In chapter 1, we established the various aspects Matthew’s opening genealogy presented and moved into the birth of Christ. Matthew, now in chapter 2, is looking to further expound upon cultural influences by re-purposing the cultural narrative towards Christ, as well as continue on with his agenda of showing Christ as the New Moses.
Matthew 2:1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2:2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 2:3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 2:4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 2:5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 2:6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. 2:7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. 2:8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. 2:9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 2:10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 2:11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. 2:12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
When Matthew writes that Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king, this isn’t simply a quick way of anchoring the timing of his account to a historical reference. If history is even close to being correct, Herod was the richest man to ever walk the earth. As the Idumean-Nabatean king, he owned the spice trade that flowed through the cross roads of the earth. He becomes king over Judea by Roman desire (their opportunistic strategy of gaining access to his wealth). Herod ends up marrying into the Hasmonean family that was ruling Judea after the Maccabean Revolt of 167BC. He auctions off the priesthood to the highest bidder and Annas buys the priesthood – the same Annas of the scriptures during the time of Christ. When folks amass power and wealth, it isn’t long before paranoia sets in–how to keep their power and wealth safe and secure. Herod loved himself and the opulence he could afford, yet suffered from feeling like needed to keep his property safe, including his kingly seat. Herod used his wealth to make the Jewish temple in Jerusalem a thing of splendor – turning it into a tourist trap of its day. The Hasmoneans had built a fortress around the temple that is refurbished by Herod and becomes known as the Antonia Fortress, named so as homage to Mark Antony whom Herod held in high esteem. It was in the days of this king that Jesus Christ was born and Matthew records that wise men from the east came to Jerusalem to inquire of king Herod where the King of the Jews had been born. We can read through the account and come away with a simple understanding that these wise men were following a star, which initially led them to audience with Herod. Herod commissions them to keep on their investigation but to report back once the King of the Jews is found so Herod can also worship Him. The wise men continue on and find the Christ child and give gifts unto Him, but being warned in a dream about Herod, the wise men leave town without returning to Herod.
This is a fairly straightforward account, so, should we just call it a day and keep moving on in the chapter, or, is there more that’s going on that might give us a greater appreciation for what Matthew records? To the east of Judea lies the Arabian desert and on the other side of that desert is Babylon. Around 400 years earlier, Jews were in exile in Babylon. Babylon was conquered by the Persians (who subsequently allowed the Jews to return to Judea), however, the idea of Babylon never dies, having been birthed in Genesis 11 and living on even to today. The word wise men comes from gives the idea that these were sages and magicians (fire worshipers) and astrologers. Astrology was very important in their day and more so than perhaps in ours. Today, astrologers are largely not a respected ‘science’ and many folks simply enjoy checking out their horoscopes to see what luck the stars might have for them. This idea comes from a belief that the arrangement of the stars in the heavens somehow dictates one’s fate, whether holistically or simply in the moment. When those of the ANE (Ancient Near East) looked at the sky, they noticed that the stars moved as the year progressed. It appeared that the stars were beings of light that floated in a sea. (You can go look up ideas of an astrological sea in their beliefs). There were 7 stars that were most predominant in their worship and these were simply the ones that were the brightest (i.e. the Sun, the Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus). The Sun is the only true star that we know today, but the modern scientific classifications were not in use at that time. And, arguable, all of these appear as lights in the sky, so a stellar viewpoint makes sense if we put ourselves in their shoes.
Astrology shouldn’t be something that a Christian scoffs at, IF it is according to what might be called, ‘astral-theology’. In Genesis, God said that the sun, moon and stars were given to tell times and seasons. The stellar heavens were God’s clock to humanity. Just as the gears in a clock move in mechanical precision to allow the passage of an hour, and a minute and a second, so too were the heavens established to give the counting of time its proper mechanics for the earth. I’m making a distinction, however, between the astrology as described in the previous paragraph. These heavenly beings, if you will, weren’t given to interfere with our fate, as if they were autonomous beings deciding the course of each individual on earth. Much of that comes from the star worship mentioned above – the belief that these stars were deities. Here in Matthew 2, we find God using the heavens to send a message to some people who were attuned to watching the night sky. But, it isn’t just that these wise men saw a star, it was what they knew what this star signified. Notice in verse 2 that these wise men use this stellar event to inquire about where the King of the Jews was born. How would Babylonian astrologers know about this? There are some possibilities here. Recall that Israel spent about 70 years in Babylon and it is very likely that they infiltrated Babylonian culture with their history and prophecies. Not that Babylonians became Jewish, but they would have certainly been aware of their customs (see the book of Daniel, for example). We also know that Jews intermarried with Babylonians during this time and their offspring became the Samaritans. So, it is unlikely that by simple cultural assimilation that Jewish heritage and history wouldn’t have been known by Babylonians. But, I think it is more than this. In the book of Numbers, we find king Balak wanting to curse Israel and he hires a prophet to do so. This prophet, however, can’t curse Israel and only blesses them (much to Balak’s dismay). This prophet’s name was Balaam.
Numbers 22:5 He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me:
Notice the city that Balaam is in – Pethor. Or, as Deuteronomy 23:4 calls it, Mesopotamia. In other words, the area of Babylon. Perhaps we could say that Balaam was a proto-Babylonian prophet who certainly would have had this account with Israel recorded even in their history. Still, why would this be significant for Babylonian wise men questioning where the King of the Jews would be born? Note this from Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers:
Numbers 24:15 And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said: 24:16 He hath said, which heard the words of God, and knew the knowledge of the most High, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open: 24:17 I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.
We aren’t given any background into these astrologers and what they would have known. Knowing the kind of people they were, we can conclude safely they were very learned men and absolutely would have been familiar with the history of the people they once conquered, as well as the history of their own prophets. Perhaps God is using His heavens to send a message to these astrologers about the Star that was rising out of Jacob (Israel). Perhaps this star in the east simply symbolized the promise of Numbers 24:17 coming to pass. But, perhaps there is still yet more going on as it relates to the heavens? The prophet Isaiah speaks of God coming to deliver His people and His entrance into this world would be liked unto the heavens being rent.
Isaiah 63:15 Look down from heaven, and behold from the habitation of thy holiness and of thy glory: where is thy zeal and thy strength, the sounding of thy bowels and of thy mercies toward me? are they restrained? 63:16 Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O LORD, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting. 63:17 O LORD, why hast thou made us to err from thy ways, and hardened our heart from thy fear? Return for thy servants’ sake, the tribes of thine inheritance. 63:18 The people of thy holiness have possessed it but a little while: our adversaries have trodden down thy sanctuary. 63:19 We are thine: thou never barest rule over them; they were not called by thy name. 64:1 Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, 64:2 As when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence!
Not only did a Star rise out of Jacob with the birth of Christ, but as Isaiah spoke, His entrance into this world tore the heavens. This star wasn’t just a floating light to guide wise men to Christ, but was a declaration to the world. God tore open the heavens to rescue His people. I think of the song titled, “Reckless Love” (by Cory Asbury) where tag of it says,
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me
God didn’t casually decide to one day stroll along Judea’s shore to see what His people were up to, no, He tore the heavens open and lit up the shadows of night with a star. These wise men were witnessing a star that signified times and seasons – the fullness of times when God sent forth His Son (Galatians 4:4) and the dawning of the season of redemption, through this one born, King of the Jews.
Chapter 2 will finish with Herod’s response and Jesus’ family trip to Egypt and back. The lessons we learn from this section will actually be anchored in what Matthew is drawing on to help tell these accounts. Our story continues…
P.s. I’d dare argue that there is even more going on in the heavenlies than we’ve discussed in this post. I wrote a quick piece on Christmas Eve (2019) about the birth narrative of Christ we don’t often consider from the book of Revelation. Here is the link to get you thinking: https://libertythrugrace.com/2019/12/24/away-in-a-manger/