December 30, 2012

Balaam and the Three Magi

By Photis Kontoglou

During the holy Nativity of Christ the heavens and the earth united. The heavens gave a Star and the Angels who glorified God with chants, and the earth gave the Panagia, and Joseph, the Shepherds and the Magi. It is a mystery how these Magi found themselves in such a deserted place, from distant Chaldea.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matt. 2:1,2)

This is what the Gospel of Matthew says. And when Herod heard that Christ was born, the king of the Jews, he thought it was an earthly king, and he feared that perhaps He would take his kingdom. He gathered all the priests and scribes, and asked them where Christ was born. And they told him:

In Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” (Matt. 2:5,6)

And Matthew goes on to write:

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matt. 2:7-12)

Who then were these Magi, and from where did they come, how did they understand what kind of star this was, and how did they know that Christ was born, since not even the king of the Jews knew? This strange history begins many long years before, around one thousand three hundred years before the Nativity of Christ. Such stories that last a thousand years before they meet their end only happen in the East.

In that ancient time, there lived in Pethor of Mesopotamia one named Balaam, son of Beor, a famous magician. The Hebrews, having left Egypt with Moses as their leader, had reached the Promised Land, after many tribulations, and battled against the many tribes that blocked their path. One of these tribes were the Moabites, who lived east of the Dead Sea; a warring people who they said were held by their neighbors the Ommin. They had at that time as their king Balak. Balak, seeing that the Israelites defeated the Amorites and Og, the king of Bashan, feared that he would not get along with the Hebrews, and sent some authorities to Balaam, to tell him how the Israelites reached his border and how their army was so large. They also begged him to go and curse them that they may be defeated, since Balak believed that whoever Balaam blessed would be victorious and whoever he cursed would be defeated.

The messengers reached the village of Balaam at night and told him why their king sent them. Balaam told them to spend the night in the village, and the next day he would tell them what God said to him. In the morning, when they awoke, Balaam told them that God commanded him to not go and curse the Israelites, because they are blessed. The Moabites left and returned to their land and told the king what Balaam told them. Balak then sent them again to the magician, to plead with him to go, promising him great honors and much wealth. However, Balaam replied that he would not go, even if the king gave him a palace full of gold, because he could not disobey the word of God. Yet God appeared to Balaam at night, and told him to go to Balak, and say only whatever He tells him.

In the morning, therefore, he saddled his donkey, and went with the Moabites and his two servants. But, as they walked, the donkey turned off from the road, and Balaam beat him with a stick he held. They arrived at a place on the road with vines, in between two dry walls, and there the donkey pressed near the wall and crushed the foot of Balaam, and he beat again him with his stick. But the donkey did not budge from the place, but even lay down, and the elder beat him angrily. Then the donkey opened its mouth, and spoke in a human voice, saying to Balaam: "What have I done that you beat me?" And Balaam said: “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” And the donkey said: "Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you? Therefore, it is not my fault that I do not go forward." Then the Lord opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw an Angel with a sword in his hand, which prevented the donkey from moving forward. Balaam bowed down and venerated him. And the Angel told him: "God sent me to oppose you. Now go with the others, for I will tell you what to say."

Therefore, reaching the land of Moab, Balak received him with honor,and they went together up to the mountain Bamoth Baal. And Balaam said: "Whatever the Lord tells me, that I will do." And seeing from afar the army of the Hebrews, he heard the voice of the Lord say to him: "Blessed are my people Israel. From their seed shall come a man who will rule many nations. Whoever blesses them, will be blessed, and whoever curses them, will be cursed." Thus Balaam blessed the Israelites. Balak became angry, though Balaam had told him that he could not but do the will of God. As one can see, Balaam was the second, after Jacob, who prophesied that Christ would be born of the Jews, according to the word of the Lord, that out of this nation would be born a Ruler who will rule the nations. His prophecy resembles the prophecy of the patriarch Jacob regarding Christ, who likened Christ with a lion, saying: "He stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion - who shall rouse him up?" [Genesis 49:9] The prophecy of Balaam says: "Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like an old lion — who dares to rouse him?" [Numbers 24:9]

Such, therefore, is Balaam the seer, the forefather of the Magi who left Chaldea to worship Christ in the cave where He was born. Balaam had told his disciples that the great King would be born of the tribe of the Jews, and he told them to look to the heavens to find a new star, and if they find it, to run and follow it, and it would lead them to the place where Christ would be born [Number 24:17]. This word was kept by his disciples and remained with them one thousand three hundred years, until they saw that wondrous Star. This was not a false prophecy of the elder Balaam, but true, and when they saw the strange star, they leaped for joy, and ran to worship the Lord, who did not get bored waiting one thousand three hundred years, night by night. Oh! What patience faith has! Among the fragrant flowers of hymns, which adorn the Church on the Nativity of Christ, is this beautiful troparion, which is inspired by the history of Balaam:

O Master, by dawning as a star out of Jacob you filled with joy the watchers of the stars, wise interpreters of the words of Balaam the Seer of old, who were brought to you as first fruits of the nations; you received them openly as they offered you their acceptable gifts.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos

A further note by the translator:

The true source for the Star is in the Old Testament, in Numbers 24:17, where the Seer Balaam, who came from a town on the banks of the Euphrates, utters his great prophecy, "I will point to him, but not now; I bless him, but he does not come near. A Star shall dawn from Jacob, a Man shall arise out of Israel." This is what we read in the Greek Septuagint, which is the Orthodox text. The Hebrew has, "a sceptre shall arise out of Israel". St Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho 106, cites the verse, though instead of ‘man’ he has the word ‘ruler’, which is the word used in Matthew 2:6 in the citation of Micheas. Origen links the Magi with the prophecy of Balaam, adding that the prophecy of Balaam had no doubt been preserved in the east. Eusebius does the same. St Gregory of Nyssa also links the Magi with the prophecy of Balaam. The real Star of Bethlehem is Christ himself, as St Amphilochios explains in a Christmas sermon. Saint Romanos takes this up in his Kontakion for the Nativity, Ikos 5 (the Magi are speaking):

For Balaam laid before us precisely
The meaning of the words he spoke in prophecy,
When he said that a star would dawn,
A star that quenches all prophecies and auguries;
A star which resolves the parables of the wise,
And their sayings and their riddles,
A star far more brilliant
Than the star which has appeared,
For he is the Maker of all the stars,
Of whom it was written of old,
From Jacob there dawns
A little Child, God before the ages.