Bethlehem is flung like a old donkey blanket over knobby vertebrae. The backbone rises, falls, and rises again, clacking through the villages. Hebron is up the line, above Bethlehem; Jerusalem rests below it.
Once through the Great Barrier Wall, Issa and I make our way along one of these knobs. Our goal is Mar Saba, the desert Monastery of Saint Sabbas. But to get there on foot, we must first pass through this iconic Palestinian village. Bethlehem is famously remembered as the birthplace of Jesus.
The name Bethlehem seems straightforward enough. In Hebrew, it is Beth-lechem, “House of Bread.” In Arabic, it is Bayt-lachm, or “house of meat.” Some have suggested that behind both of these labels lurks an old fertility god, Lachama by name. The “house of Lachama” may be a reference to his temple. It is a curious proposal and one that possibly finds support by a mention of the place in the late second millennium BC (Bit-Lahmi from the Amarna texts). Could the biblical name “house of bread” be a gloss to avoid giving any credit to a pagan god? Possibly.
However one swims, “house of bread,” “meat,” or “Lachama,” the town name is suggestive of highland fertility. Bethlehem is the “larder,” “cupboard,” or perhaps “pantry town,” and has been for a very long time. The connected label Ephrath (or Ephrathah or Ephrata) may help; it too hints at fertility. It grows from a verbal root meaning “to blossom” or “bear fruit.”
Of course, all of this piles up in Micah 5:2. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” The Gospel writer Matthew points back to this text as anticipating the Messianic story (2:5-6).
A more obvious wordplay cinches down on the place. Consider how, in the book of Ruth
Old mother Naomi
went to the cupboard
to make her poor family some hummos,
but when she got there
the cupboard was bare
because there was a famine in frontofus.
This dire situation set a series of events in motion that eventually led to the birth of David, Israel’s most famous Old Testament king and Bethlehem’s second most-famous biblical character.
(it also reminds us how few words rhyme nicely with “hummos.”)
Issa and I skirt the walled area of Rachael’s Tomb (now only accessible from the Israeli side of the wall), and make our way down Manger Street. We walk the Donkey’s eastern flank. In the distance the yellow-brown of the Judean desert yawns. Its breath is hot; it is not yet ten in the morning.
The area of Rachel’s tomb was once easily accessible to all. Now the Great Barrier Wall makes it available only to the elites of the country. Image taken many years ago as a slide transparency and donated to the Cincinnati Christian University.
Buildings of stone and cement are stacked on every hillock. These ride erect, perhaps out of fear. To stretch the metaphor: if the donkey were to shudder, its load would slip off his flanks. Garbage screes in the valleys already anticipate this. It is a vertical town.
We turn east and sharply descend toward Bethlehem’s sister village of Bayt Sahour. Friends await us there.