We all know the story:
We three kings of orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star
It’s a fascinating account of Gentile magi, wise men, coming from a distant land to worship the one “born King of the Jews”. Much could be said (and has been said, by me at least) about them and Herod’s response. The gifts also come in for a lot of attention. But what about that star?
- Halley’s comet
- Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter
All of which could be possible but, frankly, rather miss the point.
Here’s what we know about the star from our better source, scripture:
Matthew 2:2 …saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
other translations have it as
…we saw his star in the east…
both of which would work. The original is “in the rising” but that’s often taken as idiomatic for “in the east” (in the greek “anatoleh” – from which the city Anatolia gets it’s name). Furthermore, it’s not definite whether the “in the rising/east” refers to the star itself or the location from which the Magi came. Which is correct? Well both, as we shall see.
The theme of the east and stars pointing to something important is a recurring one in scripture. We get a hint right at the start of the story;
Genesis 3:24 When he drove the man out, he placed on the eastern side of the orchard in Eden angelic sentries who used the flame of a whirling sword to guard the way to the tree of life.
Adam and Eve left the garden by a gate on the east side and ever since then “east of Eden” has been the direction away from God and His presence. No mistake, then, that the people of Israel entered the Promised Land from the east. Anyone coming towards God would come in from the east. “We have seen his star in the east…”
The trail picks up after that. We turn to Numbers 2 – an apparently meaningless text which tells us about the layout of the tribal camps during the Exodus. Except it’s not totally meaningless because the narrator makes the point of telling us this interesting fact…
Numbers 2:3 “Now those who will be camping on the east, toward the sunrise, are the divisions of the camp of Judah under their standard. The leader of the people of Judah is Nahshon son of Amminadab.
The camp would have looked something like this (with the east at the top of the graphic):
So, every morning as the Israelites got out of their tents, stretched and yawned, they would see the sun rising over the tents of the tribe of Judah. Judah was, of course, the son of Jacob through whom the promise to Abraham was passed:
Genesis 49:10 The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs; the nations will obey him.
. Towards the end of Numbers Balaam utters this incredible oracle:
Numbers 24:17 ‘I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not close at hand. A star will march forth out of Jacob, and a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the skulls of Moab, and the heads of all the sons of Sheth.
The language is exactly what we see later with the Magi; “star”, “rising”.
Ultimately, then, what the Magi are following is not Halley’s comet or a supernova (although that may very well have been the cosmological event – personally I doubt it since the travelling star of Matt. 2:9 would appear to mess up such a theory) but the promises of God from long ago in the very beginnings of the Old Testament. Whether they knew these promises is uncertain, but follow them they did, nevertheless.
So, which Gentiles do you know this Christmastide who don’t yet know the promises of God vested in Jesus Christ and, therefore, could do with a ruddy great star or something (someone) else to point them in the right direction? Should make for quite a Bible study on the journey home…