1400 BC, Numbers 24:17
History is HIS Story
Let me take you back 3,400 years to Numbers 21, where we find Israel wandering through the desert as punishment for listening to faithless spies instead of heeding the advice of Joshua and Caleb.
In their quest for food, water and pasture for their flocks, the Israelites meander from one place to another, gradually moving northward. As they draw near to the countries of Moab and Amon, Moses requests permission to pass through these kingdoms, and even promises to pay for food and water needed for the journey. But the kings refuse to grant passage. Consequently, Israel circles around these nations, doing them no harm.
The Moabite and Ammonite kings must have felt rather smug after this apparent cowardice of Israel in response to their display of power. But they didn’t realize why Moses had not declared war on them. In Deuteronomy 2, God warned Moses not to declare war against Seir, Moab and Amon. He had promised Esau and the children of Lot a territorial inheritance just as he gave Canaan to Israel.
Later, Moses sends messengers from Israel’s camp in Jahaz to the king of the Amorites in Hesbon, about 20 miles distant. He requests permission to pass through his land just as he had requested of Moab and Ammon. He even makes reference to the fact that their journey around these countries was without incident. The Amorites had only recently taken this territory in conquest from Moab (Numbers 21:25-30), so they perceived themselves to be even better qualified to refuse passage through their territory (Deuteronomy 2:26-37). This time, however, Israel declares war and easily defeats the Amorites. The nation is virtually exterminated in the devastating battle (verse 34).
King Og of Basan hears of Israel’s victory and fears that he could be next. He sends his armies to fight Israel, perhaps surmising that Israel would be weak and tired after fighting the Amorites. But Og experiences the same fate as the Amorites.
As mentioned above, Israel had already passed around Moab without incident, yet Balak, King of Moab, begins to fear that Moses could seek revenge for the inhospitable treatment he had shown Israel. The once peaceful Nomads were now seen as a powerful and dangerous threat. Balak feels compelled to declare war on Israel, but being a very superstitious man, he first seeks the services of a renowned sorcerer named Balaam, sometimes called Bileam.
The Prophet Balaam (Bileam)
Chaldea or Babylon (now Iraq) was famous for its sorcerers, astronomers and astrologers. Balaam lived and prophesied about 1,400 years before Christ in Pethor on the Euphrates River. According to Nahum 1:11, Balaam was from Nineveh. “Pethor” means “sorcerer” or “diviner,” so this passage should probably be rendered, “...sent to the city of sorcery, which lies on the Euphrates River”.
It is possible that the Edomite king, whose territory was to the south of Moab and north of Midean (Genesis 36:32), was Balaam’s brother. The names Mideanite and Moabite were often used interchangeably (see Num. 22:7, 31:2 and 25:1-6). The Moabite king kept Mideanite priests as his advisors, and it was perhaps these who referred him to Balaam.
Whatever the case may have been, Balak called for Balaam to curse the Israelites (Numbers 22-24). Balaam was warned by God in a dream not to go. Believing that Balaam was holding out for more money, Balak sent other messengers, offering to pay whatever Balaam should demand. This time, Balaam decided to go.
Isn’t it amazing, the extent to which some people will go in order to protect their wealth, health and lives when they are not even in danger? Unbelievers are usually superstitious and see everything accordingly. He who doesn’t fear God, fears everything and everyone.
After an eventful journey which included the appearance of an angel and a talking donkey, Balaam finally arrived in Moab. To the utter chagrin of the Moabite king, however, the famous Chaldean prophet could only bring forth blessings for Israel. After several futile attempts to curse Israel, Balak commanded Baalam to cease his prophesies and return home. But God commanded Balaam to prophesy just one more time. This time he foretold the appearance of an unusual star which would announce the birth of a special ruler in Israel (Numbers 24:17).
The Wise Men, Matthew 2:1-12
The wise men of Matthew’s gospel must have been familiar with the only yet unfulfilled prophecy of that famous Babylonian prophet, Balaam. Every prediction of this man had come to pass exactly as he had foretold (Numbers 22:6), but one of his prophecies was to be fulfilled in the distant future. It concerned the appearance of a unique star that would announce the birth of a special Jewish ruler.
The wise men saw a strange new star in the sky and connected the dots.
The Prophet Belteshazzar
This unusual celestial appearance alone would not have provided sufficient information or reason for the wise men to set out on their long journey to Jerusalem. They were undoubtedly familiar with another unfulfilled prophecy of the famous Chaldean prophet, Belteshazzar, who lived about 800 years after Baalam. He is better known to us as the Prophet Daniel. It was acclaimed of both Baalam and Daniel that ALL their prophecies came to pass (Daniel 5:12).
The wise men may have had access to Daniel’s writings. Or they could have searched for clues in the gigantic collection of more than 100,000 clay tablets that were stored in the library of Nineveh. At least 30,000 of these still exist, most of them in a British museum. Many of these tablets have to do with observations of the stars. This is not surprising, considering the barren landscape of Chaldea. Studying stars in the cool of night would certainly be preferable to studying sand by the heat of day!
The Seventy Weeks Prophecy
When Jesus was born, Jewish Rabbis had been teaching that the time of the Messiah’s appearance was close at hand. This teaching was drawn from Daniel’s prophecy, which placed a time frame on the coming of that “special prince”- generally recognized as the Messiah. Daniel not only foretold the exact time in which a special Jewish monarch would arrive on the scene, he even prophesied that he would be executed without a fair trial (Daniel 9:24-26).
Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy (Daniel 9) has become known as the “backbone of Bible prophecy.” The 70 weeks or 490 years was broken down into 7 weeks, 62 weeks, and a final 70th week. The counting of these weeks was to begin with the decree of King Artaxerxes to rebuild Jerusalem (445 BC). At the culmination of the 69th week, the Messiah would be “cut off.”
The Hebrew word translated "week" denotes seven units of time. It could refer to any unit of time, but virtually all Bible scholars agree that this prophecy refers to weeks of years. Although there was some conjecture about what was meant by the words, “cut off,” most Jewish scribes who lived at the time of Christ's birth agreed that the appearance of the promised Messiah was very near.
In a book titled The Coming Prince, Sir Robert Anderson made exact calculations of this time period, allowing for leap years, differences in the Jewish calendar and the change from BC to AD. According to Anderson, the 69th year culminated with the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem shortly before his crucifixion. Because the Jews were not aware of calendar errors, their calculations were different, but the scribes and doctors of law were certain that the Messiah’s appearance was imminent.
“And when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his Son...” Galatians 4:4
The Wise Men Believed
Six centuries after Daniel and fourteen centuries after Baalam, the Chaldean astronomers or “wise men” (this term is acceptable, for wise men still seek Jesus!) of Matthew’s gospel saw a unique new star and concluded that it had an important significance. One can imagine the excitement of these men when they discovered that two unfulfilled prophecies of their most famous prophets coincided exactly! No wonder they set out on their long journey of about 600 miles to Jerusalem! They fully expected to find a newborn prince in the palace of Herod the Great.
Many Jews Believed
Thanks to the diligent teaching of Jewish Rabbis and Doctors of Law, the people of Israel were in general expectation of the Christ at the time of his birth (Luke 3:15). Many wondered if John the Baptist could be the promised “Holy one of Israel.” Jewish leaders dispatched Levites and priests to Bethany near the Jordan River to investigate this possibility (John 1:19-27). Many residents of Jerusalem, including the aged Simeon and Anna, expected the imminent arrival of the Messiah (Matthew 2:3; Luke 2:25-40). According to Mark 15:43, Joseph of Arimathaea also anticipated the appearance of the Messiah.
The Shepherds Believed
Luke tells this story best: And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
King Herod Believed
The arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem and their subsequent query about a newborn king of the Jews caused no small stir in Jerusalem (Matthew 2:3). King Herod inquired of the wise men the exact time of the star’s appearance. He then called the leading theologians into his palace and asked where the Messiah was to be born. He took the acquired information so seriously, that when the wise men failed to report back to him as requested, he commanded that all babies two years and under in the environ of Bethlehem be killed.
“Even the devils believe and tremble!” -James 2:19
The Pharisees Did Not Believe
Since the Rabbis and Scribes had been predicting the arrival of the Messiah, one might think that the unusual happenings in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the temple and in Herod’s palace would have caused much excitement. But we find no evidence of any special emotion or anticipation on the part of the Pharisees and leading Jews regarding the possible birth of their long anticipated Messiah. They were so taken up with their own religious concepts and traditions that they couldn’t recognize the truth when it stared them in the face! In fact, it seems that they almost dreaded the Messiah’s intrusion into their factious fighting for theocratic supremacy in Israel.
Jesus of Nazareth? Impossible!
Nicodemus appears to have been a highly esteemed member of the Sanhedrin, for he is called “the teacher in Israel and a leader of the Jews” in John 3:1-2. Nicodemus had apparently been impressed by Jesus’ teachings and miracles, but he was also concerned about his own image. He paid Jesus a visit in the night, when he wouldn’t be recognized by others, but his motivation was clearly interest in the person and teachings of Jesus.
In one of numerous sessions of the Sanhedrin which dealt with the question of what to do with Jesus, Nicodemus attempted to come to his defense. His colleagues reacted promptly and with contempt.
“Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet” (John 7:52).
Where did they get this idea? Although it was clear from scripture that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem and not Galilee, these men claimed that NO prophet could come from Galilee. Nazareth, Galilee and Samaria were despised by the Pharisees, and since Jesus was from Nazareth, the Jewish leaders concluded that he could not possibly be a prophet and certainly not the promised Messiah.
The prophet Jonah was born in Gath-Hepher, which is only three miles from Nazareth, but he was held in disrepute by the Sadducees because he preached that God offered salvation to the Gentiles. The Pharisees were divided on that matter, but they too looked down on Jonah because he did everything in his power to escape obeying God. On one occasion, Jesus told the Pharisees that the only sign they would receive from God was “the sign of the prophet Jonah.” They would have viewed this as an open insult!
Upon being introduced to Jesus, Nathaniel asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The poor reputation of Nazareth can be traced to the Pharisees’ diligent defamation of the city more than to historical facts about its citizenry. The terms “Jesus of Nazareth” and “the Galilean” were intended to be defamatory in nature, but Jesus readily accepted them. In fact, he never mentions his birthplace in Bethlehem and although he lived longer in Capernaum than he did in Nazareth, he never claimed to be from that city. Most of his disciples were Galileans, and the apostles preached and performed miracles in the name of “Jesus of Nazareth.” In his post-resurrection appearance to Saul of Tarsus, Jesus revealed himself as
“Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecuteth.”
Tradition Wins – Truth Loses
The Pharisees formulated their own rules which hindered them from recognizing truth. Jesus repeatedly pointed out their hypocrisy, but to no avail. They remained “blind leaders of the blind” (Matthew 15:13).
The most prominent Pharisee during the lifetime of Jesus, was Gamaliel, who appears twice in the New Testament (Acts 5 and 22:3). The apostle Paul claimed to have been taught by Gamaliel. Incidentally, historians believe that Paul was around two years younger than Jesus. Gamaliel was grandson of the most famous Rabbi living at the time of Christ's birth and his own father, Simeon, was also an honored Rabbi and President of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was the Jewish equivalent of the US Supreme Court and Vatican combined. Gamaliel would have been about the same age as Joseph, stepfather of Jesus and husband of Mary.
Several months after Jesus was born, wise men from the East arrived in Jerusalem seeking a newborn king of the Jews. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that these were kings, but they were most likely Chaldeans who studied the stars in the environs of Babylon, now Iraq.
The arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem did not go unnoticed and their query about a newborn king caused no small stir in the king’s palace. When the wise men told King Herod that they had seen “his” star in the East, the king took the news very seriously. There was no newborn baby in Herod’s palace, so the king called in all the leading theologians for consultation. Gamaliel was certainly among their number, for he was too important to overlook. In the Mishna, Pesahim 88, he is called an “advisor to the king.”
The Chief Priests and Scribes informed King Herod that according to Micah 5:1, the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Herod sent the wise men to this town with instructions to report back to him on their findings (Matthew 2:1-8).
Herod was so irate about the failure of the wise men to return that he ordered the slaughter of all male infants, two years and younger, according to the time in which the star had appeared to the visitors from the East. Historians estimate that the number of infants killed was somewhere between 25 and 100.
If Gamaliel felt honored to be called into the palace of the king for consultation, he should have deemed himself even more privileged to be witnessing the glorious fulfillment of that ancient biblical prophecy which he himself had been boldly proclaiming. Ironically, it appears that this was not the case. The leading Jews seemed to place little significance on the visit of the Magi. It is also possible that they were very nervous about being called into Herod’s palace. The king was notorious for his executions of leading Jews.
Gamaliel in Bethlehem
It was a well known fact that the Messiah was to be of the lineage of David. According to the Talmud, Hillel was a descendant of David. Some Jews even conjectured that Gamaliel could be the embodiment of that special "prince" mentioned by Daniel, and Gamaliel himself may have entertained the possibility of his son becoming the Savior of the nation Israel.
Like Joseph and Mary, Gamaliel would have traveled to Bethlehem for the census recorded in Luke’s gospel, chapter two. Hillel and Simeon would have been granted exceptions due to their age, for the Roman “head tax” was only for those between 14 and 65 years of age. Gamaliel, however, would have been expected to conform to the Emperor’s decree.
Might Gamaliel have occupied a place of honor in the inn where there was no room for Joseph and Mary? Perhaps his donkey had the honor of sharing a stall with the Messiah, breathing the aroma of fresh hay and straw while its master inhaled the stuffy air of a crowded inn! I would like to think that the donkey was also a distant relative of Baalam's donkey.
If Gamaliel did some quick calculating in the palace of King Herod, he would have realized, “I was in Bethlehem at that time!” Perhaps he concluded that an event of such magnitude and importance would not have bypassed a man of his importance. It is remarkable that unlearned shepherds experienced the visitation of angels and worshipped the newborn Christ in his manger bed, while highly esteemed theologians knew nothing of that pivotal occurrence in the history of mankind.
According to some authorities, the shepherds were probably watching sheep that were on their way to be sacrificed in Jerusalem. Certainly, this would have been an appropriate setting for the birth of the Lamb of God!
Someone has said that the human mind is like a parachute; it only functions when open. There is nothing that closes the mind more than blind tradition. We are by nature creatures of habit. Habits and traditions can be desirable and beneficial, but only if they remain subject to the scrutiny of truth. When habits and traditions become hermetically sealed off from truth, we become their slaves rather than them serving us. We were not created to be enslaved, but to be free. Tradition that is independent of truth blinds our eyes and prevents a course correction.
Most accidents occur close to home because we are less apt to think in a familiar environment. We become accustomed to certain rituals, conditions and circumstances until they become tradition and no longer require thought.
It is the same with religion. The dictionary may define religion as “faith,” but 90% of that which is called religion is simply tradition. Faith requires serious thinking, deliberation and making choices, but many religious leaders don’t want their followers to think, deliberate or choose. Many Christians prefer a certain set of rules and traditions to Bible teaching. We always sit in the same pew, pray the same formulated prayers and do things the way we always did them.
Many believe that three kings visited the manger in Bethlehem. Roman Catholics can even tell you their names, nationality and the color of their skin! The Bible simply calls them “magi” and says that they came from afar. Because they reported sighting a special star “in the East,” we must assume as any Jew of that period would have, that they were Chaldean star gazers from the region of Babylon.
It is true that Herod sent the wise men to Bethlehem to seek out the newborn baby, but they had hardly departed from the palace when the same star reappeared. The star did NOT lead them to Bethlehem, but it led them to the “house” where Jesus lived with Joseph and Mary. The wise men did NOT obey Herod; they obeyed God instead — as wise men still do (Matthew 2:9-12)! The house where they found Jesus was obviously located in Nazareth.
Jesus was circumcised at eight days of age, perhaps in Bethlehem but more likely in Nazareth. The Bible declares that Jesus was dedicated in the temple of Jerusalem after the period of purification, which according to Leviticus 12:4, lasted 40 days. Following his dedication, the family “returned to Nazareth” (Luke 2:21-22 & 39). They also returned to Nazareth after their trip to Egypt (Matthew 2:23). Consider how much time it would have taken for the Magi to get to Jerusalem (about 600 miles) and for Joseph and Mary to get to Egypt and back (200 miles).
Some have argued that Jesus would not have been in any danger had he not been in Bethlehem. Only the children in the surrounds of this town were killed, so there would have been no need for Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt.
Let me first state that Jesus was never in any real danger! Many attempts were made on his life beginning with Herod, continuing with Satan himself during the wilderness temptation (Matthew 4) and often throughout his ministry (Luke 9:51, John 7:6-8 and John 8:59). When in seeming danger, Jesus declared that “his time was not yet come.” Being omnipotent, God could easily have kept Jesus safe from Herod’s baby-killing henchmen. Don’t you think that the army of angels which appeared to the shepherds could have warded off Herod’s soldiers? Jesus said at his crucifixion that he could summon a legion of angels (12,000) to rescue him from the cross, but his time had now come. Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven, “Not my will, but thine be done.”
One reason Joseph and Mary were commanded to travel to Egypt was so that scripture should be fulfilled (Matthew 2:15). Another reason was that God probably wanted Joseph and Mary to live peacefully with their baby. Can you imagine what it would have been like for a nursing mother to be constantly anxious for her baby’s life? The slaughter of infants obviously took place several months after Jesus was born. Even if Joseph and Mary had been living in Nazareth, they would have been struck with terror at the news of such a vicious attack designed to kill their special child. Herod was a hard calculator who didn’t give up easily and left nothing to chance. The angel said, “Herod will seek the young child to destroy him” (Matthew 2:13). He was certain to learn sooner or later that his attempt to kill the newborn prince had failed!
Even though further attempts on the life of Jesus would have been equally doomed to failure, Joseph and Mary were human. Joseph was fearful even after God told them that it was safe to return home (Matthew 2:20-22). Our loving heavenly Father protected them from the anxiety and stress of a fugitive life by sending them to Egypt. He even provided them with gold (from the wise men) which would have sufficed for their travel expenses.
“Don’t Confuse Me With the Facts!“
Many Christians today prefer “Christmas card theology” and traditions of human origin to the biblical account of Jesus’ birth. It seems as impossible to get the holy family out of the manger in Bethlehem today as it was to find a room in the inn 2000 years ago!
The above information may seem overwhelming and even unbelievable to some readers, but I encourage you to get a Bible and read this once more, looking up all the references given. Read it prayerfully, asking God what your response should be. You can disregard what I write and
believe what others tell you, but you had better take God's Word seriously. If you do, you
can become part of His-story!