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BETHLEHEM ISRAEL | Bethlehem of Galilee and Bethlehem of Judah

Bethlehem of Judah, Israel

Bethlehem of Judah, Israel

Bethlehem Israel - Bethlehem of Galilee and Bethlehem of Judah

Bethlehem Israel: Discover secrets of Bethlehem of Galilee & Bethlehem of Judah with maps, genealogies, Rachel's tomb, birth of Jesus, Hebron, Bethel & Harran.

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A town named Bethlehem, Israel, captures world attention once a year in December and January, when it is flooded with foreign journalists.

They come to Israel to photograph the Christmas religious services for their international media employers.

These are not the seasoned investigative journalists sent to cover the region at other times, but are usually young rookies. They are chosen for this assignment because journalists with seniority want to spend the holidays with their families and nothing very unusual happens at the once-a-year gathering anyway.

Content to go with the flow of folklore, most of these journalists have no idea that there are two towns named Bethlehem in Israel. It never occurs to them that they might be missing a more important story and the real location of the Bethlehem of the birth of Jesus.

This article will tell you that story – a tale of two cities, a tale of two Bethlehems. It all begins in the Biblical book of Genesis.

Table of Contents

To understand the full story, begin with the historical background in the Table of Contents on the left. To just jump to the conclusions, use the page links on the right.

The Two Bethlehems in Israel

Rachel's Tomb

Bethlehem of Galilee

Migdal Eder

Ramah

Rachel's Tomb Shrine

Bethlehem of Judah

Birth of Jesus

Nazareth

Historical Background

Terah

Harran

Abraham

Scroll to Continue

Shechem

Bethel

Hebron

Ishmael and Isaac

Ishmael

Cave of Machpelah

Isaac

Isaac and Rebekah

Jacob and Rachel

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Terah

The first historical record of Bethlehem, Israel, mentions the town in a significant event in the family history of the descendants of a man named Terah: the death and burial of Terah's great-grandson's beloved wife, Rachel.

Ebla Tablets, circa 2300 BCE

Ebla Tablets, circa 2300 BCE

The city of Harran is mentioned in the Ebla Tablets which are housed at the Aleppo Museum in Syria. The ruins of ancient Harran are near Altınbaşak in present-day Turkey.

The book of Genesis is the personal family history of the household of Terah, who lived more than 4,000 years ago in the city of Ur, located in present-day Iraq. In Genesis 11, Terah's ancestry is given and he is listed in the tenth generation descended from Noah through Noah's son Shem. Terah's son Harran (or Haran) died in Ur and was buried there.

Terah journeyed from Ur with his two sons Abraham (originally named Abram) and Nahor, their wives, a company of people and herds of livestock. They traveled northward and settled on the east bank of the Euphrates River in what is today the country of Turkey. Terah named the settlement after his deceased son Harran, that his name be preserved. The region is called the "Harran Plains" to this day.

Terah, the city's founding father, died in Harran at the age of 205.

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Harran

Map of Terah's Journey from Ur to Harran

Map of Terah's Journey from Ur to Harran

The Plains of Harran Identified by NASA Earth Observatory

The Plains of Harran Identified by NASA Earth Observatory

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The Cities and Pasturelands of Abraham in NASA Satellite Photo of Israel

The Cities and Pasturelands of Abraham in NASA Satellite Photo of Israel

Abraham

After Terah's death, his son Abraham was told by God to leave his kindred and move to a new land where he would be blessed.

And so it was that Abraham left his brother Nahor in Harran and crossed the Euphrates River. He journeyed southward with his wife Sarah (who was also his half-sister), a company of more than 1,000 people, and herds of sheep, goats and cattle.

It was about 1900 BCE and Abraham was 75 years old.

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An altar in the ruins of ancient Shechem

An altar in the ruins of ancient Shechem

Shechem

Abraham camped at Shechem. Like the city of Harran, Shechem is also mentioned in the Ebla Tablets.

Abraham built an altar to God at Shechem. God visited him there and promised that his descendants would inherit this land (Genesis 12:7).

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Ruins of Ancient Bethel

Ruins of Ancient Bethel

Bethel

From Shechem, Abraham moved to Bethel (Beit El or Beth El, which means House of God) and he built an altar on a high place just west of the settlement. Understanding the importance of Bethel to the heirs of God's promise to Abraham is critical to locating the city of Bethlehem in Israel, as will be revealed in this article.

God visited Abraham there and said to him:

"Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see I will give it to you and to your seed [descendants] forever. I will make your seed [descendants] as the dust of the earth so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then your seed [descendants] can also be numbered.

"Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for unto you will I give it."

– Genesis 13:14-17

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The Fields of Hebron, Israel

The Fields of Hebron, Israel

"Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah [princess] shall be her name. I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her."

– Genesis 17:15

Hebron

Then Abraham moved his camp southward and lived in Hebron. In Hebron, he once again built an altar to God. It was in Hebron that Abraham was visited by Melchizedek the King/Priest of Salem (Jerusalem) and was blessed by him. This is when the family's religious connection to Jerusalem began. Abraham originated the family tradition of paying a ten-percent religious tithe to the priest in Jerusalem.

In Hebron, Abraham again has a conversation with God. Still childless, Abraham complains that he only has a Syrian employee to inherit his blessing and his wealth. God again confirms His promise that Abraham would have children:

"Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them. And He said to him, So shall your seed [descendants] be . . .

"Unto your seed [descendants] have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite."

– Genesis 15:5,18-21

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"Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

"But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year.”

– Genesis 17:19-21

Ishmael and Isaac

When Sarah was well beyond the age to give birth to a child, she made a fateful decision.

At Sarah's insistence, Abraham fathered a son for Sarah (Sarai) through a surrogate, an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar. When Hagar conceived, she despised Sarah. A son was born and Abraham named him Ishmael.

Years later, Sarah miraculously conceived and gave birth to the son of God's promise in her old age. According to God's command, the baby was named Isaac.

Genealogy of Terah's Family

The Descendants of Terah to the 12 Tribes of Israel

The Descendants of Terah to the 12 Tribes of Israel

Abraham's Eight Sons

Descendants of Abraham's Eight Sons

Descendants of Abraham's Eight Sons

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Paran Wilderness Map - Homestead of Abraham's Son Ishmael

Paran Wilderness Map - Homestead of Abraham's Son Ishmael

Ishmael

Ishmael was thirteen years old when Isaac was born and he began to mistreat the baby Isaac. God commanded Abraham to send Ishmael and his Egyptian mother away from his household. Abraham sent them out with an inheritance of possessions, but not of land.

Ishmael married an Egyptian and established his household In the Wilderness of Paran, in present-day Jordan. He lived south of the regions settled by Terah's grandsons Moab and Ammon, and north of the region settled by Isaac's son Esau (Edom).

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Cave of Machpelah, 1906 Photograph

Cave of Machpelah, 1906 Photograph

Repaired Cave of Machpelah in Hebron

Repaired Cave of Machpelah in Hebron

One entrance to the burial cave inside the Machpela building

One entrance to the burial cave inside the Machpela building

Steps to burial vaults in Cave of Machpela

Steps to burial vaults in Cave of Machpela

Cave of Machpelah

Abraham's wife Sarah died in Hebron at the age of 127. Abraham sought a burial site which would serve as his family's cemetery. He chose a prominent cave in a nearby field owned by a Hittite man.

Abraham was offered the site without charge, but he insisted on paying for the grave site to solidify an uncontested transfer by inheritance through his son Isaac (Genesis 25:5).

So Abraham bought the cave and the field adjoining it for 400 shekels of silver and the deed is recorded here. The site is called the Cave of Machpelah (Cave of Patriarchs).

King Herod the Great (937 – 4 BCE), known for his massive building campaigns in the Holy Land, built a massive structure of native limestone over the Cave of Machpelah which stands today. In it, visitors now will find a synagogue, a mosque and a church (supervised by three bickering Christian denominations).

After the Six Day War, amateur archaeologist Moshe Dayan (acting within his capacity as Israel Defense Minister 1967 – 1974) took a group into the complex and opened a closed entrance into the cave.

He discovered that the cave descends to two underground burial chambers. View his photographs of the crypts of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Machpelah. The first level of burial vaults is 40 feet (12.19 m.) below ground-level.

Abraham buried Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah and thus the family mausoleum was established. The location of Machpelah in Hebron is a crucial piece of the puzzle in determining which Bethlehem in Israel is the location of Rachel's grave, as you will soon see.

Drawing of Underground Chambers in Cave of Machpela, based upon Codex Manuscripts from the Crusaders in the Holy Land  (1100-1291CE)

Drawing of Underground Chambers in Cave of Machpela, based upon Codex Manuscripts from the Crusaders in the Holy Land (1100-1291CE)

During the Crusades (11th – 13th centuries CE), Crusaders entered the Cave of Machpela and described their desecration of the graves. They exhumed the bones from several of the tombs in their search for relics. The record of their visit to Machpela is found in the Latin Codex manuscript, Tractatus De Inventione Sanctorum Patriarcharum Abraham Ysaac Et Jacob.

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Terracotta Jug from Hebron, Israel, ca. 1900 - 1600 BCE

Terracotta Jug from Hebron, Israel, ca. 1900 - 1600 BCE

Isaac

With Sarah's death, Abraham sought a bride for Isaac. He sent a trusted servant back to Harran to find a wife from the descendants of Abraham's brother, Nahor, the son of Terah.

The young woman he found was Nahor's granddaughter, Rebekah. Isaac married Rebekah in Hebron and they lived in the tent which had belonged to Sarah.

Abraham married again and fathered six sons by his second wife, Keturah. As each of those sons matured and married, Abraham gave them an inheritance of possessions and sent them away to live eastward of the land promised to Isaac (Genesis 25:6).

Abraham died at the age of 175 and was buried in the Cave of Machpelah by his sons Isaac and Ishmael. Thus, the Cave of Machpelah was again confirmed as the family's burial vault.

"And Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre, the field which Abraham purchased of the children of Heth; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife."

Genesis 25:9,10

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The Birth of Twins Jacob and Esau

The Birth of Twins Jacob and Esau

Isaac and Rebekah

Isaac and Rebekah became the parents of twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob received the inheritance of the promise given to Abraham for the rights to the Promised Land and for Abraham's covenant with God.

Esau married two Hittite women, which grieved his parents. (Later, Esau also married a daughter of Ishmael.)

Isaac instructed Jacob to return to Harran to the household of Nahor, the brother of Abraham, and to find a wife for himself from the lineage of the patriarch Terah.

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The Overlook at Bethel, Israel

The Overlook at Bethel, Israel

Jacob and Rachel

So Jacob left his home in Hebron and began his journey to Harran, more than 400 miles (644 km) away. He followed the path of his ancestors along the ridge of the mountains, which is called the Way of the Patriarchs to this day. He traveled with a small caravan of camels and, after a journey of about 38 miles (61 km), he stopped in Bethel for the night.

Bethel is the place where his grandfather, Abraham, stopped to pasture his herds of animals on his journey from Harran to the Promised Land. It is where God visited Abraham and where Abraham built an altar. During his night at Bethel, Jacob had a vision from God in which God promised to be with him on his way northward and to bring him back to this place. Jacob set up an anointed pillar in Bethel as a memorial stone of God's promise to him.

Jacob and Rachel

Jacob and Rachel

As Jacob approached the outskirts of Harran, he met a cousin who would become his wife, the daughter of his mother's brother, Laban. He was immediately smitten by the young woman and he kissed her. This is Rachel, whose grave is in Bethlehem, Israel.

A month later, Jacob asked Laban for Rachel's hand in marriage. After a betrothal of seven years which required Jacob to work for Laban as the bridal price for Rachel, Jacob was deceived by his uncle and given Rachel's older sister, Leah, as a wife instead. A week later, Jacob and Rachel were married, too.

Jacob, Rachel and Leah lived in Harran for 13 years after the weddings. Then Jacob had a falling out with his uncle Laban, and Jacob left Harran to return to his father's home. He took his two wives, his wives' two maidservants who had also born him children, his eleven sons and a daughter, a company of people and large herds of cattle, sheep, goats, camels and donkeys.

It must have been nearing wintertime when the slow-moving caravan left Harran, for Jacob and his family stopped on the east bank of the Jordan River at Succoth – a place where temperatures in the summer can reach 123.98°F (51.1°C). Winter is the only rainy season in the Jordan Valley, and the record in Genesis states that Jacob built a house and temporary shelters for his animals in Succoth.

Jacob then moved with his company and his herds to the traditional grazing lands which his family had used since the days of Abraham.

He crossed the Jordan River and settled in Shechem. There, just like his grandfather Abraham, he built an altar to God. Jacob also purchased land in Shechem (Genesis 33:8-20). Jacob's land in Shechem became the scene of major historical events in the lives of his descendants.

"And God said unto Jacob: 'Arise, and go up to Bethel, and live there; and make there an altar unto God.' "

Genesis 35:1

Jacob Returns to Bethel with Rachel

So Jacob returned to the place where he spent the first night on his journey to Harran to find a wife, the place where God promised he would return. He left there as a single man and returned with two wives, their maidservants, 12 children he fathered (all under the age of 13 years), a great company of employee-servants and herds of animals.

Ruins of Ancient Bethel (top left) with Grazing Lands and Olive Trees in Foreground

Ruins of Ancient Bethel (top left) with Grazing Lands and Olive Trees in Foreground

While Jacob and Rachel were living in Bethel, Jacob's childhood nanny, Deborah, died. Jacob buried her in the valley just below Bethel, knowing that his family for generations to come would return to the homestead in Bethel.

Today, Jacob's descendants live in a modern village of 6,500 people, just a short walk from the ancient settlement.

"And God said unto him 'Your name is Jacob; your name shall not be called Jacob any more, but Israel shall be your name.' And He called his name Israel . . .

" 'And the land which I gave unto Abraham and Isaac, to you I will give it and to your seed [descendants] after you will I give the land.' "

– Genesis 35:10-12

God visited Jacob in Bethel and changed his name to Israel, and the Promised Land became known as the Land of Israel. The sons of Israel became leaders of the separate Tribes of Israel.

Jacob built a pillar in Bethel, where his grandfather Abraham had built an altar and where he himself had built a pillar on his journey to Harran to find a wife.

Jacob and his company left Bethel and, the Bible records, were on their way to Bethlehem when Rachel died.

Where is this Bethlehem and where is Rachel's tomb?

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". . . and he [Jacob] loved Rachel more than Leah . . . And God saw that Leah was hated, and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren."

– Genesis 29:30,31

"Then God remembered Rachel, and God gave heed to her and opened her womb. So she conceived and bore a son and said, 'God has taken away my reproach.' She named him Joseph [which means God will increase/add], saying, 'May God give me another son.'”

– Genesis 30:22-24

Rachel's Tomb

Rachel was the favored wife of Jacob, and the only woman he wanted to marry. Throughout most of her marriage, Rachel was barren and longed for children.

Before Rachel gave birth to her first child, her son Joseph, her sister Leah had born six sons and a daughter by Jacob. Leah's maidservant, Zilpah, had given Jacob two sons, and Rachel's maidservant, Bilah, had born two sons.

Now, on the journey leaving Bethel, she was in the last stages of pregnancy with her second child.

Death of Rachel After the Birth of Benjamin

Death of Rachel After the Birth of Benjamin

"And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was still some distance to come to Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth and she suffered severe labor. When she was in severe labor that the midwife said to her, 'Fear not, for this also is a son to you.'

"And it came too pass as her soul was departing, for she died, that she named him Ben-oni [son of my sorrow]; but his father called him Benjamin [son of my strength].

"And Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath, that is, Bethlehem."

– Genesis 35:16-19

The Biblical record states that Jacob and his company were traveling from Bethel to Bethlehem when Rachel went into labor and died in childbirth.

In the fourth century CE, Helena, the divorced wife of Roman Emperor Constantius Chlorus and mother of Constantine the Great, identified Rachel's Tomb as a pile of rocks on the main road at the northern entrance of Bethlehem of Judah, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Helena was an eighty-year-old woman seeking relics and amulets in the Holy Land and paid handsome sums to those willing to indulge her quest. She was never a Biblical scholar, and it is doubtful that she was literate in any language; but, being the mother of the emperor did have its privilege. The sites she designated became the gospel of her newly acquired religion, Roman Christianity a religion she heavily subsidized with her son's wealth.

Helena's mythical location of Rachel's Tomb is still presented today as an authentic fact. But it is wrong.

There was only one town named Bethlehem in Israel at the time of Rachel's death and it wasn't located south of Jerusalem: It was in the northern hill country of the Galilee.

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Wheat Growing in Bethlehem of Galilee

Wheat Growing in Bethlehem of Galilee

Bethlehem of Galilee

The name Bethlehem (Beit Lechem or Beit Lehem) means house of bread. In the days of Jacob, native wheat varieties grew in the fields of Bethlehem. Wheat was listed as one of the seven species which God listed in His definition of a good land (Deuteronomy 8:7-10).

In the Genesis passage which records the death of Rachel, Bethlehem is also called Ephrath, which means fruitful.

Today, Bethlehem of Galilee (Beit Lehem HaGlilit) is home to lush fields of wheat and spices.

Wheat field in Bethlehem, Israel, in the Galilee (Beit Lehem HaGlilit)

Wheat field in Bethlehem, Israel, in the Galilee (Beit Lehem HaGlilit)

Commercial Spice Fields in Bethlehem, Israel, in the Galilee (Beit Lehem HaGlilit), grown without fertilizers or pesticides

Commercial Spice Fields in Bethlehem, Israel, in the Galilee (Beit Lehem HaGlilit), grown without fertilizers or pesticides

Jacob was going to the rich pasture grounds in Bethlehem of Galilee when he left Bethel with his company and his herds. Bethlehem of Galilee is about 75 miles (121 km) north of Bethel and traveling with herds which included sheep is a slow journey. The herds would need time to graze and find water every day. (A non-nursing cow needs to consume 25 pounds of grass per day.) It is doubtful that the caravan would cover more than 10 miles (16 km) per day.

"And Jacob set up a pillar on her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day.

"Then Israel journeyed on and spread his tent beyond the Migdal Eder [tower of the flock]."

– Genesis 35:20,21

After more than a week of traveling, just short of reaching Bethlehem, Rachel went into labor and the caravan stopped. There is reason to believe that the birth was premature, for the trip would have been planned with her pregnancy in mind.

On the way to Bethlehem, Rachel died giving birth to her son, Benjamin, in Migdal Eder.

Map of Jacob's Sojourn: Succoth, Shechem, Migdal Eder and Bethlehem of Galilee

Map of Jacob's Sojourn: Succoth, Shechem, Migdal Eder and Bethlehem of Galilee

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Migdal Eder, Israel

Migdal Eder sits on an overlook of the Jezreel Valley, one of the largest fertile valleys in the world. The western portion of this valley is sometimes called the Valley of Megiddo, a scene of major battles in the history of Israel.

Road Map of Bethlehem of Galilee, Migdal and the Jezreel Valley in Israel

Road Map of Bethlehem of Galilee, Migdal and the Jezreel Valley in Israel

Ancient Wine Press at Migdal from the Time of Jacob and Rachel

Ancient Wine Press at Migdal from the Time of Jacob and Rachel

The word migdal means tower in Hebrew and the word eder means flock. Combined, Migdal Eder means Tower of the Flock. Towers were used by shepherds to watch over large flocks of animals and were used by farmers to guard their crops in the field. Ancient watch towers are found throughout Israel.

In the map to the right, Bethlehem of Galilee (Beit Lehem HaGlilit) is at the 'A' marker. Migdal Eder is called Migdal HaEmek (Tower of the Valley).

Ruins from the Bronze Age in Migdal HaEmek reveal a settlement with a rock-cutting industry and three quarries. Wine presses, cisterns, rock-cut tombs and burial caves are found there, indicating an established community.

When Jacob built the tower for Rachel's tombstone, it was probably done with the assistance of these master stone masons. A wet nurse for the orphaned Benjamin might have been found there, as well.

The Overlook of the Jezreel Valley in Israel

The Overlook of the Jezreel Valley in Israel

In the account of Rachel, the words Migdal Eder also take on a symbolic meaning because the name Rachel means ewe in Hebrew.

When Rachel met Jacob in Harran for the first time, she was shepherding her father's sheep and had brought them to be watered at a well. Jacob removed the rock covering of the well and helped her water the flock. The life of the young shepherdess ended as she gave birth to her second and last child, her flock of children, and from her gravesite beneath the tower Jacob built, she watches over her flock of descendants.

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