Question--does Micah 5 speak about the birth-place of the Messiah, or only His birth-family?

date: Sept 4

This question came in...


Hope you can help with this. It has to do with Micah 5:1[2].

As I understand, the pronoun for "thou" ("atah") is masculine, whereas towns are feminine, so "thou" in Micah, can't be referring to the town itself (see [some anti-missionary Jewish site here]). The article I'm referring to says that "Beit-Lechem," therefore, has to refer to a clan, and Micah does not tell us where the Messiah is to be born. Do we have an answer?


Well, I went to the website referred to and was rather surprised at the argumentation there--especially at how "un-Jewish" it seemed! Their explanation was pretty-much in complete contradiction to the great Jewish sages, and seemed oddly out-of-synch with Jewish tradition about the Messiah. This is by itself no indication that their view is wrong, of course, but the conclusions of the prior Jewish writers are more in line with the grammar and usage of the biblical text.

So, there's three basic problems with their position:

1. It disagrees with historic, traditional Jewish scholarship [not a show-stopper]

2. It makes a basic grammatical error dealing with beit- place names [a definite show-stopper]

3. It has a historical weakness, when it posits some otherwise-unknown "house of Lehem" [a major problem]

So, let's sketch this out quickly...

1. First, it (oddly) disagrees with traditional Jewish views on the verse and the birthplace of the messiah.

Let me just go through a couple of ancient sources, showing that Bethlehem Ephrathah was understood as a place-name (and not a clan-name), both in Micah and in other passages in which the name occurs.

First, Rashi:

In the Micah passage, he says:

"And you, Bethlehem Ephrathah" - "whence David emanated, as it is stated (I Sam 17:58): 'The son of your bondsman, Jesse the Bethlehemite' and Bethlehem is called Ephrath, as it is said (Gen 48:7): 'On the road to Ephrath, that is Bethlehem" [Notice that Rashi links our Micah passage to Gen 48.7, in which BE (Bethlehem Ephrathah) is explicitly a place ("near B"), as noted by the annotator in the Sapirstein edition of Rashi--"He does so to contrast his failure to bury Rachel within the city of Beth-lehem..."]

And, in the 1 Sam 17:12 passage the site refers to, Rashi is even more explicit in his translation:

"And David was the son of this Ephrathite man -- 'Bethlehem is situated in the land of Ephrath"

Then, Ramban/Nachmanides:

In the same Genesis passage, Ramban acknowledges Rashi's understanding of BE as a place, and understands the biblical narrative similarly:

"And there in the narrative of her death it is still more clearly written, And Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan -- the same is Beth-el, and it is further stated, And they journeyed from Beth-el and there was still some way to come to Ephrath, and Rachel died on the way between Beth-el and Bethlehem Ephratha in the Land of Israel" [Note that this is very, very clear--BE was a place]

Next, Mezudath David, on the Micah passage:

"The prophet specifies 'Bethlehem Ephrathah' to distinguish the town from the town of Bethlehem in the territory of Zebulun, mentioned in Joshua 19:15"

Modern Jewish sources seem to be split between clan and place, with the more traditional/conservative groups siding with the more historical 'place':

So, the more 'modern' JPS Tanakh translates And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, Least among the clans of Judah, but adds a footnote saying 'The clan to which the Bethlehemites belonged'

But the Stone Edition Tanach gives Bethlehem - Ephrathah - you are too small, and footnotes to 'Another name for Bethlehem of Judah. As the city of Ruth, a convert from Moab, Bethlehem was an unlikely source of leadership, but it produced David, the ancestor of the Messiah.'

And, we should note that there were Rabbinic traditions that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, and that these traditions appear long after the Christian 'use' of Micah 5.2 was 'in place'--a testament to their antiquity and 'stubbornness'.

So, Midrash Rabbah on Lamentations--1:51:

"The following story supports what R. Judan said in the name of R. Aibu: It happened that a man was ploughing, when one of his oxen lowed. An Arab passed by and asked, ‘What are you?’ He answered, ‘I am a Jew.’ He said to him, ‘Unharness your ox and untie your plough’ [as a mark of mourning]. ' Why? ' he asked. ' Because the Temple of the Jews is destroyed.’ He inquired, ‘From where do you know this?’ He answered, ‘I know it from the lowing of your ox.’ While he was conversing with him, the ox lowed again. The Arab said to him, ‘Harness your ox and tie up your plough, because the deliverer of the Jews is born.’ ‘What is his name?’ he asked; and he answered, ‘His name is "Comforter".’ ‘What is his father's name?’ He answered, ' Hezekiah.’ ' Where do they live? ' He answered, ‘In Birath ‘Arba in Bethlehem of Judah.’

And the Jerusalem Talmud at Ber 5a the reading at the end is:

"He answered, in the Royal Capital of Bethlehem

So, if the website's argumentation were correct, then it would need to explain how these earlier (and notable) Jewish resources 'missed the clues' and were in error...


2. Next, let's look at the grammatical point argued--the masculine personal pronoun 'You'...

First, we need to learn about 'head nouns'. The standard work on Biblical Hebrew syntax today is Waltke and O'Connor's An Introduction to Biblical Syntax. In their discussion on "Zero-marked Gender Nouns" (6.4.1), they explain about how place names get their 'gender':

"The gender of place names is complicated by the fact that place-name terms frequently lose their head nouns (grammatical 'beheading'), while the head noun continues to control the gender of the phrase. Beheading is common in English--we say 'California' for 'the state of California', 'Mexico' for 'the United States of Mexico.' In languages with grammatical gender-systems, beheading almost invariably affects those systems. The early Arab grammarians noted that a generic term (such as 'city of ...,' 'kingdom of...,' 'river of...,' 'mountain...') in construct with a place name determines the gender of the phrase and that even if the generic was not expressed, its gender still controls the term, for example, dijlat 'Tigris' is feminine in form but is treated as masculine, since the full expression is nahr dijlat 'river of Tigris' and nahr is masculine. The omission of the noun in the construct (the beheading) is common in Arabic. Thus, most city names are feminine because madinatu 'city' is feminine."

"The Hebrew situation is similar. Like Arabic nahr, Hebrew nahar is masculine...Again, 'Amana', though feminine in form, stands in agreement with masculine modifiers because the omitted nahar is masculine' (cf. 2 Kgs 5.12 Qere)"

"since 'ir is feminine, and therefore names of cities are regarded as feminine, Israel's poets were led to personify cities as women..."

Okay, so far--so good for the website...cities ARE feminine (but only because their implied or explicit head-name is feminine).

But here's the rub (from the same grammar):

"Another (in addition to nahar) masculine head noun is beit; thus beit-lehem ('Bethlehem') in Mic 5:1 and beit-el ('Bethel') in Amos 5:5 are both masculine. "

Here's the passage in Amos (NASB):

But do not resort to Bethel,
And do not come to Gilgal,
Nor cross over to Beersheba;
For Gilgal will certainly go [masculine ending] into captivity,
And Bethel will come [masculine ending] to trouble.

[Note, btw, that Gilgal--also a town--is referred to as masculine, and so there is no hard-and-fast "city = feminine' equation possible.]

Place-names which begin with bayit are therefore EXCEPTIONS to the general rule...

And the gender of place names can vary: "In some cases a place name seems to vary in gender; this is probably a sign that the underlying head varies. Thus yehudah is masculine in Isa 3:8, perhaps due to the head beit, but feminine in Isa 7:6, due to the head erets."

And, this is true in other related languages of the ANE as well:

"Besides the sex of human and animal beings, and the formal constitution of the noun with the ending -t-, some categories of nouns determine their feminine gender. Thus, names of cities and countries are generally feminine, but they tend to be masculine in Assyro-Babylonian because of the usually masculine gender of the word alu(m), 'city', just as Hebrew place names beginning with byt, 'house', are masculine, since byt is a masculine noun in Hebrew." [Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar. Edward Lipinski. Peeters:2001 (2nd ed), 30.6, p.238]

Notice that this COMPLETELY eliminates the force of the grammatical objection. If place-names beginning with beth, are SUPPOSED to be masculine, then any masculine forms referring to it are to BE EXPECTED. End of story, end of objection.

There are some 40-odd place names in the Hebrew Bible which begin with bayit. Most of these have no gender indications at all (being used only in relative topology references, e.g. 'all the way to beth-X'). Some of them are found in lists of cities (along with non-beth, feminine place names) and can/do take idiomatic feminine references as part of the series (e.g., "X, Y, and Beth-Z and all their (feminine) villages") in geography lists in Joshua et al. We already noted the masculine reference to Bethel (and Gilgal), but masculine forms/nouns can also be found with cities of Beth-ezel (Micah 1.11), Beth-jeshimoth (Ezek 25.9), and Beth-togarmah (Ezek 38.6).

So, according to the grammarians, cities are considered feminine--unless they begin with beth (as in our Micah passage)--and the objection loses its force.


3. And then there's that historical problem hiding in there...

Now, all the grammatical point does is 'neutralize' the objection, but it doesn't prove that the city is referred to. After all, if the phrase DID mean 'house of Lehem' then IT TOO would require a masculine referent. The presence of a masculine reference alone cannot decide the matter: both options (place-name, clan-name) would take the same form. The website is wrong about the grammatical argument, but could still be right about the conclusion...

So, with BOTH a possibility, how would we assess the likelihood of ONE over the OTHER?

Well, the normal way one would approach this is by counting and classifying. One would simply go through the Hebrew Bible and find all the occurrences of beit-lehem, and make three lists: (1) texts in which it was clearly (or highly likely) a reference to a city/town; (2) texts in which it was clearly (or highly likely) a reference to a patriarchal-type line of somebody named Lehem; and (3) texts in which it could be either (with context being the determinative factor).

So, let's go a quick tabulation (omitting our passage, and, for now, the 1 Chronicles 2-4 passages, in which people are named fathers of the cities):



Could be Either

Gen 35.19
Gen 48.7
Jos 19.15
Jdg 12.8 (with 12.10)
Jdg 17.7,9
Jdg 19.1 (with 2), 18
Ruth 1.1,2 (with 1.19,22)
Ruth 2.4
1 Sam 16.4
1 Sam 17.2
1 Sam 20.6,28
2 Sam 2.32
2 Sam 23.14, 15, 16
1 Chron 11.16,17,18 (par to 2 Sam 23)
2 Chron 11.6
Ezra 2.21 (with Neh 7.26, city in parallel to beth-lehem)
Jer 41.17

Ruth 4.11?
[May you achieve wealth in Ephratah, and become famous in Bethlehem]

I Sam 16.1?
[send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite]

I Sam 16.18?
[a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite]

2 Sam 23.24?
[Elhanan the son of Dodo of Bethlehem]

1 Chron 11.26 (par to 2 Sam 23)

Do I really need to draw any conclusions from this for my readers (smile)?

Okay, enough fun for now...back to the question.

So, there's not a lot of data ("he said, charitably" to support a reading of 'house of Lehem' from textual cases, but there's an even bigger problem: there doesn't seem to be a "Lehem" to have a "beth" FROM...

If you look at the use of the phrase "House of person X" (bayit X) in the Hebrew Bible, it instantly becomes obvious that the X-people are leading figures, heads of genealogies, and dominant characters in the life of the nation/tribe. So, the preponderance of occurrences of "bayit X" are in formulas with well-known progenitors: House of Israel, Judah, David, Jacob, Saul, Jeroboam, Ahijah, Ahab, Rechab, Aaron, Levi, Haman, Hazael, Pharoah, Joseph, Heber the Kenite, Eli, Joab. All of the post-Abrahamic names in this list occur in biblical genealogies, and hence DID literally found 'houses'.

But all references to 'house of X' to lesser known (or less-dynastic?) figures always refer to places (true 'houses'): Bethuel, Micah, Abinadab, Ish-bosheth, Obed-Edom the Gittite, Machir, Ziba, Arza, Elisha, Jonathan the scribe.

So, if Micah 5 were referring to some 'patriarchal semi-dynastic lineage of Lehem' we would AT LEAST expect this famous individual Lehem to show up SOMEWHERE/elsewhere in the Bible--especially in the genealogies and lineage of David!

Guess how many references we have to Lehem as a person? "Zero, Zip, Nada, Nein" There just doesn't seem to even be such a person, much less a famous head-of-household one. [I have read the anti-missionary website piece a couple of times looking for some identification of this Anonymous Patriarch, but it doesn't seem to even be aware of the problem here...?]

The closest we come to something like this is in the 1 Chronicles passages. Let's see if they can unveil such an invisible figure Lehem:

The sons of Hur the firstborn of Ephrathah: Shobal the father of Kiriath Jearim, Salma the father of Bethlehem, and Hareph the father of Beth Gader. The descendants of Shobal the father of Kiriath Jearim were: Haroeh, half the Manahathites, and the clans of Kiriath Jearim: the Ithrites, Puthites, Shumathites and Mishraites. From these descended the Zorathites and Eshtaolites. The descendants of Salma: Bethlehem, the Netophathites, Atroth Beth Joab, half the Manahathites, the Zorites, and the clans of scribes who lived at Jabez: the Tirathites, Shimeathites and Sucathites. These are the Kenites who came from Hammath, the father of the house of Recab. (1 Ch 2:50ff)

The sons of Judah were Perez, Hezron, Carmi, Hur, and Shobal. And Reaiah the son of Shobal became the father of Jahath, and Jahath became the father of Ahumai and Lahad. These were the families of the Zorathites. And these were the sons of Etam: Jezreel, Ishma, and Idbash; and the name of their sister was Hazzelelponi. And Penuel was the father of Gedor, and Ezer the father of Hushah. These were the sons of Hur, the first-born of Ephrathah, the father of Bethlehem. (1 Ch 4:1)

Let's note a couple of commentators on these passages right quick:

"This Salma is termed the “father of Bethlehem“ (v 51), and Bethlehem is also listed among his “sons” in v 54. (A Salmais also named as father of Boaz in v 11.) " [WBC]

"The line of Caleb, Hezron’s third son (cf. v. 9), introduced briefly in verses 18-20, is expanded here. Many of these names appear elsewhere as place-names (e.g., Ziph, Josh. 15:24; Mareshah, Josh. 15:44; Hebron, Josh. 15:54; Tappuah, Josh. 15:34; Rekem, Josh. 18:27; Shema, Josh. 15:26; etc.). This does not prove a connection, but since most of these places lay in Judah they were probably founded by the various Calebites listed here....Of particular interest are the references to Bethlehem (1 Chron. 2:51, 54), birthplace of both David and Jesus. The town was founded by or named after the great-grandson of Caleb through Caleb’s wife Ephrathah (v. 50, spelled Ephrath in v. 19). The combination of Bethlehem and Ephrathah appears also in the story of Rachel’s death in childbirth (Gen. 35:19), where it is used anachronistically; in Ruth 4:11 in reference to blessing on Ruth; and in Micah 5:2 with respect to the birth of the Messiah. [BKC]

"Note that most of the names in this section of Chronicles are identical with place names: Salma was the “father” of Bethlehem, Hareph the “father” of Beth-gader, Shobal the “father” of Kiriath-jearim, etc. [ISBE]

Note that the Stone Edition of the Tanach uses 'founder' rather than 'father' as the translation of these terms...e.g. Salma, the founder of Bethlehem; Hareph, the founder of Beth-gader; and even indicates that Bethlehem is a place, instead of a person, by the insertion of a bracketed phrase in verse 54: "The sons of Salma: [the people of ] Bethlehem, Netophathite..." This is essentially Rashi's view on the text as well: "The sons of Salma were inhabitants of Bethlehem" (note: B is a place, not a person in Rashi's passage).

Jewish commentators Redak and Mezudath David, at 4.4, render the connection "Ephrathah, a leader in Bethlehem".

This translation/understanding also occurs in the Targum:

Shalma, the leader of those of Bethlehem, and Hareph, leader of those of Bethgader (1 Chron 2.51)

The sons of Shalma who were from Bethlehem, righteous men... (1 Chron 2.54)

These were the sons of Hur, the first-born of Ephrath, who was Miriam, and he was appointed leader in Bethlehem...(1 Chron 4.4)

And the 'founding' theme is echoed in the Jewish Study Bible: "Many of the children mentioned here (e.g., Hebron) are known as geographical locations in Judah; the genealogical language here connects the founding of these cities to descendants of Caleb)"

[BTW, there is a Salma who is the father of Boaz, and thus a progenitor of David and Jesus, but he is generally not considered to be the same Salma as in the 2.51-54 passage. See any bible dictionary.]

The complexities of these passages are beyond the scope of this article, but let's at least note:

1. There is no "Lehem" mentioned at all, as a person, place, or genealogical entry.

2. Bethlehem shows up as a place name.

3. At worst-case (and this interpretation is very difficult to find in the literature--the dominant view is rather that BE refers to the inhabitants of the city BE, descended from Hur), Bethlehem could be sometimes understood as an individual person ("great-grandson of Caleb"), who was a founder of the city [but there STILL would be no Lehem in his ancestry, which would be through Caleb, and there would STILL be no reference to a 'household', i.e. multiple persons.]

So, the Case of the Missing Lehem is still open, and we are beginning to lose hope of ever finding him (smile)...


Now, strictly speaking, Micah 5 is about BOTH place-and-clan, although the "small-town" place-aspect is probably dominant in Micah's thinking (e.g., the implicit contrast with 'big' Jerusalem in 4.8), because of the insignificance of BE in Micah's time (the Davidic line had already moved to Jerusalem by this time). NIB states it thus:

"The mention of both Bethlehem and Ephrathah (see Ruth 1:2; 1 Sam 17:12; Ps 132:6) makes a double connection with David, including both geographic location and family identification. The small size of Bethlehem reminds one of a common biblical theme: When God is about to do something great, human estimates of status, size, power, and influence are completely irrelevant. In fact, God often deliberately chooses someone whom we would probably dismiss as the most unlikely candidate for carrying out God’s mission (see Gideon’s protests in Judg 6:15; Saul in 1 Sam 9:21; and the selection of David in 1 Sam 16:1-3). This theme continues in the New Testament stories of the humble origins and the humiliating crucifixion of the one whom Christians claim as Messiah."


So, I have to conclude that the linguistic/grammatical and the textual/historic data still supports the traditional view (which is also held by the historic Jewish sages, as well).

I hope this helps--gm

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