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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Balaam: Another wise man?

The Magi were his spiritual children

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:

I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near—
A star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.

Who was it that Balaam foretold, marked by the signs of star and scepter? Most have seen a promise of the great King David, who inherited the blessing given to his ancestor Judah by the patriarch Jacob when he promised “the scepter shall not depart from Judah ....” A Jewish writing that dates from perhaps 150 B.C., The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, enlarges the blessing of Judah:

“And after this there shall arise for you a Star from Jacob in peace: And a man shall arise from my posterity like the Sun of righteousness ... in him will be found no sin. And the heavens will be opened upon him to pour out the spirit as a blessing of the Holy Father. ... This is the Shoot of God Most High, this is the fountain of life for all humanity. Then he will illumine the scepter of my kingdom ....”

See how the images of the scepter (that in Genesis was given to Judah and David, his heir) and the star and scepter of Balaam were combined with Isaiah’s prophecy of a fresh shoot sprouting from the stump of Jesse? In other words, Balaam’s prophecy and others were taken to apply to the messianic Son of David, and a star became a sign of the coming Messiah.

When Matthew’s Magi arrive from the East following a star to find the “King of the Jews,” they recall God’s saving act in the Exodus and Balaam’s prediction of a coming messianic king. This association of Balaam and the Magi has been taken for granted by generations of Christians. The earliest Christian art survives on the tombs in the catacombs, where Balaam already stands by the manger, pointing to his star. In paintings, he—not Joseph—would remain a common fixture beside the enthroned Madonna for centuries.

Irenaeus, bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, matter-of-factly called the star of Bethlehem, “the star Balaam prophesied.” Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, spoke of Matthew’s Magi as “Balaam’s descendants” without needing to explain. Medieval legends variously recount that the Magi belonged to a select circle of 12 astrologers who kept vigil through the years, waiting for the star foretold by Balaam. It appeared to them in the form of a child.

Does the Gospel vindicate magic and astronomy? Certainly not. Matthew makes clear that the Magi needed the assistance of revelation—the prophecy of Malachi given them by the chief priests of Jerusalem—to find the Messiah. Many fathers of the church, from Ignatius of Antioch to Augustine, invoke the Magi to demonstrate that the true light of Christ’s revelation replaced the false wisdom of magic and the occult.

Tradition has made the Magi beloved figures of Christmastide. We have given them names—with Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar being only the best known—and refashioned them as kings.

But in domesticating the Magi, we do an injustice if we forget their wilder lineage from a pagan prophet who in an hour of Israel’s peril foresaw her ultimate salvation. Surely they point to Jesus as the fulfillment of that vision. More obliquely they may also herald him as one whose coming does away with the false promises of idolatry, magic and astrology.

And generations of believers have seen the Magi as the firstfruits of the nations gathered to the Lord, sure proof that no one need be condemned to their past darkness and error but can come into the light that is Jesus. Embraced by the church, the Magi thus became symbols of “all things redeemed in Christ.” For in the Magi, even wicked Balaam is redeemed.


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