Bread". This etymology reflects the city's long-standing agricultural heritage, central to its early settlement. After all, lest we forget, agriculture was often the main reason for settlement back in ancient times. Based on archaeological findings, initially, it was thought that the city was established by Canaanite tribes who named it Beit Lahama, after the god Lahama. With the Hebrew tribes’ takeover of the region and subsequent adaptation of the region to their specific national and religious narrative, so to arose the name "Beit Lehem", of course close to, but not invoking a pagan god. As we move through history, the significance of this name continues to underscore Bethlehem's role in sustenance and life, both physically and spiritually.


Biblical Significance and Jewish Historical Importance

Bethlehem holds a pivotal place in Jewish history and scripture, frequently mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. One of the earliest biblical mentions of the city is in Genesis. The biblical narrative ties Bethlehem to Rachel, Jacob's wife, who died and was buried there, marking it as a site of early Jewish significance (Genesis 35:19-20). Farther along the historical line, it is most notably recognized as the birthplace of King David, one of the most important figures in Jewish history. This association is highlighted in the Books of Samuel, where David is described as being anointed king by the prophet Samuel in Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:1-13).


As time progressed, Bethlehem's role continued to evolve. During the First Temple period, it was an important town within the Kingdom of Judah. Its prominence extended through the Second Temple period, maintaining its central place in Jewish religious and cultural life. This fact is further highlighted by the fact that another Jewish man, Jesus, was apparently born there, as it was a major site of Jewish civilization at the time. Until this very day, the Church of the Nativity stands in Bethlehem commemorating this very event.


Historical Events and Cultural Transitions

Numerous significant events have shaped Bethlehem’s historical trajectory. During the Roman and Byzantine eras, Bethlehem remained a key religious site as a result of the rise of Christianity. As mentioned above, the construction of the Church of the Nativity by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century AD cemented Bethlehem's role as a holy place in early Christianity that persisted through the Byzantine period and later.


Eventually, the Islamic conquest in the 7th century CE introduced new cultural dynamics to the region. Yet, the city of Bethlehem remained a vibrant center of trade and culture. Throughout these transitions, Jewish life persisted, adapting to the shifting political landscapes. The Ottoman period saw Bethlehem thrive as a multi-religious community, with significant contributions from Muslims, Christians, and Jews. This era was marked by the production of olive oil, wine, and various crafts, showcasing the city's economic and cultural vitality.


In more recent history, Bethlehem was affected by the Arab-Israeli conflict. It came under Jordanian control after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and was later taken by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. Since the Oslo Accords, Bethlehem has been under the administrative control of the Palestinian Authority, highlighting an often volatile, yet central role in the ongoing conflict and simultaneous peace efforts.


Modern Significance and Relation to Israel

Today, Bethlehem remains a significant site for both Israelis and Palestinians, symbolizing the complex and intertwined histories of both peoples. The city serves as a major cultural and economic hub in the West Bank, drawing tourists from around the world to its historic and religious sites. Despite the political tensions, Bethlehem continues to embody the rich, shared heritage of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.


Efforts to preserve Bethlehem's historical and cultural heritage are ongoing, reflecting its importance in both historical and contemporary contexts. The city is especially vibrant during the Christmas season when Christians from around the world visit the Church of the Nativity. This enduring significance underscores Bethlehem's role not only in historical narratives but also in the present-day cultural and religious landscape.


Conclusion

Bethlehem's Hebraic and Jewish connections are deeply embedded in its history and cultural fabric. From its biblical mentions as the birthplace of King David to its modern-day significance, Bethlehem remains a city of profound importance to both Jews and Arabs and all Abrahamic faiths. Understanding its layered history helps to appreciate its role in the broader narrative of the region.


Article Written by Jordan Kastrinsky (@jnkast)

Managing Partner - jbupscale.com 

Arabic Specialist - Arab Anthropology

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