Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Mysterious Magi - Part One

The Wise Men and I go back a long way. Their role in the Christmas story fascinated me as a child, and it still does. You can be a believing Christian and still have questions.  And I have a few questions about the Wise Men.

Matthew tells us in Chapter 2 that after Jesus was born, Wise Men (or Magi) came from the East inquiring about the new King of the Jews and saying they had "seen his star in the East." And they didn't just want to know who this king was. They said they wanted to worship him.

This prompts my first question. Why did these Wise Men care about a new King of the Jews? If the Jews had been a rich powerful nation at that time, it might make sense. You could say the Wise Men were there to curry favor with the rich and powerful. But at that time the Jews were neither a rich nor a powerful nation. They were oppressed by the rich and powerful Roman Empire.

My next question is - what star in the East? A little more information would be appreciated, but apparently the Magi were men of few words.

Now King Herod appears on the scene - Herod, the puppet king that Rome had placed on the throne to rule over the Jews. The Jews weren't happy about having Herod as king, but they couldn't do anything about it so they got along with Herod as well as they could. When Herod heard that the Magi had arrived and were asking about a new king, "he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." (When I was a child I absolutely loved that line - "he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." Wonder why? Children are hard to figure out sometimes.)

This leads to another question - why was Herod and "all Jerusalem" troubled? Herod was no doubt worried about losing his job to a new king. But why would all Jerusalem - in other words, the Jews - be troubled? Wouldn't they want to see Herod replaced?

Reading between the lines in Matthew's account, I can imagine Herod and all his government officials being in a frenzy about these strange Magi. Herod swung into action and immediately summoned all the Jewish leaders - the chief priests and scribes - and "demanded of them where Christ should be born."

Herod was an Edomite. The Edomites had been converted to Judaism long before Herod was born so he was familiar with the Jewish religion, although he could hardly be called devout. He has been described as a madman who murdered his own family members, but that's another story.   At any rate, he knew that the Jews had been anticipating for centuries the coming of a Messiah, a King, the Christ. If this king had actually been born, Herod wanted to know where.

This wasn't a hard question for the chief priests and scribes, and they answered promptly that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem for so it had been prophesied. They said that out of Bethlehem "shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel." (Matt 2:6) Now don't you imagine that this really ticked Herod off? In so many words, they were telling him that his days as ruler over them just might be numbered. I'll bet Herod dismissed them quickly with a cool air. He probably didn't even offer them anything to drink.

Next we're told that Herod privately summoned the Magi. I think he did it privately because he didn't want the chief priests and scribes to know that he was the least bit worried about this. After all, even a puppet king has his pride. I imagine one of Herod's CIA agents was sent on this mission to round up the Magi. When the Magi arrived at Herod's court, he asked them when the star appeared.  He asked them when the star appeared!

I don't mean to be contentious, but if that star was the big, bright, unusual thing that tradition has led us to believe it was, you'd think Herod or some of his officials would have noticed it. But no, I get the impression that Herod hasn't even seen the star. This is hard to understand. These ancient people didn't have all the things we have that keep us inside at night - TV, Internet, heat, air-conditioning. They paid a lot more attention to the night sky than we do.

Now Herod shows what a crafty, double-crossing fox he was. He kept his cool and told the Magi to "go and search diligently for the young child; and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also."

When the Magi left Herod's court, the star was still in the sky to lead them to Bethlehem. And this begs another question. If the Magi could follow the star to Bethlehem, why did Herod need the Magi to come back and tell him where the child was? Why couldn't Herod or some of his CIA agents follow the star just as well?

You know the rest of the story. The Magi traveled on to Bethlehem where they worshipped the child king and gave him valuable gifts. Since they were Wise Men I suspect that they had already figured out that Herod was not to be trusted. But in case they hadn't sized Herod up correctly, the Bible tells us that they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod - and they were instructed to take a different route home.  Good idea.  They probably stayed off the main trade route for fear that Herod would send his henchmen after them.

After a certain amount of time passes, Herod realizes that the Magi are not coming back to tell him exactly where Jesus is. He calculates - from the time of the first appearance of the star - that Jesus couldn't be more than two years old. We're told in Matthew 2:16 that Herod was enraged. The wicked king sent out his agents "and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under . . . " I suppose he slept well that night, thinking that surely Jesus was dead.

Little did Herod know that Joseph and Mary had made good use of the wealth the Magi had brought them by packing up and leaving promptly for Egypt.

to be continued . . . a few plausible answers in the next post.

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