The Star of Bethlehem — by Douglas Wilson

One of the most obvious symbols of the Christmas season is the star of Bethlehem. Countless Christmas cards have portrayed it, our carols sing about it, and we tell one another the story associated with it every year. In this, we frequently just skim over the surface of what we actually think we are saying. But can stars do what we all say this star did?

And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together: and Balak said unto Balaam, I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times. . . . And now, behold, I go unto my people: come therefore, and I will advertise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days. And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said: He hath said, which heard the words of God, and knew the knowledge of the most High, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open: 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. . . (Num. 24:10-25).

(Num. 24:10-25).Balak, king of Moab, had summoned the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites who were massed on his border. Balaam was a true prophet, but he was not a true man. That is, he had a genuine prophetic gift, but he was a corrupt and sinful man. He could not speak prophetically against the spirit within him (Num. 24: 12-13). At the same time, he was not above giving a little shrewd and godless counsel to the Midianites (Num. 31:16), urging them to seduce the Israelites into the cult of Baal-peor. In the New Testament, his name is associated with greed and avarice (2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 11), along with participation in licentious paganism (Rev. 2:14). When the Israelites invaded the land, he was justly killed (Num. 31:8).

So Balaam was a Gentile prophet, and we have no reason to suppose that his prophecy here could not have been preserved outside the scriptural record, and known to the magi from the East. What do they say when they arrive before Herod? They state they saw a star in the east, and they came to worship the one who was born king of the Jews (Matt. 2:2). Now Balaam’s prophecy is very clear in its association of this star from Jacob with a coming messianic kingship. The star signifies a scepter. The magi were Gentile magicians or astrologers, and they came to worship the king of Jews.

Those who are trying to recover from the dreadful toxicity of Enlightenment assumptions need to take what we might call “the miracle test.” The Scriptures do not describe a universe in which we are confronted with a “miracle a minute.” Some false scriptures are frequently marked by their error of thinking if “one’s good, two’s better.” We might think of this as miracle inflation. But neither are we shown a blank, drab and gray infidel universe either, where all we see is matter in motion. In Scripture, the miracles that occur can be staggering, and if we think about it there is no way to get our Enlightenment-trained minds around them. Some of the mind-blowing miracles are embedded in the story in such a way that we feel safe from them, at least until we make a point of thinking about them. Miracles like the incarnation and resurrection are like this. But others are just right “out there,” and you either believe the Bible or you don’t. This might be called the Enlightenment Assumptions Detector test (EAD). What do you do with Jesus walking on the surface of the water? And what do you do with the star of Bethlehem?

One evangelical Bible dictionary does this: “While full weight must be given to the poetic descriptions in the story (e.g. the star standing over Bethlehem), descriptive symbolism neither affirms nor negates the historicity of the event involved. A literalist approach, either to de-historicize the story or to exaggerate them miraculous, is out of keeping with the evangelist’s meaning.” This is done with a great deal of scholarly throat-clearing, of-coursing, and be-that-as-it-maying, but for all that to the eyes of simple, biblical faith, his argument looks like a helicopter trying to land sideways.

So what is a star anyway? This kind of miracle is hard on modernists trying to be Christian because it is a miracle that depends on the universe being a very different kind of place than their modernist descriptions of it. What is a star? If the narrative is to be trusted (as for evangelicals, it must be), then the star of Bethlehem identified a particular house in Bethlehem, singling it out from the others, in order that the magi would know what door to knock on. Now Bethlehem was about as far away from Jerusalem as Pullman is from Moscow, about 8 miles. Imagine trying to follow a star over to Pullman, and having it pick out a house for you. Now either the magi were doing some serious astrological math on the back of their camels (in the dark), or a star came down into our sky and stopped over a particular house, which is what the text explicitly says (Matt. 2:9). And “till it came and stood over where the young child was” is not a scriptural poetic phrase, meaning that the wise men really asked around in Bethlehem, and then looked up Joseph and Mary in the phone book. But giving offense to modernist cosmologies is not a sufficient criterion for establishing the presence of “poetry” or “dramatic symbolism.”

So based on the text, we either have serious astrology or a physical star leading the way to a house. But in either case, a star cannot be what our modern cosmology demands we believe it to be. “‘In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’ ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what a star is made of'” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, p. 209). Think for a moment about what a bizarre place the universe actually is, and how we moderns have tried to use our powers of imagination to tame it, instead of using our imaginations for the purpose that God gave them to us — to enable us to see.

We need eyes of wonder. The unbelieving mind and heart looks around at the “given” world he sees, and just takes it as a birthright norm. This is the way things “just are” he boasts, and he is “a realist” for seeing it. If someone comes back from the other side of the world with some strange tales, then the traveler is laughed to scorn for his superstitious naivete. But the failure of the modernist imagination can be seen starkly here. The hide-bound rationalist cannot put himself in another place, and he cannot conceive of his so-called normal and norming world being described to creatures far off, and having them laugh at it as “way too bizarre to be real.”

But we live in a universe throughout which we know you can discover things like giraffes, brussel sprouts, ankles with their superb engineering, rime frost, crab nebulae, volcanoes, toast, butter, buttered toast, rhinoceroes, toes, colors, musical harmony, oceans, whales, and Kentucky bluegrass. Not only can we not give an account of all this, but on our own autonomous footing, we cannot give an account of any of it.

Apart from the triune God of Scripture, we cannot know anything. If we believe in Him, we can know the world around us. But He is the Lord, and He might tell us of some other remarkable things he has done. He might tell us about the time He sent one of His celestial glories down into our sky over Bethlehem. And He did this to especially mark the most remarkable thing that He ever did — His eternal Word took the form of a baby boy. And the miracle in the sky above was nothing in comparison to the miracle in Mary’s arms in the house below.

From Blog & Mablog


~ by Michael on December 15, 2005.

One Response to “The Star of Bethlehem — by Douglas Wilson”

  1. The miracle is God set the stars and planets in motion when He created the world, but it not a miracle in the normal sense that brought the Magi to Bethlehem. It was a picture in the sky, the Magi interpreted.
    Balaam’s prophesy above poetically linked a star and a scepter. Jacob’s prophesy (Gen 49:9-10) links a scepter and the lion of the tribe of Judah. The Magi saw a picture in the dawning sky of a scepter formed by wandering stars in the constellation of the lion. They recognized the house where Jesus lived because His star on the horizon disappeared at dawn over His house. See
    for a description of the Star of Bethlehem.

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