If you had lived in the 14th century, you likely would have been familiar with a mystery play called Ordo Prophetorum, a sort of procession of the heralds of the Messiah’s birth. The expected cast is found—Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah—but there are a few surprises as well. The Roman poet Virgil shows up, for example.
But the climax of the pageant was the entry of mysterious Balaam, riding on his donkey. Special effects were simple in those days: a young boy hiding beneath the animal provided a voice for the donkey to scold hapless Balaam as he struggled and cursed his feisty mount. It was an almost comic end to the grave prophecies that preceded.
Yet no one doubted Balaam’s right to be listed among the cast. For while those of us in the 21st century who aren’t Scripture scholars don’t know about the link between Balaam and Christmas, to our ancestors in the faith Balaam was a prophet of the coming Messiah. The Magi were his spiritual children, and it was his star that shown at Bethlehem.
To find out who Balaam was, go to Numbers 22-24. He collides with Moses and the Israelites during their Exodus journey. The already victorious Hebrews are marching confidently toward Moab, while Balak, that country’s king, quivers in terror. So Balak sends a delegation to Balaam, a magician from Mesopotamia. He offers him regal gifts to come to Moab and curse the dreaded Israelites.
Twice Balaam refuses, unwilling to curse the Lord’s people. At last the Lord appears in a dream and orders Balaam to go. But the angel of the Lord waits in ambush to slay Balaam on the way. In a parody of Balaam’s status as a “seer,” his donkey perceives the angel but he can’t. Three times the animal veers away, only to be beaten by its master.
Finally the donkey is given a human voice to rebuke its master, and Balaam’s eyes open. The angel then orders Balaam to proceed but instructs him to speak only as God directs. In the end Balaam utters four oracles—not cursing the Israelites but proclaiming God’s blessing for them.
Balaam appears elsewhere in the Bible, painted in the darkest colors. Deuteronomy tells us that Balaam wished to curse the Israelites, but the Lord would not listen and transformed his curses to blessings. Just after Balaam’s story in Numbers comes that of the Midianite women who seduced the men of Israel to idolatry. Jewish tradition saw the shadowy hand of Balaam behind this and, in legend, imaginatively located Balaam as a malignant counselor in Pharaoh’s court who incited the Egyptian ruler to order the destruction of the Hebrew children. The New Testament authors invoke Balaam’s memory when they speak of false prophecy and those who lead others astray.
So how could this menacing character have anything to do with the beloved wise men of Christmas? We need to set aside the images engraved on our minds by countless Nativity scenes and years of singing John H. Hopkin’s “We Three Kings.” Matthew makes no mention of camels or kings—he calls them magoi and doesn’t specify their number, not three or 30. Originally a priestly caste of the Medes, magoi eventually became a term that referred to anything from astrologers to men of occult knowledge to outright charlatans.
In the Bible we hear of magi only in Daniel, as part of the Babylonian court. The Babylonians were famous for their sorcery and were well-known practitioners of astrology. So Balaam qualifies as a magus. And both he and our Gospel heroes hailed from the East.
But the critical point where the Gospel tale meshes with Balaam’s story is the star. Here in Numbers 24:17 is Balaam’s final oracle:
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers