Did you ever notice that a lot of place names in the Bible start out ‘Beth’?
If you were setting out to learn Hebrew, rather than learning your ‘ABC’s, you’d start by learning your ‘aleph, bet, gimmel’s, since those are the names of the first three letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Some will recognize that this is quite similar to the ‘alpha, beta, gamma’ of the Greek alphabet, and that’s not surprising since both Hebrew and Greek were derived from an even older Phoenician alphabet. In fact, our very word ‘alphabet’ (aleph-bet) derives from this source. The Phoenician alphabet had only consonants, and each letter had a descriptive name. Of interest to us is that ‘bet’, the name of the second letter, is the word for ‘house’.
The Hebrew prefix ‘beth’ (bayit) is based on the letter bet so when ‘beth’ precedes a noun, it literally means ‘the house of’ that thing. (We shouldn’t take ‘house’ too literally: it usually refers more generically to a ‘place of’ rather than a specific structure.) There are at least 60 Biblical place names that were formed this way, of which the following are the most significant:
Bethel: “house of God.” ‘El’ is used in early parts of Genesis as a word for ‘God’. The name Bethel was applied to a couple of different locations, but most notably it is the name Jacob gave the place where he had the dream of the stairway to heaven (Genesis 28:19). Both Jewish and Christian congregations like to use this name, for obvious reasons.
Bethlehem: “house of bread.” It’s ironic that the Bible’s first mention of this town is when a famine caused Naomi’s family to move away to Moab where her son married the gentile woman Ruth. (Ruth 1) When both Naomi’s and Ruth’s husbands died, Ruth returned to Bethlehem with Naomi where she ended up meeting and marrying Boaz. This is an important story for both Jews and Christians because Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David, and thus also an ancestor of Jesus. Bethlehem, often referred to in the Bible as “the city of David” is, of course, best known as the place where Jesus was born, as had been foretold in ancient prophecy.
Bethany: “house of dates” or “house of misery”. Scholars argue about which is the correct root for the name (though, speaking from practical experience, over-indulgence in dates does lead to misery). This is the town near Jerusalem where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived and Jesus stayed there when He visited Jerusalem. It was while dining at the home of Simon the Leper that Mary anointed Jesus with costly ointment, which ‘waste’ apparently incensed Judas, leading him to go to the authorities and offer to betray Jesus. (Mark 14:3-11, John 12:1-7) Many modern scholars say the name probably means ‘house of affliction’ suggesting this was a refuge for sick/poor people. That might explain the name of Jesus’ host and perhaps even the indignant comments recorded in Mark 14:4-5 and John 12:5.
Bethphage: “house of unripe figs” There must have been a story here (wouldn’t they ripen eventually?), but our main connection is that this is the town near Bethany on the slopes of the Mount of Olives where the villagers obligingly let Jesus’ disciples borrow the donkey and its colt on which He rode for His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11)
Bethesda: “house of grace” This was the pool in Jerusalem where people gathered in hopes of a miraculous healing and where Jesus healed the paralyzed man (John 5:2) It’s a name that’s been adopted by a lot of charitable organizations, as well as many churches.
Bethsaida: “house of fish” This was a fishing village on the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee where Peter, Andrew, and Philip came from (John 1:44) and where Jesus healed a blind man (Mark 8:22-26). It’s thought to be near here where the feeding of the five thousand took place.
There’s no prize for knowing stuff like this. But it can help to ‘demystify’ the Biblical landscape to know what some of those names mean. In some cases (such as Bethany) it can lead to deeper insights (or at least, interesting questions and clues) as to what was said and done there.