In Matthew’s Gospel, there is an unusual story about three wise men (Greek: magi) who come from the east to Bethlehem, bearing gifts for the newly born king of the Jews. While many of us are familiar with the story, there is a dimension to it that is easy to overlook unless we understand it in the context of the Old Testament story of Israel.
To get at this, it is important to remember that the New Testament does not refer to those from the East as kings — but as Magi. Magi were court astrologers who served the kings of the east in an advisory capacity, helping them discern the times and functioning in many cases as priestly representatives to the gods of the Eastern empires.
As such, the Magi link the story of Jesus’ birth to several important events from the Old Testament. Israel’s worst enemies came from the East. While various tribes of Israel had gone through cycles of oppression under Canaanite nations, nothing compared to the experience of exile under Eastern empires.
The Magi link the story of Jesus’ birth to several important events from the Old Testament. Israel’s worst enemies came from the East
First came the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria in the sixth century BC and then the destruction of the temple and fall of the Southern Kingdom to the Babylonians in the 8th century. It is within this context, particularly in the stories of Daniel, that Magi came to occupy an important place in Israel’s history.
As Daniel and his companions rise to the rank of advisers and courtiers to the kings of Babylon and Persia, they incite the jealousy of the court astrologers and magicians. The tension only worsens as Daniel repeatedly interprets, by the help of God, dreams that leave the other advisors confounded.
Like Moses with the court magicians of Egypt, Daniel is continually at odds with the Babylonian Magi. This eventually culminates in attempts to destroy the prophets of God, first in the fiery furnace and then in the lion’s den. All in all, the Magi come out looking as bad — if not worse — than the kings, as they plot and scheme for the destruction of Daniel and his friends.
This background makes the story of the Magi in the New Testament shocking for several reasons. First, given the distinction between Daniel and the Babylonian Magi, it is astonishing that Gentile astrologers have been made privy to a divine work to which the leadership back in Judea are blind. While the stories of Daniel do not necessarily rule out the possibility that signs and wonders can be discerned within the stars, they do repeatedly stress that the ability to properly interpret such signs is a gift from God in heaven.
When the Jewish scribes are consulted as to the birthplace of the messiah, they are able to relay the correct town. But the precise location, and more importantly the precise Person, is only revealed to the Easterners through the star. The meaning is clear. The grace of divine knowledge has come to the Easterners.
The surprising way the story unfolds was anticipated in the Jewish scriptures, but it still would have been a source of grave offence for people whose collective memory was so profoundly shaped by their experience of Eastern imperial oppression, and who even now swayed under the yoke of political bondage within the Roman Empire. What kind of Jewish king was this whom God would reveal to His people’s enemies first?
Second, Jesus’ manifestation to the Magi entails more than just an expanse of information — it signals reconciliation. As a manifestation to both Jew and Gentile, Jewish scribe and Eastern astrologer, Jesus’ birth represents the arrival of a king whose reign reconciles parties formerly at odds. It signals the fulfilment of God’s purposes for Israel to be a light to the nations, the manifestation of His reign to peoples who had not known Him.
What kind of Jewish king was this whom God would reveal to His people’s enemies first?
But such reconciliation is a difficult, even tortuous, process. The Jewish people bore the scars of imperial bondage. They laboured under the weight of Roman subjugation, yet another foreign kingdom in a long line of oppressors. The Magi represented everything the Jewish people longed to escape; everything from which they prayed to be delivered. And now, before any of that was accomplished, they were expected to forgive.
One of the defining features of 2020 was the escalation of preexisting hostilities. In my own country, the United States, this has taken a particularly virulent turn within the context of a presidential election and tension over race relations sparked by the continued revelation of police brutality.
As social media increasingly dominates channels of communication, incentivising the proliferation of echo chambers and the worst habits of thought and communication, they have contributed to feelings of resentment, despair, and a general sense that the only way to handle those of differing opinions is to silence and overpower them by any means possible.
Solutions to such problems are not easy. In the years to come, we will have to diligently and prayerfully ask difficult questions. How should we think and speak about the complex social situations in which we find ourselves? How do we properly love our neighbors? Who should we vote for? What policies should we support?
Our religious values should never be an excuse for superficial thinking and lazy engagement. But, at a minimum, our response to social division, to those who anger, frighten, or sadden us, must be oriented by the star that guided Eastern Magi to the foot of a young Jewish king. In all we do, our arc must bend toward reconciliation. This is a difficult, even tortuous experience at times. But to refuse it is to prefer the darkness to the light that has dawned in Christ.
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