The Prophecies Behind the Christmas Story: Of Magi and St. Matthew’s Gospel
COMMENTARY: Biblical insights into the birth of Christ offer Old and New Testament parallels.
If I say to you, “May the force be with you,” you’re likely to think about Luke Skywalker and the Star Wars movies. But someone unfamiliar with those films will have no idea what I’m talking about.
Similarly, if you hear people at the start of a baseball game sing, “O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,” you know they’re singing the national anthem. But if you didn’t know anything about American culture, you might be very confused and wonder, “Why is everyone in full chorus asking me about my eyesight in the early morning hours?”
The ancient Jews, however, didn’t have baseball, Hollywood, iTunes and Netflix. Their popular culture was shaped by their Scriptures. The stories of the Bible were what permeated their daily lives — what they talked about, what they heard in the synagogue, what they pondered in prayer and what they celebrated and re-enacted in various feasts throughout the year.
Especially in his accounts about the newborn Christ Child, Matthew in his Gospel assumes that if he just quotes one line from an Old Testament story or makes a few simple allusions, readers will make the connection, just like we do when we hear famous lines from favorite songs, movies and shows today.
Take, for example, the story about the Magi. Matthew 2 tells of Magi from the East who see a star over Israel and come to Herod in Jerusalem searching for a newborn king. Herod tells the Magi to look for the Christ Child in 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” (2:8). But he doesn’t really want to pay homage to the Child. He just wants to know where the Child is so he can kill him.
When the Magi find the royal Child, they offer him luxurious gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense (an expensive perfume) and myrrh (an exotic spice). They fall down to worship him. But instead of reporting back to Herod, they return home by another way (2:10-12).
This story of the Magi already would have been very familiar to the Jews in the first century. It would have sounded like a “remake” of an old song they had heard many times before: A wicked king tries to use Magi from the East to bring harm to Jesus, but the Magi do not go along with the king’s plan and bless and honor Jesus. That would remind them of a famous story in their tradition: the story of Balak and Balaam in the Book of Numbers 22-24.
Balak was the wicked king of Moab who wanted to bring harm to the Israelites who were approaching the Promised Land. Balak calls upon a man named Balaam, a Magi from the East, to put a curse on the people of Israel. But every time he tries to curse the Israelites, God intervenes and words of blessing come out of his mouth. Instead of cursing Israel, he blesses Israel!
All this, of course, foreshadows the events surrounding Christ’s birth. Just as the wicked King Balak attempts to employ a seer from the East named Balaam to harm Israel, so the wicked King Herod tries to use the Magi from the East in his plot to discover where the Christ Child is. Just as Balaam didn’t cooperate with Balak’s plan, blessing Israel instead of cursing the people, so the Magi didn’t assist in Herod’s plan, instead paying Jesus homage and not revealing his location to Herod.
But the most fascinating connection is found in how the story of Balak and Balaam ends. After three attempts to curse Israel, Balaam finds God’s speech taking over once again; but this time, Balaam utters a prophecy about some great king coming to Israel in the distant future:
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 Israel (Numbers 24:17).
Let’s unpack the symbolism in this prophecy. The scepter is a royal staff, symbolizing a king who will one day come to Israel.
And, according to this prophecy, a star will be the sign of the king’s coming. So when the Magi see the star in the direction of Israel, their coming to Jerusalem in search of a king would make perfect sense to the first-century Israelite — it’s just what Balaam had prophesied long ago. In this sense, the Magi in the Christmas story are like “successors to Balaam,” in that they worship the king whom Balaam foretold many centuries ago, as William Davies and Dale Alison recount in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.
This is not the only time in the Christmas stories of Matthew 2 when we find subtle allusions to the Old Testament stories. Matthew’s account of the horrific scene known as the “Massacre of the Holy Innocents” is another example.
Matthew tells of Herod’s decree to kill the young male children around Bethlehem. Jesus escapes with his parents to Egypt only to come back to Israel later, after an angel appears to Joseph, telling him, “… those who sought the child’s life are dead” (2:20).
All this would remind ancient Jews of the story of Moses in the Book of Exodus. Just as Jesus was born during Herod’s murderous decree, so Moses was born during Pharaoh’s murderous declaration that every male child born to the Israelites should be thrown into the Nile River.
And just as the Christ Child escaped death by fleeing to Egypt, where he was raised for a bit, so the baby Moses escapes death by being raised in the highest Egyptian household, when Pharaoh’s daughter takes Moses as her own child.
Finally, Moses will return to his fellow Israelites when God appears to him in a burning bush, saying, “those who sought your life are dead” (Exodus 4:19). These are almost the exact same words the angel spoke to Joseph when Jesus was to return to the land of Israel: “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead” (2:20).
Right from his birth, Jesus is being presented as a New Moses, which is an important paradigm for understanding what Christ’s life is all about. Just as Moses liberated the people from slavery in Egypt, so Jesus will lead the people in a New Exodus, liberating them from sin.
The Magi and Balaam, the Baby Jesus and baby Moses. These are just two of the plethora of parallels between the Old Testament and Jesus that are found in Matthew’s Gospel. Be on the lookout for these kinds of allusions every step of the way as we journey with Matthew’s Gospel for most of the Sunday readings this upcoming year, for Matthew is constantly making connections to Old Testament people, events, stories, laws, prayers and prophecies, and he assumes his readers will follow his moves. The more we know about the Old Testament, therefore, the more we will track with the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life.
Edward Sri is a theologian, author and speaker.
This column is based on his newest book, God With Us: Encountering Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
More about his work can be found at EdwardSri.com.