Frequently, around Christmas time, we are treated to yet another (often just a repeat of previous “findings”) naturalistic explanation of the biblical “Star of Bethlehem.” Natural explanations of biblical phenomena can sometimes have their place, but they can also be diversions—for unbelievers and believers alike. A far better approach for believers is to know and receive the deep, rich biblical meaning to the star. Let’s look at it.
It seems to be a foregone conclusion of some of the more naturalistic approaches that if an astronomical explanation for the star was to be found, the entire birth narrative—and ultimately the Gospel itself—could be finally dismissed as a myth. The writers of these articles never seem to catch the irony of using modern scientific methods to rescue a certain historical fact (like the appearance of the star) reported in the Gospels in order to prove another part wrong (like the virgin birth). One would think it would be more consistent to dismiss the whole thing as myth and be done with it. But rationalists are seldom so rational.
Even if it were possible to prove conclusively that the star was something of a “natural occurrence,” this would still not prove the Gospel reporter—Matthew in this case—wrong. God created the heavens and the earth and “the stars also” (Gen. 1:16) and commanded that they are to “be for signs and for seasons and for days and years” (1:14). Just because the appearance of a star follows some sort of regular interval or can be scientifically located in the night sky does not somehow negate God’s purpose for it; God created it and can use it as He pleases. In fact, when properly understood, nothing that happens in heaven or on earth is a brute miracle per se. What we refer to as “miracles” are really nothing more than God doing things differently than He has in the past, or does regularly:
The constant relations which we call natural laws are simply “divine habits”: or, better, the habitual order which God imposes on nature. It is these habits, or this habitual process, which constitute the object of the natural and physical sciences. The miracle, in its form, is nothing but a deviation from the habitual course of natural phenomena, provoked by the intervention of a new factor: an extraordinary volition of God.1
The question that the Christian should really ponder is: “Why a star at all?” That is, why would God want to announce the birth of His only begotten Son to a group of eastern sky-watchers with a star in the first place? Does it just make the story more dramatic or is there is a significant reason for it? Is God “endorsing” the pagan superstition of astrology, or is something grander going on here?
The Star of Jacob
In order to get the answers to these questions we must understand the role of stars in Biblical Theology, or in prophetic meaning. We must also flip back, for example, to Balaam’s prophecy in the book of Numbers.
Stars and the Bible
We must first determine what stars mean in the prophetic sense. In Genesis 37 we read of Joseph’s two prophetic dreams. In his first dream, he dreams of sheaves of wheat, collected and bound by his brothers. When Joseph’s sheaf stands up in his dream, the sheaves bound by his brothers bow down to it. Joseph’s brothers rightly understand that this dream means that Joseph will one day reign and rule over them. In his second dream, Joseph dreams of the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him. When he tells this dream to his father, Jacob rebukes Joseph by asking, “Shall I and your mother and your brothers actually come to bow ourselves down before you to the ground?” Jacob understood that Joseph’s dream symbolically pointed to authority: Jacob as the sun, Rachel as the moon, and the brothers as the stars.
Scripture frequently speaks of stars symbolically to point to rulers, kings, and governmental leaders. Abraham’s descendants are compared to the “stars of the heavens” and Jesus Himself is the “bright morning star” (Rev. 22:16). Meanwhile, the overwhelming theme regarding the brilliant heavenly phenomena is that God is their Sovereign Creator. In the biblical view, God is the One who made the sun, moon and stars (Psa. 8; 19; 74:16; 104:19–24; 136:7–9; 147:4; Jer. 31:35) and controls the sun at His will (Josh. 10:12–14; Job 9:7–9; Is. 38:7–8). When the Psalmist commands all of creation to praise its Creator, the sun, moon, and stars are commanded to praise him as well (Psa. 148). When God acts in judgment, He darkens the sun (Is. 13:10; 24:23; Ezek. 32:7–8; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Hab. 3:11; Matt. 24:29; Luke 23:45; Rev. 6:12); and when the New Heavens and New Earth are brought to pass, God in His Glory shall supersede the light of the sun (Isa. 60:19–20; Rev. 21:23–24; 22:5).
If Genesis 1:14 gives us an interpretive hermeneutic for the heavenly lights as “signs,” we should not be afraid to talk about “signs” from God in the heavens. In fact, as James Jordan points out, the entire Old Covenant economy could be viewed biblically as being the “night” and the New Covenant as the “day.”
The moon, of course, governs the night (Psalm 136:9; Jeremiah 31:35), and in a sense the entire Old Covenant took place at night. With the rising of the Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2), the “day” of the Lord is at hand (Malachi 4:1), and in a sense the New Covenant takes place in the daytime. As Genesis 1 says over and over, first evening and then morning. In the New Covenant we are no longer under lunar regulation for festival times (Colossians 2:16–17). In that regard, Christ is our light.2
Following this same idea, Zacharias prophesies at the birth of John the Baptist that he would be “the Sunrise from on high” who shall “shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78–79). The light of Christ creates the everlasting day, so that in the New Jerusalem,
the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it (Rev. 21:23–24; compare Is. 60:19–20).
With this scriptural view of the sun and stars, we are better prepared to understand Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24 as a backdrop for the Magi (“wise men”) in Matthew 2.
Balaam, like the Magi, was from “the east” (Num. 22:5; 23:7; cf. Matt. 2:1). Balaam was apparently a well-known pagan seer, versed in the necessary occult arts to “curse” (Num. 22:6), for “divination” (22:7), for “omens” or “enchantments” (23:23), and for “oracles” and “visions” (24:4, 15–16). Along these lines the early Jewish philosopher Philo called Balaam a magos (translated “magician”)—the same Greek term later used for the Magi in Matthew 2.3
Parallels abound between the two stories:
- Balaam journeyed (with two servants, Num. 22:22) westward to bring his prophecy to Balak, the wicked king of Moab, just as the Magi brought their knowledge westward to Jerusalem and the wicked king Herod.
- Balak wished to curse and destroy Israel so as to preserve his own throne. Herod plotted to kill Christ—the New Israel—hoping to remain king himself.
- In both cases, God used the pagan magicians to preserve the “seed” of Jacob (Num. 24:5–7) and the “child” (Matt. 2:11–15).
- God blessed Israel through Balaam’s “vision of the Almighty” (Num 24:4), and He saved the Christ-child through a “dream” of the Magi and by Joseph’s “dream” of the “angel of the Lord” (Matt. 2:12–13).
- When the roles of the two parties ended, they quietly depart from their respective scenes, returning to their own lands (Num 24:25; Matt. 2:12). We are left with God’s overseeing Providence as the emphasis, not the role or persons of man.
In addition, the most striking commonality, and the most relevant for this article, is Balaam’s prophecy of the “Star of Jacob.” The seer spoke:
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be a possession, Seir, its enemies, also will be a possession, While Israel performs valiantly. One from Jacob shall have dominion, And will destroy the remnant from the city (Num. 24:17).
In fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy, Matthew begins the second chapter of his gospel by informing his readers that Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem looking for the one who had “been born King of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2). They announce to Herod that they have seen His star and have come to worship him. Even though the Magi knew to come to Jerusalem (after all, they saw the star that heralded the King of the Jews), they did not know where to find the baby. Their astrology (general revelation) could only get them so far, the Scriptures (special revelation) needed to be consulted in order for the Magi to complete their search. J. Gresham Machen makes the point well:
In countless cases, as we know, error has become the stepping-stone to truth; even astrology, as has often been observed, was the ancestor of true astronomical science. No, we are unable to regard it as unworthy of God when these strangers were led by their searching of the heavens to bring their gifts to the infant Saviour. It was not astrology, moreover, which played the decisive part; what really led the Magi to the feet of Jesus was not astrological calculation, but the prophecies of God’s Word—the prophecies which spread abroad throughout the East the expectation of a Messianic king.4
I have long wondered, “What did the magi know, and how did they know it?” It takes a thorough reading of the Bible to gather an educated guess. Knowing now that Balaam came from the same east as the magi, could it be possible that Balaam’s connection of a Star with the coming King of the Jews was recorded and spread among the Midianite princes? Most certainly it was. Perhaps it spread as far east as Persia. Of course, this would still leave some unanswered questions.
The prophecy of Daniel
What about the timing of the appearance of the Star? How did the Magi know that this particular star meant that the time had come? Personally, I believe that the magi had not only the ancient prophecy of Balaam, but also the predictions of Daniel, who spent most of his life in the east in Babylon and Persia. To the former prophecies Daniel added a specific time frame for which to expect the Messiah (Dan. 9:24–27). So, assuming any truth to these ideas, it was Scripture that, in more ways than one, lead the Magi to the Christ-child. Finally, the miraculous movement of the Star led them directly to the house in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9).
Some New-Age proponents have attempted to derive the entire background of the Gospel story from astrology and astrological “ages,” their claims fail on several points (which we do not have the space to cover here), both biblically and technically.5 But such perversions by some modern pagans should not blind us to the Providence of God over all natural phenomena, including the timing of signs in the heavens, the procession of the equinoxes, the appearance of a bright star in certain constellations, and above all, God’s use of pagan knowledge to lead those pagans to the true Light. That Light came, after all, specifically for “those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79).
In fact, if author Michael Molnar is correct, the Star of Bethlehem would have been extremely significant to all astrologers of this particular time-period:
The response that biblical scholars readily give is that astrology had no role in the Star of Bethlehem, that instead the star fulfilled the prophecy of Balaam—“a Star out of Jacob”—a prophetic star that Jews anticipated. That may be so, but the role of astrology was important as well. That is, the message of Matthew, which contained astrological terminology, was not meant just for Jews but also for the larger Hellenistic world, where astrologers wielded powerful influence and astrological prognostications would have been heeded unhesitatingly. The biblical account shows not only that the star fulfilled the Jewish prophecy of Balaam but also that the birth of the King of the Jews was validated by non-Jews practicing a respected art, namely, astrology. Had we remembered the importance of astrology in the Hellenistic world, we would not have questioned its discussion in Matthew.6
It bears repeating that Christians should not run and hide from statements such as this. Molnar is exactly right when he makes the point that the Star of Bethlehem had ramifications for the world outside of Judea. This is precisely the point of the New Covenant in general, and of the coming of gentile “wisdom” to bow before Christ. Jesus’ birth was not simply a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, but a complete role-reversal of divine magnitude; the Creator entered His creation by becoming part of it, for the sake of making it New. Paul makes it clear in Romans 1:20 that God has made Himself clearly known through His creation, but He is not known personally—in a salvific sense—outside of the person of Jesus Christ and the special revelation of the Scriptures.
The Magi were able to “read the skies” and discern that a star was rising in the east in the constellation of Aries (the ram, a male lamb) and connect this with a “King of the Jews,” but once they arrived in Jerusalem, their astrology was powerless to lead them to Jesus’ birthplace. They needed Herod to “gather the chief priests and scribes . . . and inquire of them where the Messiah was to be born” (Matt. 2:4). Only after getting direction from Micah 5:2 to continue their journey south (no longer west) to Bethlehem did the Magi see the star again, and it led them to where the Child was. It cannot be overstated here that it was the Scriptures that gave them the location and the miraculous star served as a confirmation.
Like the Magi, Christians should also “rejoice exceedingly with great joy” that the star was observed by these Eastern mystics who were afar off. This is an early confirmation of something that Paul would write (echoing Isaiah 57:19) nearly fifty years later: “And [Jesus] came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both [Jews and Gentiles] have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Ephesians 2:17-18). This is the truly “good news” of the Star of Jacob, the Star of Bethlehem, and the King which it announces.
This article originally co-authored by Eric Rauch and Joel McDurmon.
- Auguste Lecerf, An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, trans. Andre Schlemmer (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,  1981), 147; quoted in James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988), 108.(↩)
- Jordan, Through New Eyes, 54.(↩)
- See Philo, “On the Life of Moses, I,” L.176, in The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, trans. C. D. Yonge (Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 485.(↩)
- J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House,  1967), 227–228.(↩)
- For more information see Joel McDurmon, Zeitgeist: the Movie—Exposed (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2008).(↩)
- Michael R. Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1999), 118.(↩)