The Adoration of the Magi

1. THE STAR

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 2 "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him." (Mt 2:1-2)

We understand this star was prophesied in the days of Moses, when Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. At that time, Israel was encamped at Peor, near Moab, and the Moabites were afraid of being conquered. So Balak, king of Moab, send his seer, Balaam, to curse Israel. The Lord told Balaam, however, not curse them, but to bless them. Balaam's blessing is the prophecy of this star:

15 And he took up his discourse, and said, "The oracle of Balaam the son of Be'or, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, 16 the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down, but having his eyes uncovered: 17 I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth. 18 Edom shall be dispossessed, Se'ir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed, while Israel does valiantly. 19 By Jacob shall dominion be exercised, and the survivors of cities be destroyed!" (Num 24:15-19)

Balaam sees "him," the Almighty, but he was not yet, he was not nigh. This was an accurate prophecy of the Messiah who was to come, about 1,500 years later. He saw the star and the scepter that would crush Moab and dispossess Edom. Interesting is that at the birth of Jesus, Herod the Great was king: he was an Edomite.

3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Mt 2:3)

Yes, we can understand why he was troubled; he knew the prophecy and he knew that he and his dynasty were doomed.

(NB: Matthew mentions the star without referencing the above quote from Numbers; this is a good example where we are expected to know the OT reference on our own. The majority of OT references throughout the NT are made in this indirect way.)


2. THE MAGI

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; 8 and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." 9 When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; 11 and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Mt 2:7-12)

Everyone knows of the three wise men. We even know their names from tradition: Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior; the cathedral in Cologne, Germany claims their tomb. But we do not see such names in the above text, nor does it say there were three; some Christian traditions count more. Those who believe there were three Magi point to the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These three gifts have profound scriptural significance, the most famous of which is from the prophet Isaiah:

3 And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. 4 Lift up your eyes round about, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far, and your daughters shall be carried in the arms. 5 Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall thrill and rejoice; because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Mid'ian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. (Is 60:3-6)

From the above OT text, many believe the Magi were kings, and were prophesied to bring gold (symbolic of the Messiah’s kingship) and frankincense (symbolic of the Messiah’s priesthood). Our Magi also brought myrrh, an embalming oil (see Jn 19:39) which was symbolic of the newborn king’s future passion. Furthermore, both frankincense and myrrh were among the incense and oils to be used in the Temple sacrifices (cf Ex 30:22-38), sacrifices offered on an altar covered in gold (cf Ex 30:1-10). These are, then, fitting gifts to Jesus whose redemptive sacrifice will replace the Mosaic sacrifices.

But we should also note that frankincense and myrrh are mentioned, by themselves, in the nuptial Song of Solomon, first in connection with the groom:

6 What is that coming up from the wilderness, like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the fragrant powders of the merchant? 7 Behold, it is the litter of Solomon! About it are sixty mighty men of the mighty men of Israel, 8 all girt with swords and expert in war, each with his sword at his thigh, against alarms by night. 9 King Solomon made himself a palanquin from the wood of Lebanon. 10 He made its posts of silver, its back of gold, its seat of purple; it was lovingly wrought within by the daughters of Jerusalem. 11 Go forth, O daughters of Zion, and behold King Solomon, with the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, on the day of the gladness of his heart. (Song 3:6-11)

As the son of David, King Solomon was an OT type of Jesus. Here we see Solomon, the groom, carried on his palanquin with mention of the Magi’s three gifts, as well as ‘his wedding’ and ‘his mother.’ So Jesus, the true groom, also ‘came up’ into this world to begin His nuptials with His bride, the Church. His birth can be said to have been the day of His wedding. His mother, Mary, through childbirth can be said to have crowned Him as king on that day, and the Magi (Gentile kings) prostrated themselves on the ground before the Divine King, offering their mystical gifts which point to this nuptial text of Solomon.

Again, in the Song of Solomon, we see these gifts also associated with the bride:

1 Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead… 6 Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will hie me to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense. 7 You are all fair, my love; there is no flaw in you… 12 A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed. 13 Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, 14 nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices -- 15 a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon. 16 Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its fragrance be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits. (Song 4:1, 6-7, 12-16)

Here King Solomon, having arrived to the place of his bride, is enamored of her. He speaks of her beauty, ‘until the day’ when he ‘will hie me’ to ‘the mountain’ of our mystical incenses. Some exegetes, recognizing the use of frankincense and myrrh in the sacrificial offerings of the Temple, see this mountain and hill as the Temple mount, Mt. Moriah. Therefore, this groom is looking to a day when he goes there, under sacrificial imagery. In this we see Jesus, who ultimately went there to sacrifice Himself for His bride, the Church. The groom then refers to his bride as a garden, where he again mentions our mystical incenses. The fragrances of these incenses will ‘waft abroad,’ that is, to the whole world. So shall the graces of our Lord’s sacrifice spread throughout the world. We recall that the Passion of our Lord began and ended in a garden (see Jn 18:1, 19:41-42).


3. BETHLEHEM

3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: 6 `And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; 8 and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." (Mt 2:3-8)

The quote is from the prophet Micah:

2 But you, O Bethlehem Eph'rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in travail has brought forth; then the rest of his brethren shall return to the people of Israel. 4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. (Mic 5:2-4)

The Hebrew word, Bethlehem, means “house of bread.” This is a fitting birth place for Jesus, who will become Eucharistic bread for his flock. Note v. 3: “when she who is in travail has brought forth (Mary); then the rest of his brethren shall return to the people of Israel” – the restoration of all Israel. Then “he” (Jesus) shall feed his flock in the strength of the Lord – the Eucharist; and “he” shall be great to the ends of the earth – the Church.

Interestingly, Bethlehem is the location of another important story, that of Ruth, the grandmother of David and ancestor of Jesus. The short book of Ruth is essentially a nuptial story of Ruth and Boaz against the background of the grain harvest and the threshing floor. The themes of bread, of a great king, and of nuptials all intersect in Bethlehem, the place where our Eucharistic Love, Jesus, was born.

As Ruth and Boaz lived in Bethlehem, it is no surprise that their grandson, King David, was born there (cf 1 Sam 17:12. So Bethlehem was also called the City of David for that reason. Here we see a connection between Jesus and David; the Messiah was to be a new David, a new king of Israel. Of interest is the backdrop of this Davidic reference: it is quoted to Herod, king of Judah, yet not even a Jew himself. It was a time when the Judean throne was no longer Judean – time for the rightful son of David to claim it.


4. DOWN INTO EGYPT

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt have I called my son." (Mat 2:13-15)

The quote was taken from the prophet Hosea:

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Ba'als, and burning incense to idols. 3 Yet it was I who taught E'phraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4 I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one, who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them. 5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. (Hos 11:1-5)

V. 1 is an obvious reference to the Exodus, when God led Israel out of Egyptian slavery, under Moses. After that, the history of Israel was one of God calling them, and they turning away, repeatedly. Ultimately, Israel was taken away by Assyria and the Israelites were no more, as Hosea prophesied. But, in Matthew’s text, ‘my son’ is now Jesus; His return from Egyptian exile is a ‘do over’ of Israel’s exodus under Moses, but now there is no more turning away from God. Jesus is a new Moses, who leads us on a true Exodus out of slavery. Note that Moses promised Israel that God would send them a new Moses (Dt 18:15); Jesus is that new Moses.


5. THE HOLY INNOCENTS

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more." (Mt 2:16-18)

King Herod, fearful of his dynasty and the prophecy of the star, murdered all of the infant boys in the region of Bethlehem, hoping to kill The Messiah among them; then he would be safe. (NB: Herod was a ruthless man, who murdered his own sons when he thought they had threatened his power.)

This text, and those preceding it, is reminiscent of the Exodus narrative, where Pharaoh ordered the deaths of newborn Hebrew boys (Ex 1:15-2:10). Moses was, however, saved by his mother – by entering the Egyptian royal family. Likewise Jesus was saved from an imperial edict of death by his father Joseph and by going down into Egypt. Matthew is teaching us that Jesus is a new Moses.

At the time of Jesus, there was a slightly different understanding of the Exodus story, preserved for us by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus; this newer understanding, contemporary with Jesus, is called the Moses Haggadah. In Josephus’ account (see Antiquities, II, 9), the reason for Pharaoh’s edict of death was based on a prophecy told to him by his own seers, that that an Israelite would arise who would destroy Egypt’s dominion; Pharaoh acted, then, out of fear of this prophecy, fear of a prophesied Israelite who would destroy his power - exactly the same reason that motivated Herod. Furthermore, according to Josephus, the Lord appeared to Moses’ father in a dream and told him that his child, Moses, would become great and lead Israel out of slavery; again we see here an analogous event to v. 13 above, where Jesus’ father received essential instructions from an angel in a dream to save Jesus. In both stories, the father’s dream was a message from heaven concerning the child.


6. THE HOLY FAMILY IN NAZARETH

19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, 20 "Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead." 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, "He shall be called a Nazarene." (Mt 2:19-23)

Archalaus was a son of Herod, part of the same ruthless family; so Joseph did not return to Judea, but to Nazareth in Galilee (Samaria). First, we note that Jesus lived in Samaria; though a Jew, He was by nationality a Samaritan. Samaria was the former land of the northern tribes of Israel, scattered by the Assyrians centuries before, which Jesus was to re-unite. By mentioning that Jesus lived there, Matthew reminds us of this expectation. Furthermore, Matthew quotes a prophetic text that nowhere occurs in Scripture regarding Nazareth. Christians understand this quote refers to Isaiah:

1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. (Is 11:1-3)

The branch which grows out of a root of Jesse (King David’s father) is the key. The Hebrew word for ‘branch’ is netzer, a root of the word Nazareth. As in the preceding text where Matthew reminded us that Jesus was a new Moses, so here he reminds us that Jesus is a new David, restoring the kingdom of Israel.

We can conclude from Matthew’s Magi narratives that Jesus fufills the prophecies for the coming Messiah, a new king of Israel, a new Moses, a new David. He comes as a bridegroom to marry His bride, the Church. He comes as a new leader to lead His Church on the true Exodus from Egypt. He comes to feed His Church with His own flesh, the Eucharist. These passages are historically about the Magi, the Gentile kings who came to worship the Divine King. Yet, they teach us much more, beyond the literal.