The prophesied star of Bethlehem

By Joseph Farah

“I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.”

— Numbers 24:17

An estimated 2.2 billion people in the world who identify with Christianity today mark the birth of Jesus associated with a star appearing, followed by wise men in the east, leading them to Bethlehem where they came to worship the newborn as the “King of Israel.”

But why?

Why would wise men travel hundreds of miles from Persia to Israel to worship the newborn son of a carpenter with, barring a miracle, next to no chance of becoming king of Israel? And, even defying those odds, why would such a king be the object of worship?

First let’s review the story in the familiar message beginning in Matthew 2:1-2: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”

This news troubled Herod, a king imposed on Israel by the Roman Empire. But he wasn’t the only one distressed, the text implies. So was “all of Jerusalem,” suggesting the political and religious power structure. Herod gathered “all the chief priests and scribes of the people together,” demanding to know where this Messiah, or “anointed One,” would be born.

They responded: “In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,” referring to Micah 5:1 in which it is recorded that He would come as “a Governor,” (note the capital G) “that shall rule my people Israel.”

Herod asked these visitors from the east to make all inquiries about the star and this child, no longer a newborn given the length of time it would have taken the foreigners to arrive traveling by caravan. He ordered them to search Bethlehem diligently for the young child and bring him news so that he, too, “may come and worship him.”

The manger scenes in creches around the world today depict how the wise men “rejoiced with exceeding great joy” at seeing Mary and her Son, even falling down in worship of Him and presenting their precious gifts.

Before leaving, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herold, and so returned home another way. Likewise, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream telling him to take his family and flee to Egypt to prevent Herold from killing Jesus, his rival to the throne.

In Egypt, Joseph, Mary and Jesus remained until Herod died, but not before he had murdered all the children in Bethlehem who were 2 years old and under, a barbarous act prophesied in Jeremiah 31:15.

An angel appeared again to Joseph in Egypt, signaling the all-clear to return to Israel from Egypt – this time to Nazareth, where Jesus would be known as a Nazarene.

Yet, less known than this famous Gospel story is the prophecy of the Star of Bethlehem.

What was it? Who gave it? And why would visitors from the east know about it?

The key answer to those questions is found mainly in a relatively obscure prophecy during the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt noted in Numbers 24:17 from a mysterious Moabite named Balaam, best known for his talking donkey.

In fact, since before Jesus’ time, Jewish scholars in Israel associated that unusual prophet and his prediction with the future coming of their Messiah, their God-sent King who would be born in Bethlehem.

“What few people realize is that the star, symbolizing an astronomical appearance described in the New Testament, may have its sources in Jewish eschatological literature – i.e. that describing the Messiah’s arrival,” reported a news story in just this past Saturday.

While followers of Jesus have recognized Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers as a prediction of a future Messiah-King of Israel, some Jewish sages have also.

“This verse was interpreted by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides and by the acronym Rambam who was the foremost Torah authority of the 12th century,” reports “In his book, ‘Mishneh Torah,’ the Rambam brings this verse about a star appearing as proof that the Messiah will come one day. According to the Rambam, the Messiah will come from Jacob, more specifically, from the tribe of Judah.”

Reference is also made to stars as prophetic precursors to the Messiah in the Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, says the publication.

“The prophecy of the Star of Jacob was applied to Simon bar Kokhba, leader of the Second Jewish Revolt of 132 C.E., whose adopted name meant ‘Son of a Star’ in Aramaic,” says the report.

David Nekrutman, executive director for the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding, said the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt saw Jewish scholars place less emphasis on the eschatology of the Star of Jacob.

“Now that we are in the Land of Israel and we have a Jewish state, the Star of Jacob can now be seen more in the light of Jewish eschatology and its relevance for the future Messiah of the Jews,” Nekrutman said.

While the holiday of “Christmas” was not observed for centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection, early followers made the connection between the Star of Bethlehem and the Star of Jacob in Numbers 24:17.

As did the 1860 hymn, “There Shall a Star from Jacob Come,” by Félix Mendelssohn with lyrics by Christian Charles Josias von Bunsen:

There shall a Star from Jacob come forth,
And a Sceptre from Israel rise up,
And dash in pieces princes and nations.

As bright the star of morning gleams,
So Jesus sheddeth glorious beams
Of light and consolation!

Thy Word, O LORD, radiance darting,
Truth imparting, gives salvation;
Thine be praise and adoration!

Evangelist Charles Spurgeon also made the connection between the Star of Jacob and the Star of Bethlehem in an 1883 sermon titled “The Best War Cry.”

Whatever became of Balaam, the unlikely prophet whose life was once saved by a talking donkey that blocked his path from an avenging angel? The soothsayer eventually lost his life by the sword when Joshua led the victorious children of Israel through the Promised Land, as recorded in Joshua 13:22.

But the Star of Bethlehem remains a royal emblem and a scepter of never-ending glory because Jesus was indeed born the King of Israel – a position He will assume upon His return to this world, over which He will rule and reign as King of kings and Lord of lords forever.

Like what you read here? Joseph Farah is the author of what many are calling a “breakthrough Bible book,” “The Gospel in Every Book of the Old Testament.”

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