April 30: Numbers 24:2; 1 Samuel 10:6ff

Numbers 24:2; 1 Samuel 10:6ff

In the previous note of this series on Old Testament passages involving the Spirit [j^Wr] of God, I discussed the fundamental association of the Spirit with prophecy. In particular, it is the special gifting by the spirit/breath [j^Wr] of YHWH that enables a person to fill the role of ayb!n`—a spokesperson who speaks and acts on God’s behalf, communicating His word and will to the people. From the standpoint of Old Testament tradition, prophecy in Israel begins with Moses; he was the ultimate ayb!n`, though, as we saw in Numbers 11:10-30, this role was not limited to him even at the time.

Various forms of prophecy had, of course, long been practiced in the ancient Near East. I previously mentioned the evidence from the city-state of Mari, where at least two different kinds of prophets are attested—one (the ¹pilum) apparently functioning in an official capacity (at the royal court, etc), while the other (the mu——ûm) operating at a more popular level, was marked especially by ecstatic experience (cf. below).

Numbers 24:2

As it happens, the Old Testament Scriptures refer to at least one such non-Israelite prophet, the famous (and rather enigmatic) figure of Balaam (Bil±¹m, <u*l=B!). He is featured in the narratives of Numbers 22-24, including four distinct oracles attributed to him; his role in the Baal-Peor incident (chap. 25), itself a complex tradition as recorded in the text, is more problematic (cf. Num 31:8, 16). It is the latter association, especially, that colored Balaam as a negative, evil figure-type in later Jewish and Christian tradition.

The historicity of Balaam, and the general authenticity of the Pentateuch traditions (in Num 22-24), would seem to be confirmed by the extra-biblical evidence of the Deir ±All¹ inscription from Jordan (c. 800 B.C.). For a translation of this inscription, along with photographs, see the treatment online at livius.org.

The entirety of the matrix of traditions in chaps. 22-24—but especially the oracles in 23-24—make clear that Balaam was a prophet, primarily in the sense of being a seer (ha#r)), a visionary clairvoyant, one who could discern the course of future events. Despite the lampooning episode of 22:22-35, and his subsequent negative caricature, there is no evidence in the text that he is in any way a false prophet, or that his visions do not genuinely come from God (El-Yahweh). Indeed, in the narrative he repeatedly receives communication from God (22:9ff, 20, etc). This is an extraordinary datum, and serves as an objective confirmation of the authenticity of the oracle-traditions.

As previously mentioned, Balaam would best be characterized as a seer (ha#r), from the root har), and the text several times mentions his eyes being “opened” (by God); indeed, this is stated at the beginning of the third and fourth oracles (24:3-4, 15-16), indicating that such revelatory experience was a regular occurrence for Balaam. Moreover, in accordance with the ancient understanding that all such prophetic experience was the result of divine inspiration (from the spirit of God), this is stated of the non-Israelite Balaam as well:

“And Bil’am lifted his eyes, and he saw [vb ha*r*] Yisrael residing (according) to its staffs [i.e. by tribe], and (the) spirit [j^Wr] of (the) Mightiest [<yh!ýa$] came upon him” (24:2)

It is possible that this detail was emphasized as a way of legitimizing the oracles of a non-Israelite (Canaanite) prophet, affirming (for an Israelite audience) that they are genuine and true prophecies. Much more likely, however, this simply reflects the basic understanding of how prophecy worked in the ancient Near East. Any distinct prophetic experience was the result of a divine presence (spirit) working in or upon the person—its source was the spirit/breath [j^Wr] of a deity, whether El-Yahweh or another.

1 Samuel 10:6ff

In the previous note, we saw the distinctive use of the denominative verb ab*n`, which essentially means to “act or function as a ayb!n`” . This verb occurs either in the passive Niphal stem or the reflexive Hithpael stem—both of which imply the idea of a person being under the influence or control of a prophetic “spirit”. Outside of Num 11:25-27 (discussed in the previous note), the verb ab*n` (in both passive and reflexive stems) occurs a number of times in Samuel-Kings, where it unquestionably reflects old/authentic historical tradition. The very oddity and unorthodox character of some of the details in these narratives would tend to confirm, on objective grounds, the authenticity of the traditions.

A particular early reference occurs in 1 Samuel 10:1-13, where the young Saul is directed by Samuel that, on his journey, he will encounter a group of <ya!yb!n+ in front of the hill-site city of Gibeah, or Gibeath-Elohim (“hill of God”), vv. 5-6. Both the name, and the presence of these prophets, suggests that it was a sacred site (or “high place”); at the moment, it also was marked by a Philistine garrison. The prophets Saul will encounter will be coming as a procession from the city, playing musical instruments as they “act as ayb!n`” . As most commentators recognize, this involves a specific mode of ecstatic prophetic experience, of a kind frequently aided (or induced) through music. That it is a dramatic and aggressive (even violent) sort of experience is indicated by the wording in verse 6, stating that the spirit [j^Wr] of YHWH would rush (vb jl^x*) upon Saul and overtake him, so that he would “act as a ayb!n` ” with all the others. So dramatic would this experience be that it is said Saul would be “turned over” (i.e. changed/transformed) into “another man”.

This prediction by Samuel is fulfilled in verse 10, and the state of prophetic ecstasy indeed results in such unusual behavior that everyone who knows Saul has to take note and wonder at it: “What (is) this (that) has come to be [i.e. happened] to the son of Qîš?” (v. 11). A similar kind of evil spirit comes upon Saul in a later narrative (18:10ff), resulting in the same sort of unusual manic/ecstatic behavior, only in a more destructively violent manner. The same verb ab*n` is used here, even though it has nothing to do with “prophecy” in the typical sense. This is most informative, as it demonstrates rather clearly that, in the context of prophecy, the emphasis is squarely on the divine presence/spirit that influences and overcomes the person. In 18:10, though it is an “evil” spirit, it still comes from God, utilizing the common expression “spirit of the Mightiest” (<yh!ýa$ j^Wr). While this certainly created (and still creates) theological problems for subsequent readers, it is fully in accord with the ancient way of thinking (cp. the episode in 1 Kings 22:19-23).

We should point out that the prophetic ecstasy that came over Saul in 10:10 was repeated in a separate tradition (19:20-24). There, at another sacred “high place” site (Ramah), there is a group of ecstatic prophets (<ya!yb!n+), only this time Samuel himself is present with them. The frenzied character of this experience, marked by unusual or aberrant behavior, is indicated especially by the detail of Saul tearing off his clothes, and laying naked in that place all day and night (v. 24). Again, this will no doubt seem troubling to our modern sensibilities, in terms of our conceptions regarding the nature of prophecy, etc, but it very much reflects aspects of traditional prophetic experience worldwide, both in ancient and later times.

The verb ab*n` (in the passive/reflexive) also occurs in 1 Kings 18:29 and 22:8-12 (note the group of prophets, v. 10), 18 par. Interestingly, while the verb is frequent in the later Prophetic writings (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah) it is quite rare in the earlier books (only Amos [6 times] and Joel [once]). This suggests that the earlier usage—indicated by the underlying historical traditions in Exodus–Kings—was abandoned for a time, only to be picked up again in the Exilic/Post-exilic period.

In the next note, we will touch further on the idea of the violent effects of the Spirit’s influence, as recorded in the Old Testament.

September 16: Revelation 2:12-17

Revelation 2:12-17

The third letter of chapters 2-3 is addressed to the believers in Pergamum (Grk. Pe/rgamo$, modern Bergama). The name (i.e. a fortified site, or citadel) seems to refer to the ancient (pre-Roman) acropolis, which was renowned for its impressive walls and buildings. It was the center of a kingdom which was absorbed into the Roman Empire (in the mid-2nd century B.C.) and became a leading imperial city, even after the center of the provincial government had shifted to Ephesus.

The distinctive details in the letter are discussed here in turn (for the letter-format itself, cf. the earlier note).

Rev 2:12b

“These (things are) said (by) the (one) holding the sharp two-mouthed [i.e. double-edged] sword…”

Here, following the format in all the letters, the phrase introducing the risen Jesus is taken from the vision in 1:11-16ff—in this case, from the description in v. 16. The motif of the sword, emphasizes both the danger for believers of being put to death for their faith, as well as the judgment which is about to come upon evil-doers (utilizing the military aspect of the eschatological/Messianic image, Isa 11:4, etc [cf. 2 Thess 2:8]).

Rev 2:13

As in the previous letter (to Smyrna, cf. the most recent note), the praise given to the congregations is related to their faithfulness and endurance in the midst of (religious) persecution:

“I have seen where you (have) put down house—(in) the (place) where the ruling-seat of the Satan (resides)—and (yet) you (have) held firm(ly) to my name, and did not deny the trust of [i.e. in] me, even in the days of Antipas my trust(worthy) witness, who was killed off (from) alongside you, (in) the (place) where the Satan puts down house [i.e. dwells/resides].”

The emphasis here has to do with the location (i.e. Pergamum) where the believers currently reside. It is marked by a two-fold (parallel) expression:

    • “the (place) where [o%pou] the ruling-seat [qro/no$, i.e. throne] of the Satan (resides)”
    • “the (place) where [o%pou] the Satan resides [katoikei=, lit. puts down house]”

This is a remarkable declaration that “the Satan” (o( satana=$) both resides in Pergamum and has his “seat of rule” (qro/no$) there. The title “Satan”, of course, derives from ancient Israelite and Jewish tradition, by which the (heavenly/angelic) opponent of God’s people, so understood, came to be described with the title /f*c* (“[the] adversary”)—cf. Job 1:6ff; Zech 3:1-2; 1 Chron 21:1. The Greek transliteration of this title ([o(] satana=$), generally treated as synonymous with [o(] dia/bolo$ (“[the] one casting [slander/evil] throughout”, i.e. ‘Devil’), occurs 36 times in the New Testament, including 8 times in the book of Revelation (5 in chaps. 2-3).

How should we understand the specific use of the term here, with the idea that Satan lives (and rules) in Pergamum? There are several possibilities:

    • It refers to Pergamum’s legacy as a leading center of Roman rule/government in Asia Minor. [#1]
    • It is an allusion to Pergamum as the first city in which the imperial cult (i.e. venerating the Emperor) was established in Asia Minor (c. 29 B.C., in honor of Augustus and Roma, the goddess personifying Rome). [#2]
    • It is a colorful reference to the influence of Greco-Roman (pagan) religion and culture (in Asia Minor) generally; the specific application to Pergamum is circumstantial. [#3]
    • It relates primarily to the persecution of Christians, which, in Pergamum, has led to at least one believer being put to death. [#4]
    • It refers back to the Jewish opposition to Christians (verse 9; also 3:9), which may have involved the denouncing of believers to the provincial authorities; there, such Jewish opponents were called “a gathering together [i.e. synagogue] of Satan”. [#5]
    • More generally, it refers to false teaching and religious belief/practice [#6]

All of these relate to definite themes and points of emphasis (and conflict) both in the letters and the book as a whole:

    • The influence of Greco-Roman culture and religion.
    • The images and practices surrounding the imperial cult, in particular.
    • The persecution of believers.
    • Religious identity of believers, both in relation to Judaism and the surrounding Greco-Roman culture.
    • False teachings and beliefs which are gaining influence in the congregations.

Here, in this letter specifically, the twin motifs of persecution and false teaching appear to frame the issue, though it is certainly also related to the influence of Greco-Roman (pagan) religion. Central to the message in verse 13 is the idea of faithfulness and endurance in the midst of persecution, even to the point of death—as in the case of one Antipas, about whom we otherwise have no reliable information. This is the first clear instance in the New Testament where the term “witness” (ma/rtu$) is tied directly to the idea of being put to death for being a Christian. This, of course, would come to be the primary denotation of the term, in its special Christian sense, transliterated in English as “martyr”.

Rev 2:14-15

Verses 14-16 make up the blame/rebuke portion of the “mixed” message of the letter, which, according to the regular formula, begins, “But I hold (this) against you…” The use of the adjective o)li/go$ reflects the primarily positive side of the message (i.e., their faithfulness in the midst of persecution): “…I hold a few (thing)s against you”. The complaint, or charge, is two-fold:

    • “you have (among you)…(one)s grabbing (hold) firmly [kratou=nta$] (to) the teaching of Bil’am…” (v. 14)
    • “you have (among you) (one)s grabbing (hold) firmly [kratou=nta$] (to) the teaching of the Nikolaitans…” (v. 15)

The use of the verb krate/w (“take strong/firm [hold of]”) is meant as a clear contrast to the faithful believers in v. 13, who are said to have “grabbed (hold) firmly” [kratei=$] to Jesus’ name. If the issue was persecution in verse 13, here it is the influence of false teaching among believers. Two kinds of such teaching are indicated.

The teaching of Bil’am (v. 14)—The name Bil±¹m (Heb <u*l=B!), transliterated in Greek (as Balaa/m), and in English (as “Balaam”), derives from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament, and draws upon several ancient lines of tradition, including one which is positive, and another which is decidedly negative:

    • Positive (Num 22:1-6ff; 23-24): The king of Moab (Balak) called on the seer/prophet Bil’am to curse Israel, which, according to the ancient (magical) worldview, meant bringing about Israel’s demise. However, Bil’am, under God’s influence, instead blessed Israel, uttering four oracles which announced what God would do for his people.
    • Negative (Num 25): The Baal-Peor episode, in which Israelites joined together (intermarriage?) with Moabite women and then took part in Canaanite (pagan) religious ceremonies (vv. 1-5ff); this is combined with a (separate?) tradition involving Midianite women (vv. 6-15ff). Bil’am’s involvement is not mentioned in this narrative, but only through a separate notice in 31:16 (cf. also Josh 13:22).

The statement here in Rev 2:14 combines both traditions, though it is certainly the latter which is primarily in view, in accordance with the dominant (negative) association with the name of Balaam among Jews and Christians at the time (cf. 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11)—Jewish tradition generally depicted Balaam as a magician and false prophet. The mention of Balak (the Moabite king) here may also be a subtle way of connecting false religious teaching and practice (represented by Balaam) with the imperial Roman government (i.e. Balak), the two being closely connected.

The false teaching of “Balaam” (Bil’am) is specifically defined here, according to the language of the ancient tradition, as:

“to throw (down) in the sight of Yisrael something to trip (them) up [ska/ndalon]—to (make them) eat (offering)s slaughtered to images, and to engage in ‘prostitution’.”

The key terms are: (1) ei)dwlo/quta and (2) the verb porneu/w. The first is a plural noun which essentially means “(offering)s slaughtered [vb. qu/w] to an image [ei&dwlon]”. It is a uniquely Jewish (and Christian) way of referring to sacrificial offerings made to Greco-Roman (pagan) deities, for which the common term was i(ero/quton, i.e. a sacred offering slaughtered (more rarely, qeo/quton, offering “slaughtered to [a] god”). The Jewish/Christian term is a pejorative, reflecting the basic idea that the other (pagan) deities have no real existence, but are represented merely by lifeless images.

In the Greco-Roman cities, food sacrificed to deities could be eaten as part of a religious ceremony; but the meat (from animal sacrifices) could also be subsequently purchased in the marketplace and eaten in a wide range of ordinary (secular) settings. For Jews and early Christians, this aspect of the surrounding Greco-Roman culture was particularly problematic, and is addressed at several points in the New Testament—most notably, in the Jerusalem “decree” (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25), and by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8-10. The view among most early Christian leaders seems to have been that believers must absolutely avoid eating any food that had been sacrificed to “idols”. However, Paul, while sharing this basic outlook, takes a more careful, nuanced approach when addressing the Corinthians, devoting three whole chapters to the subject. Here, in the letter to the believers in Pergamum, no such consideration or qualification is given—those who allow/accept the eating of food sacrificed to idols, and especially, those who teach and encourage this, are characterized as “Balaam” and are condemned in no uncertain terms.

The verb porneu/w literally refers to taking part in prostitution (i.e. sexual intercourse for hire), but could also be used (together with the related noun pornei/a) as a catch-term for any sort of sexual behavior which was deemed immoral or improper. While it is possible that the message here does refer to sexual immorality (it is certainly associated with “Balaam” through the tradition[s] in Numbers 25), the overall context suggests otherwise. Frequently in the Old Testament “prostitution” (using the comparable Hebrew hnz) was used figuratively, as a way to symbolize unfaithfulness in a religious sense (i.e. to God). Any sort of false or illicit religious practice, regardless of whether a sexual component were involved, could be called “prostitution” (tWnz+[T^], pornei/a). Thus, it is perfectly appropriate to regard the improper participation of believers in Greco-Roman religious culture—i.e., through the eating of food sacrificed to “idols”—as committing pornei/a (cf. 1 Cor 6:12-20, in light of Paul’s following discussion in chaps. 8-10). Most likely, the term here is not limited strictly to the question of food sacrificed to idols, but extends to the influence of (pagan) Greco-Roman culture as a whole (cf. again, the association of ei)dolw/quta and pornei/a in Acts 15:20, 29).

The teaching of the Nikolaitans (v. 15)—The group called “Nikolaitans” was mentioned in the first letter (v. 6). As I indicated in the earlier note, we have virtually no reliable information about the teachings or practices of this group. Many commentators assume, based on the context here, that they followed in the example of “Balaam” and taught that it was permitted for believers to eat food which had been sacrificed to other deities (cf. above). However, I am by no means convinced of this. The point of the comparison seems to be that there are two distinct groups (and sets of teachings) involved in vv. 14-15: (1) those who accept/allow the eating of the sacrificed food, and (2) the Nikolaitans. We simply cannot be certain of what the Nikolaitans taught or believed, other than: (a) they seem to have exercised considerable influence among Christians in Asia Minor, and (b) their teachings/practices were serious enough that, in the message, the risen Jesus could be said to “hate” (vb. mise/w, v. 6) them and their “works”. I find rather dubious the suggested association between the name Nikolaos (Niko/lao$, “victor[ious] over the people”) and an etymology of Bil’am as “he destroyed the people” (<u* ul^B*), though this is at least possible.

Rev 2:16

The warning, stern and foreboding, is given in verse 16, drawing upon the earlier reference to the two-edged (lit. two-mouthed) sword that comes out of the risen Jesus’ mouth (v. 12):

“Therefore you must change (your) mind(set) [i.e. repent]; and if not, (then) I (will) come to you quickly and will make war with them in [i.e. with] the sword of my mouth.”

It is interesting to note the way that the focus shifts here. While the call goes out to the believers in Pergamum as a whole (“you must [repent]…”), the threat of making war is narrowed to the ones who are erring/sinning (i.e. those in vv. 14-15): “…I will come to you [soi] and will make war with them [au)tw=n]…” As noted previously, the motif of the sword coming out of the mouth is an eschatological and Messianic image (coming mainly from Isa 11:4 and 49:2). However, it is not clear whether its use here refers to the end-time Judgment in the full, traditional sense, or to a local manifestation of God’s Judgment (through Jesus) which might take place at some point prior. Probably it is best to view the idea of “Jesus coming” as a generalized expression signifying here “the coming of judgment” upon evil-doers. The orientation would still be eschatological, but not in as precise and dramatic a context as the reference in 2 Thess 2:8.

Rev 2:17

The final exhortation and promise in the letters always beings “(To) the (one) being [i.e. who is] victorious…”. Here the promised (heavenly) reward is two-fold (“I will give to him…”):

    • “(to eat) of the hidden manna”
    • “a white pebble” upon which was written “a new name…which no one has seen [i.e. known] if not [i.e. except] the (one) receiving (it)”

According to Old Testament/Israelite tradition, after the manna had ceased to fall from heaven (Josh 5:12), it only existed through the portion stored away in the tabernacle (Exod 16:32-34), and then, it would seem, in the Temple. When the Temple was destroyed, it was “hidden away” by God, to be restored to his people in the future, when it would come down again from Heaven (2 Baruch 29:8; Mekilta on Exodus 6.82; cf. also 2 Macc 2:4-8, etc; Koester, p. 289-90). In the great Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, Jesus plays on this idea of believers eating the manna (“bread”) which comes down from heaven, which he identifies with his own person (his word, his sacrificial death, the Spirit he gives). Here in the book of Revelation, the eating of the “hidden manna” is more or less synonymous with the earlier motif of “eating of the tree of life” (v. 7)—i.e., partaking of Eternal Life at the end-time. There may also be a contrast here between the errant Christians who eat food sacrificed to idols, and the faithful believers (who do not), and, as a result, are allowed to eat of the heavenly food (“manna”).

The second reward is “a white pebble”, which may also echo the motif of the manna (both are small and white in color, cf. Exod 16:31). Of course, white is also a common symbol of purity, and the believers who receive this white pebble (yh=fo$) have likewise kept themselves pure (from sin, in faith, etc). There are several possible meanings to the idea of a “name” being written on the pebble (cf. Koester, p. 290):

    • It indicates a favorable judgment—white (instead of black) indicating victory or vindication, through the vote, in court, etc.
    • A similar use of a white pebble was involved in determining who would be the one to receive certain honors.
    • A name written on a stone could conceivably allude to a kind of (magical) protection for the person—the inscribed stone functioning like a talisman.

The second option seems most probable—that it signifies a special honor for the believer, much like the wreath/crown in verse 10. What is the significance of the “new name” written on the pebble, which is known only to the one who receives it? There would seem to be two possibilities:

    • It is a special name, i.e. of honor, etc, given by Christ, to the believer (cp. Matt 16:17; John 1:42)
    • It alludes to the name of Jesus and/or the name of God (cf. Phil 2:9f). The idea that the name of God is something ‘hidden’ which is made known (by Jesus) to believers is found at several points in the Gospel of John (e.g., 17:6ff).

The latter option would seem to be preferable, in light of the similar language in 3:12 (and cf. also 14:1; 19:12ff; 22:4). The believer’s new “name” is that of Jesus’ himself—not necessarily the simple name “Yeshua/Jesus”, but the name which identifies him with God (Son and exalted One of the Father). As I have discussed previously, a name, in ancient thought, typically represented and embodied the true nature and essence of the person.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Matthew 2:1-12

This is the second of three seasonal notes in celebration of Epiphany (Jan 6): the first looked at the overall structure of the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matthew 2) and the central Scripture verse (Micah 5:2) cited in the first half of the chapter (vv. 1-12). This passage emphasizes the visit of the “Magi” (Magoi)—the origin and nature of these “Wise Men” will be discussed briefly at the end of this article; here I will examine several Old Testament passages which may have helped shape the narrative, or which correspond to certain details in the text as it has come down to us.

1. Numbers 24:17

This is part of Balaam’s (fourth and final) oracle as recorded in Numbers 23-24. There are two aspects of the verse which may relate to the narrative in Matthew 2:1-12: (a) the overall setting of the passage, and (b) the star.

(a) The narrative setting

Numbers 22-24 records several traditions (and oracle poems) connected with Balaam (<u*l=B! Bil±¹m), a somewhat mysterious figure (to us) who was no doubt much better known to Israelites of the late-second/early first millennium B.C. living in Canaan (inscription fragments from Deir ±All¹ [c. 700] refer to him, as a “seer [hzj] of the gods”). There is a certain parallel to details of the Magi narrative in Matthew:

  • A ‘wicked’ king (Balak [ql*B*]) summons the seer Balaam for help against “the children of Israel” (22:5) who had “come out from Egypt” (cf. Matt 2:15 [Hos 11:1])
  • Balaam is a seer who received revelations from God (24:15-16), while the Magi apparently also receive revelatory visions and/or dreams (Matt 2:12). The LXX states that Balaam received his visions “in sleep” [e)n u%pnw|] (24:16, also v. 4).
  • Balaam comes “from the east” (Num 23:7; LXX a)p’ a)natolw=n, the same phrase in Matt 2:1).
  • Balaam prophecies the future of Israel (in four oracles: Num 23:7-10, 18-24; 24:3-9, 15-24); there is also a prophecy [Micah 5:2] in Matthew, cited by the “priests and scribes” (not the Magi).
  • The prophecies mention the coming of a star out of Israel [Jacob] signifying the arrival of a powerful ruler (Num 24:17ff—on this, see below).
  • Balaam is warned by an angel (Num 22:31-35); the Magi are warned in a dream in Matt 2:12 (an angel is not mentioned, but is sometimes assumed according to the pattern in 1:20; 2:13, 19).
  • Balaam departs back to his own place (Num 24:25); the Magi return to their own country (Matt 2:12)

(b) The Star

Numbers 24:17, part of Balaam’s fourth oracle, begins as follows:

I see him, but not now;
I perceive him, but not near;
A star will march [ird] from Ya±¦qœ» {Jacob},
and a staff will rise [<wq] from Yi´ra°¢l {Israel}…

The reference is clearly to a ruler who will crush the enemies of Israel and exercise dominion over the surrounding nations (see esp. verse 19). Many critical scholars would hold that this refers to the Davidic monarchy, and to the person of David (as star and scepter), whether as a genuine or ex eventu prophecy. However, by the time of the New Testament, this passage had come to be understood in a (future) Messianic sense. It is cited numerous times in the Qumran documents (1QSb 5:27; 1QM [War Scroll] 11:6-7; and 4Q175 [Testimonia]), either in a ‘Messianic’ or eschatological context. Most notably it occurs in the related Damascus Document (CD [Cairo MS A]), in 7:19, where the star is the “Interpreter of the Law who shall come” and the staff/scepter is the coming “Prince of the whole congregation”. In some Qumran texts, there are apparent references to two Anointed [Messiah] figures—one “of Israel”, a royal (Davidic) Messiah, presumably identified with the “Branch of David” and the “Prince of the Congregation”; the other “of Aaron”, a priestly Messiah, likely identified (as here) with the “Interpreter of the Law”. Yet there are other texts which seem to recognize only one ‘Messiah’, so the situation in the Community (represented in the texts) is far from certain.

This view of Num 24:17 was aided greatly by the peculiar reading of the Septuagint (LXX): instead of a staff/scepter [fb#v@], it reads “a man [a&nqrwpo$] will rise out of Israel”. This may reflect an interpretive gloss which somehow made its way into the text. We find something similar in the Jewish/Christian (Pseudepigraphic) Testament of Judah 24:1-6, where “a man will rise” is connected with the “scepter” of the kingdom and a “staff of righteousness”. That this Messianic interpretation was relatively widespread by the time the Gospels were written is indicated from its mention by Philo of Alexandria (On Rewards and Punishments §95), an author who otherwise had little interest in Messianic predictions as such. It is also worth noting that it was applied to Simon bar-Kosiba (as bar-Kochba, “son of the Star”), famously by Rabbi Akiba (j.Ta’anit 68d) in the context of the Jewish Revolt of 132-135 A.D.—cf. also b.Sanh. 93b; Justin Martyr, First Apology 31.6; Eusebius, Church History 4.6.1-4, 8.4.

2. Isaiah 60:1-6

Verse 1 of this famous passage begins:

Stand up [i.e. rise], shine! for your light has come,
and the weight [i.e. glory] of YHWH has shot forth [i.e. risen/shined] upon you

Note also verse 2b-3:

…and YHWH will shoot forth [i.e. rise] upon you,
and His weight [i.e. glory] will be seen upon you;
And the nations will walk to your light,
and kings to the brilliance of your rising/shining

Then further on in verses 5b-6:

…for the roaring [i.e. wealth/abundance] of the sea will be turned over upon [i.e. to] you,
(the) strength [i.e. wealth] of the nations will come to you—
an abundance of camels will cover you,
(young) camels of Midyan and ±Ephah;
all of them from Sheba will come,
gold and white-resin [i.e. incense] they will carry,
and praises of YHWH they will bring (as a message)

It is scarcely necessary to comment on the similarities to details in Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi. The original oracle in Isaiah prophecies the future greatness of Israel/Judah, with nations bringing their wealth (to Jerusalem) to the house of God (verse 7).

3. Psalm 72:10-11

In Psalm 72 we find a similar theme as in Isaiah 60:1-6, but in the more general context of the ideal (righteous) king—strengthened and supported by God, he will extend the dominion (of Israel) so that kings of the surrounding nations will serve him and offer tribute (vv. 8-11, 15). Note especially verses 10-11:

(Let) the kings of Tarshish and (of) the islands return gift(s),
(let) the kings of Sheba’ and Seba’ bring present(s) near;
(Let) all kings bow (themselves) down to him,
and (let) all nations serve him

See also Psalm 68:29 and Isaiah 49:7. It is no doubt due to these references that the idea of the Magi as kings developed in Christian tradition.

But exactly who were the “Magi” in Matthew’s narrative?

Originally the Magi (magu, Avestan moghu/magauno) were a Medo-Persian tribe (and priestly caste); however, by the time of the New Testament, the word ma/go$ [pl. ma/goi] could refer to a wide range of characters: astronomers, astrologers, magicians and fortune-tellers or diviners of all sorts—i.e. any number of practitioners or dabblers in (pseudo-)science or the occult arts. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the word is used of Elymas (bar-Jesus), a (Jewish) ‘prophet’ connected to the proconsul at Cyprus (Acts 13:6-11). Simon of Samaria in Acts 8:9ff would be considered a ma/go$, for he is said to have “practiced ‘magic'” (mageu/w). Most likely, Matthew uses the word in the general (and neutral) sense of “astronomer/astrologer”—the only thing that can be said of the “Magi” for certain is: (1) they observed and took special note of a star “in the rising [a)natolh=|]”, and (2) they were “from the East [lit. risings, a)natolw=n]”.

With regard to the second phrase, one might still speculate as to the possible origin of these “Magi” at the historical level of the narrative. There are two main theories:

  1. They are (Zoroastrian) astronomer/astrologers from somewhere in the Persian (Parthian) Empire. There is an ancient Christian tradition connecting these Magi with a (supposed) prophecy by Zoroaster regarding the coming of the Messiah (mentioned by Clement of Alexandria [Stromateis 1:15; 6:5] and found in the Arabic Infancy Gospel, etc). Some would narrow the location to Babylonia (Babylonians [“Chaldeans”] were typically associated with astronomy/astrology), northwest Mesopotamia, or possibly eastern Asia Minor at the border of the Roman/Persian empires.
  2. They come from “Arabia”—either the (SW) Arabian Peninsula, or more broadly to include the eastern desert region of Syria-Palestine, Nabatea and Sinai, etc. The gifts offered (Matt 2:11) might confirm this general location, particularly if the Gospel writer had Isa 60:5-6 and Psalm 72:10-11 in mind as well (see above), for Midian, Seba, and Sheba point to the eastern desert and western Arabia. Certainly, this association was well-established in Christian tradition by the end of the second century, for it is mentioned by Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 78) and Tertullian (Against Marcion 3:13).

The second theory is, I should say, rather more likely. If so, it is still not clear whether these “Magi” were Jews or Gentiles—both are possible, and neither is specified in the text. Christian tradition early on understood them to be non-Jews, and that may well be what the Gospel writer has in mind.

Today one probably tends to view the humble Shepherds of Luke 2 more fondly than the ‘Kings’ of Matthew 2, but in the early and medieval Church, the Magi had the pride of place, for they were thought to prefigure the conversion of the Gentiles. In medieval and Renaissance art images of the Three Kings abound (see detail of the Cologne “Shrine of the Three Kings” by Nicholas of Verdun to the right). The scene appealed especially to European kings and princes who wished to see themselves as pious patrons of the Church (and the arts). Relics purported to be from the Magi also were widespread and highly prized. The number of Magi varied early on, but tradition ultimately settled on three—in the West their names were established by the end of the 6th century—Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.