Advent thoughts: December 4

“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17—read Numbers 24:15-19).

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the east, following a star. From the appearance of that star, they knew that a king had been born in Israel. The wise men came to worship him and to offer him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Why would wise men associate the appearance of a star with the birth of a king in Israel? And why would they wish to worship such a king? The answer appears to lie in the prophecy of Balaam as recorded in Numbers 24. Balaam was a prophet of the true God, even though he was not an Israelite. He was not descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even though God had chosen that family to be a holy nation, God’s grace was not exclusively for that one family or that one nation. There were always believers among the other nations of the world, even kings and prophets who honored the true God. Balaam was one of those prophets.

The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land. God directed them around the countries of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, because those nations were kindred to the Israelites. However, Balak king of Moab feared the Israelites and their might. Therefore, he tried to hire Balaam, prophet of the true God, to curse the Israelites.

Balaam did not curse them; instead, he blessed the Israelites. Three times he blessed them. The third time the blessing turned to prophecy, and Balaam spoke of the blessing for the entire world that would come from Abraham’s family while they lived in the Promised Land. Balaam spoke of the coming King as a star and as a scepter. These words were preserved by Moses in the book of Numbers. They quite likely were written and remembered in other places as well.

Therefore, when Jesus was born, wise men were led by a star to come and honor him. These wise men, or Magi, were scholars, advisors to a government. They could be compared to Cabinet officers in the American government. The first group called Magi arose in the Persian Empire, but Egyptian kings and Babylonian kings had also had advisors. Their job was to know as much as could be known about everything: history, languages, literature, religions, science, and any other subject that might influence or affect the government they served. If anyone outside of Israel would have known Balaam’s prophecy, it would be a group of Magi.

From where did they come? Some say Babylon, and some say Persia. There is a significant clue, though, in the gifts they brought. Since ancient times, when representatives of different governments have met, they have exchanged products of their homeland with one another. Presidents still do this today. Only one place in the world produces gold and frankincense and myrrh in any abundance. That place is Arabia.

This would not be the last time that a group of Arabs caused consternation to the government in Jerusalem. That was not their intention, though. They came to honor a King. And the gifts they brought, products of Arabia, were also highly symbolic of the nature of that King. Gold recognized his kingship. Frankincense recognized that he is also a Priest, for incense is used in the worship of God. Myrrh recognized that he would be not only Priest but also Sacrifice. In fact, when Jesus was buried after offering the sacrifice that defeated his enemies, his burial was accomplished with strips of linen, with aloes, and with myrrh.

Balaam is remembered largely for the fact that his donkey once spoke to him (Numbers 22:28-30). Far more important is that he foretold the star that would signal the birth of a King. That King would be honored by foreigners even though he was rejected by his own people. From this we see the growth of the Church which contains people from every nation, language, tribe, and culture, all honoring the same Savior and citizens of the same Kingdom. Thanks be to God! J.

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An ancient Persian puzzle

From ancient Persia comes a historic mystery that is as compelling as questions about who planned Watergate or who shot President Kennedy. This Persian account contains conspiracies, lies, murder, and—best of all—more than one plausible interpretation of the facts. Historians still debate one another about what really happened.

Persia is located in the mountains and plains of modern Iran. It was a small kingdom for centuries before Cyrus made Persia great. He expanded in various directions, eventually capturing the wealthy kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia, where Turkey exists today. With new wealth to hire and equip soldiers, Cyrus then turned south, sacking the city Babylon (which is also a fascinating story) and claiming the Babylonian Empire for the Persian government. He had to continue to fight to maintain control of the various nations conquered by the Babylonians. Cyrus died on the battlefield July 530 B.C. at the approximate age of seventy.

Cambyses, the son of Cyrus, inherited the empire. He also inherited the struggle to keep all the pieces together as one empire. The biggest prize was Egypt, that ancient civilization in the northeast corner of Africa that had been conquered by the Babylonians. After Babylon fell, Egypt declared its independence. Cambyses took his Persian armies to Egypt to show the Egyptians that they still belonged to the Persian Empire.

After much fighting, the Persians were successful. While they were still mopping up the campaign, though, word came from Persia that Bardiya—the younger brother of Cambyses—had seized power. Reportedly, when Cambyses heard this news, he exclaimed, “That’s impossible! I had Bardiya killed before I left home to keep this kind of thing from happening!” Cambyses began to return to Persia with his army, minus those troops left in Egypt to keep law and order in Persian hands. But Cambyses did not return home alive. Injured in the leg by his own sword, he developed gangrene and died of the infection.

One of the generals who had fought with Cambyses in Egypt was a cousin to the royal family, a man named Darius. When he had returned to the Persian homeland, Darius announced that Bardiya was fake. Darius even named names. He declared that the phony Bardiya was actually a mage named Gaumata, and Darius also named the six magi who had conspired with Gaumata to seize the government. (Magi were scholarly experts in all important matters: biology, chemistry, astronomy and astrology, history, religion, languages, and more. They were advisors to royalty. The Magi were like a combination of a university faculty of professors and the American President’s Cabinet.) With the support of the army, Darius revolted against the new emperor. In his inscriptions Darius merely says that he slew Gaumata; later historians told an exciting tale of hand-to-hand combat between Gaumata and Gobyras, a mage who was loyal to Darius and was, in fact one of his friends. Darius had to choose whether to interfere, risking the life of his friend, or to let them fight. With a lucky stroke of his sword, Darius managed to kill Gaumata without harming Gobyras.

Both sons of Cyrus were dead, and Darius had the support of the Persian army. Since he was of royal blood, he was crowned emperor of Persia. No one at the time questioned his identification of the supposed Bardiya as the mage Gaumata. At the same time, apparently no one but Darius had heard the claim of Cambyses that he had killed his brother.

Was Darius a hero who rescued the empire from conspiracy? Or was he a liar who struck down the true son of Cyrus to claim the throne? During his lifetime, no one challenged his claims. No one would have dared. Today historians are not so sure. For some, the official version of the story as told by Darius (and carved into rock in Persia) is as believable as any other possibility. To others, the official version is highly suspicious. No one expects to find a signed confession from Darius countering his original version of the story. More than likely, we will never know the truth. J.

Epiphany Day

The word “epiphany” has been overused the last few years. Many people use it as a synonym for discovery, especially a discovery about one’s self. The word means “shining out” or “shining upon.” In the original Greek of the New Testament it usually refers to the glory or grace of God shining upon his people, although in Acts 27:20 it is used literally of the sun and stars.

In the traditional Christian calendar, the season of Epiphany follows the twelve days of Christmas and extends to the night before Ash Wednesday, which  starts the penitential season of Lent. The Sundays of Epiphany are bookmarked by the first Sunday of the season, in which the Baptism of Jesus is considered, and the last Sunday of the season, which recalls his Transfiguration (in which Jesus literally shone with light). On both occasions, the voice of God the Father claims Jesus as his Son. The other Sundays of the season also reflect upon the evidence that Jesus is God’s Son and the world’s Savior, evidence coming from his miracles and from his teachings.

The Day of Epiphany, January 6, is a festival which remembers the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem to honor the King of the Jews. This event is also evidence of the identity of Jesus, as these foreigners honor him with gifts worthy of a king—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As poems and songs over the centuries have revealed, these gifts describe the identity of Jesus as “king and priest and sacrifice.”

The Bible does not say how many Magi came bringing these gifts. Traditionally they are depicted as three—one for each gift—and many depictions of the Magi show one as Asian, one as African, and one as European. This reflects the theme that Jesus, as King of the Jews, is Lord and Savior of the entire world. As an artistic theme, it is beautiful, but it is not historically accurate. Historians debate the origin of the Magi. Because the word is Persian, some think they came from Persia. However, the word was in general use by this time in history. Others think that, because they were following a star, they came from Babylon, the center of astrological studies. Since the Word of God forbids astrology, this interpretation is problematic. The best hint of their origin is the gifts that they brought. Usually gifts to a king (or other national leader) represent the products of the givers’ homeland. The one part of the world which produces all three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—is Arabia.

Moreover, the only prophecy linking the King of the Jews to a star came, not from a prophet of Israel, but from an Arab prophet named Balaam. “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come 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” (Numbers 24:17). Who was more likely than the Arabs to preserve this prophecy and to discern its fulfillment?

Picture a group of Arabs showing up in Jerusalem asking for the newborn King of the Jews. The man the Romans had named king of the Jews, Herod, was an Idumean, not a Jew. He was suspicious of any threat to his rule, even killing his own sons for fear they would take the kingdom from him. When his scholars showed Herod and the Magi that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem (so he could inherit the throne of David), Herod first tried to trick the Magi into leading him to the child, then ordered the murder of all the young boys in Bethlehem. Warned by an angel, Joseph took Jesus and his mother to Egypt, sparing his life as a child so he could later save the world by his sacrifice.

The nature of the star that led the Magi to Jesus is also uncertain. It probably was not a comet or a nova, since ancient civilizations do not report such an event at the right time in history. A very scholarly website links the star of Bethlehem with the motion of the planet Jupiter, involving retrograde motion near the star Regulus at approximately the right time. While I appreciate the thoroughness of the research and its faithfulness to the Biblical record, I am uncomfortable with its reliance on astrological symbols to communicate to the world the Incarnation of the Son of God. Given that God spoke at other times through the casting of dice, I suppose I cannot totally dismiss the possibility. J.