Why Did Rich Foreigners Visit a Poor Jewish Baby?

The wise men came to see the baby Jesus shortly after he was born. Travel wasn’t easy in those days, and the rich and powerful preferred to send representatives rather than go on the road themselves. The rich and famous often gave presents to their equals, but homage was something reserved for their superiors. You wouldn’t expect rich folks like these guys to bow before someone who was born in a stable rather than a palace.

Where would they look for a king?

These visitors were looking for the king of the Jews, and they weren’t even Jewish. They used King Herod, who thought he was king, to ask directions, the same way we might stop at a gas station to ask for advice. When they finally found the baby, they greeted him with both joy and reverence.

And so the wise men, the Magi, came to worship the infant Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him. When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”

Herod was disturbed, of course, because any new king of the Jews would be a challenge to his own kingship. The rest of Jerusalem could easily have been afraid of a coup or revolution or the Roman enforcers.

When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” (Matthew 2:1-6)

So Herod gave the Magi the directions they needed.

Who were the Magi?

But who were these Magi anyway? As best we know, they were members of a group that most likely started among the Chaldeans or the Assyrians. They spread from Chaldea to Assyria and then to the area around Media, finally coming into Persia, where they became quite prominent.

The Magi were mostly priests. Sometime after 1000 BC, Zoroaster proclaimed a religion of lofty moral ideals based on the principle ‘Do good, hate evil’. For him there was one god, Ahura-mazda, the Good, who was represented by purifying fire and water. Opposed to the good was a dark evil power.

The Magi came to Persia after the time of Daniel, and they were recognized as experts in astronomy, astrology, and natural sciences. They were highly respected for their learning. The Greek word used for “magi” can refer to one who has and uses supernatural knowledge and ability or simply is a magician.

How did the Magi relate to the people of Israel?

The Magi are mentioned several times in the Old Testament, and not favorably. They were counselors and high officials in Babylon during the time of Daniel. Jeremiah lists the names of the men sitting with Nebuchadnezzar when Jerusalem fell to Babylon:

Now when Jerusalem was captured in the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and all his army came to Jerusalem and laid siege to it; in the eleventh year of Zedekiah, in the fourth month, in the ninth day of the month, the city wall was breached.

Then all the officials of the king of Babylon came in and sat down at the Middle Gate: Nergal-sar-ezer, Samgar-nebu, Sar-sekim the Rab-saris, Nergal-sar-ezer the Rab-mag, and all the rest of the officials of the king of Babylon. (Jeremiah 39:1-3)

That last man in the list is the Rab-mag, the one who is identified by ancient inscriptions as the head of the Magi. This man was an advisor to the king of Babylon and an active participant in the defeat and exile of the people of Israel

In the book of Daniel we hear how Daniel later won the favor of the king of Babylon. When the king put Daniel put in charge of government administration, the Magi became part of his territory. The account says,

Then the king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts, and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. (Daniel 2:48)

Yes, the Romans were in charge when Jesus was born, but these men’s order were counselors for the ancient enemies of Israel’s history. They were rich and educated, from the group that guided the conquerors of Israel’s past. When they came, they came on behalf of the nations, on behalf of the powerful foreigners who had caused Israel so much grief.

When they come into the story of the birth of Jesus, the Magi represent the best that the outside world has to offer in education, wealth, and power. They followed a light in the night sky to find the light that was coming into the world, a light that they had no reason to expect or understand.

What kind of king was Herod?

King Herod was only the local king appointed by the Romans. He was widely known as Herod the Great. His building projects were extensive, including completely rebuilding the Temple itself, the Antonia fortress, the city of Caesarea and many other projects. There was nothing small about Herod’s building projects.

In rebuilding the Temple, Herod needed to make some serious retaining walls around the Temple mount. You may have seen pictures of the Western wall, which is all that remains of those walls. The blocks for the wall were cut out of a quarry under the southern part of Jerusalem, where it was discovered in 2007.

Workers cut carefully around each of the huge blocks and then separated them from the surrounding rock. The stonecutters first flattened the front and top of the block with a chisel. Then they dug narrow channels 4 to 6 inches wide on all sides except the bottom of the stone. They then inserted dry wooden beams into the channels, hammered them tight, and poured water over them. The wood would swell, and the pressure force the stone to separate from the rock below.

Moving the blocks was not trivia, and no one is quite sure how the blocks were piled high enough for the walls, since they each weighed at least several tons. The wall was destroyed by the Romans when they destroyed the temple, but you can see the remains that the Israeli government has preserved in piles of rubble left behind at the western wall.

Herod is called “the Great,” and the works he left behind are evidence of the huge scale of his ambition. Josephus led a rebellion against the Romans in the Galilee, was defeated and taken to Rome, and adopted into the imperial family. He then wrote histories of the Jewish people. He reports in his book, the Antiquities of the Jews that Herod

died, the fifth day after he had caused Antipater [his oldest son] to be slain; having reigned, since he had procured Antigonus [his predecessor] to be slain, thirty-four years; but since he had been declared king by the Romans, thirty-seven. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 17.191-192)

Herod’s crimes were many. He put to death several of his own children and some of his wives when he thought they were plotting against him. Josephus tells us a little bit about what Herod was like in those days. According to Josephus,

A man he was of great barbarity towards all men equally, and a slave to his passions; but above the consideration of what was right; yet was he favored by fortune as much as any man ever was, for from a private man he became a king; and though he were encompassed with ten thousand dangers, he got clear of them all, and continued his life till a very old age; (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 17.191-192)

So much for Herod’s luck. Josephus goes on to say,

but then, as to the affairs of his family and children, in which, indeed, according to his own opinion, he was also very fortunate, because he was able to conquer his enemies; yet, in my opinion, he was herein very unfortunate. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 17.191-192)

Why did Josephus think Herod was unfortunate with his family? Herod did win in his conflicts with them, but only by killing all of those who offended or threatened him. These included his wife, Mariamne, their sons Alexander and Aristobulus, other members of his wife’s family, and his oldest son Antipater.

Even when he was quite old and sick, Herod’s instant reaction to any threat, including threats from within his own family, was to kill anyone he thought might be dangerous. Josephus says,

Herod now fell into a distemper, and made his will, and bequeathed his kingdom to, his youngest son [Antipas]; and this out of that hatred to Archelaus and Philip, which the calumnies of Antipater had raised against them. He also bequeathed a thousand talents to Caesar, and five hundred to Julia, Caesar’s wife, to Caesar’s children, and friends and freedmen. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 17.146)

Herod was very politically astute, and he knew enough to stay on the good side of those who were in charge in Rome.

Herod’s character and behavior were widely known, even as far away as Rome itself. Emperor Augustus reportedly said it was better to be Herod’s sow than his son, because a pig had a better chance of surviving in a Jewish community. This was a pun, since in Greek there is only one letter difference between the words “sow” (huos) and “son” (huios).

How did Herod try to use the Magi?

Herod did have some issues with his qualifications. He was not even a descendant of Jacob, but was descended from Esau and thus was an Edomite. He was born in Idumea, south of Judah, so technically he was not even one of the people of Israel.

Since Herod was not the rightful king from the line of David, most of the Jews at that time hated him and never truly accepted him as king. If someone had been rightfully born king, then Herod’s job was in jeopardy. Because he was paranoid about threats to his power, he eliminated anyone he felt threatened him. The Magi stepped right into his paranoia.

Herod tried to use the Magi to get information to lead him to the child they were looking for. Fortunately for the baby, they avoided sharing information with him.

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Matthew 2:7-8)

The Magi, of course, were no fools and recognized political treachery.

And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2:12)

What could Herod do about the baby born to take over his kingship? His reaction, as always, was brutal and over the top. He didn’t know which child it was, so he took out his anger on all the children born around the same time.

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (Matthew 2:16)

Matthew goes on to say:

Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:17-18)

Sending soldiers out to kill all the boy children in Bethlehem wasn’t at all out of character for Herod. If it weren’t for the cleverness of the Magi, Jesus would have been found and murdered right then. A second dream led Joseph to take the child completely out of Herod’s reach.

When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:13-15)

When King Herod died, Joseph brought his family back to Palestine, to live in the quiet village of Nazareth in Galilee in the north. In those days, the area was known as Galilee of the Gentiles, and it was about as far away from the political world of Jerusalem as you could get. There, we can only assume, Jesus had a normal childhood. At least we assume it because, other than that one time when he got lost in Jerusalem, the gospel writers have little to report.

Why did they bring their expensive gifts into a stable?

The Magi went to Bethlehem and found the baby in the place pointed to by the star they were following.

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. (Matthew 2:9-11)

Just to see how well you pay attention to the scripture story, how many kings were there? Do you think there were three kings? … Do you have no clue at all how many kings there actually were? …

If you are clueless, you are correct. The scriptures tell us how many gifts were brought, but not how many people brought them. The tradition of three kings, each with their own names and stories, didn’t appear until hundreds of years after the birth itself.

What we do know for sure is that there were three gifts, and that they were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Clearly the visitors were not thinking of the baby as a little boy who could use a blanket or some toys. These are the kind of presents that would have come to a child in a royal palace who had no need for the basics.

Gold, of course, has great value, but in this case as a gift it is most likely symbolic, representing royal wealth or even gold as the golden crown of a king of the line of David.

Frankincense is more clearly symbolic, since it was used as part of worship in the temple. Exodus 30:34 gives frankincense as the main ingredient in the recipe for incense to be used at the Tent of Meeting and to be considered holy to the Lord. The recipe even comes with a warning that anyone who tries to copy it just to enjoy it will be cut off from the people.

We know that myrrh was used to prepare bodies for burial in the first century, and many have suggested that it connects the baby at the beginning of his life with his coming sacrificial death. However, myrrh was the first ingredient in the anointing oil that Moses was commanded to use in Exodus 30:22-33 to consecrate Aaron and his sons as priests. It also comes with a warning that it is sacred and that anyone who “makes perfume like it and whoever puts it on anyone other than a priest must be cut off from his people.” As a gift to the child Jesus, I think myrrh is a demonstration of his consecration as a priest in the line of Aaron.

With these gifts, the Magi covered all the bases—royalty, divinity, holiness, and sacred sacrifice.

Who did the Magi represent?

At the birth of Jesus, the shepherds represented the people of the neighborhood, the people of Israel. The Magi represented the rest of the world. The prophecy of Isaiah said,

Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:3)

The wise men are the representatives of the nations at the birth of the child, and they’re also the first non-Jews to know that the Messiah arrived. They bow before him. They offer their tribute.

With their gifts, they acknowledge that he’s their king as well. They’re overjoyed to learn that the real king of all kings is born, and they’re the very first to demonstrate that they’re his loyal subjects. These wise men are the first foreigners to recognize Jesus, and thankfully they’re only the first of many.

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