A city in the “hill country” of Judah
It was originally called Ephrath (Genesis 35:16, 19; 48:7; Ruth 4:11). It was also called Beth-lehem Ephratah (Micah 5:2), Beth-lehem-judah (1 Sam. 17:12), and “the city of David” (Luke 2:4).
Shepherds' fields outside of modern Bethlehem
Modern Bethlehem’s Manger Square and Church of the Nativity
The Shrine of the Nativity which is supposed to mark the place of Jesus Christ’s birth in Bethlehem
It is first noticed in Scripture as the place where Rachel died and was buried “by the wayside,” directly to the north of the city (Genesis 48:7). The valley to the east was the scene of the story of Ruth the Moabitess. There are the fields in which she gleaned, and the path by which she and Naomi returned to the town. Here was David’s birthplace, and here also, in after years, he was anointed as king by Samuel (1 Sam. 16:4-13); and it was from the well of Bethlehem that three of his heroes brought water for him at the risk of their lives when he was in the cave of Adullam (2 Sam. 23:13-17).
But Bethlehem was distinguished above every other city as the birthplace of “Him whose goings forth have been of old” (Matt. 2:6; compare Micah 5:2).
Afterwards Herod, “when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men,” sent and slew “all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under” (Matt. 2:16,18; Jer. 31:15).
Bethlehem still bears its name today. It is also known as Beit-Lahm, i.e., “house of flesh.” It is about 5 miles south of Jerusalem, standing at an elevation of about 2,550 feet above the sea, thus 100 feet higher than Jerusalem.
There is a church still existing, built by Constantine the Great (A.D. 330), called the “Church of the Nativity,” over a grotto or cave called the “holy crypt,” and said to be the “stable” in which Jesus was born. This is perhaps the oldest existing Christian church in the world. Close to it is another grotto, where Jerome the Latin father is said to have spent thirty years of his life in translating the Scriptures into Latin. (See VERSION.)
Rachel’s supposed tomb is also marked in the modern city of Bethlehem. It is revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin.
The modern city has many small shops on very narrow, winding streets. The city is built on a hill, and many houses are built in front of old caves.