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> Beit Sahour
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Ancient Bethlehem
submitted by Turathuna Bethlehem University

Bethlehem cannot have been inhabited before the Late Bronze Age, for it has no springs. It was only at that time that men learnt to make cisterns to collect rain-water in the mountainous parts of Judaea. The first known mention of Bethlehem in history is in the Tell el-Amarna Letters, as Bit-ilu-Lakhama, 'the house of the goddess Lakhama.' The popular explanation that it means 'the house of bread' was folk-etymology and has long been abandoned. Bronze and Iron Age pottery has been found near the Church of the Nativity on a mound which was a Canaanite town. It is first mentioned in the Bible as where Rachel died and was buried. Her tomb is shown outside the town on the Jerusalem road, and is open to visitors of all faiths.

Later Bethlehem became a settlement of the tribe of Judah, including the family of Boaz, as mentioned in the Book of Ruth. But it first becomes historically important when the Prophet Samuel was commanded by God to anoint David, one of the sons of Jesse, as King of Israel in place of the unsatisfactory Saul. For a short while the Philistines held it. David's friend Jonathan made the excuse to Saul that, because it was the New Moon, he had to go to Bethlehem to sacrifice together with his family. We do not know precisely where the sacrificial altar was, but scholars have assumed that the logical place was where the Church of the Nativity now stands. This site lay outside the former east gate on a flat rock from which there is an awe-inspiring view, across the mountains towards the Dead Sea and the peaks of Jordan. David made Hebron his capital, and then moved to Jerusalem after he had taken it from the Jebusites. Thus Bethlehem passed again into obscurity to become what it was to be for many centuries, a market-town for Bedouin.

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