The star coming out of Jacob.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 December

Numbers 24.17.

The Hebrews of the Exodus weren’t the only Hebrews in the middle east. There were other Hebrew nations, who probably spoke Hebrew same as the descendants of Israel whom Moses led. Namely:

  • The ISHMAELITES, descended from Abraham’s oldest son Ishmael.
  • The MIDIANITES, descended from Abraham’s sixth son Midian. (What, you didn’t know Abraham had more sons than just Isaac and Ishmael? Ge 25.1-2 Lots of people don’t. See what happens when you skip parts of the bible?)
  • The MOABITES and AMMONITES, descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot.
  • The EDOMITES, descended from Israel’s brother Esau.
  • Plus Abraham’s son fourth son Yoqšan is the grandfather of “Ašurím and Letuším and Lehummím,” Ge 25.3 names which have a plural -im ending, which therefore means they’re not individuals but tribes.

Israel’s family went to Egypt to dodge a famine, but Ishmael, Lot, Esau, Midian, and Yoqšan’s families had stayed in the area and become their own nations. Over time some of those nations assimilated with Israel and became today’s Jews; the rest became today’s Arabs.

I bring them up ’cause Moab’s king, Baláq ben Chippór, was terrified the Israelis might ruin his nation. So he hired a mercenary prophet named Balám ben Beór to curse them, because word had it Balám’s blessings and curses stuck. But Balám wouldn’t curse Israel, ’cause the LORD got to him first and ordered him not to. Instead all Balám prophesied were blessings. Like this one.

Numbers 24.15-19 KWL
15 Balám lifted up this declaration and said, “The whisper of Balám, Beor’s son.
The whisper of the noble whose eyes are open.
16 The whisper of the hearer of God’s words, who knows the Highest’s plans,
sees the Almighty’s vision, falling in a trance with eyes uncovered.
17 I’m not seeing him just now; I’m not beholding him near just now:
A star proceeds from Jacob. A scepter rises from Israel.
It shatters Moab’s sides. It tears down all Šet’s children.
18 Edom becomes occupied. Seir is occupied by its enemies. Israel does mightily well.
19 One from Jacob reigns, and destroys the city’s survivors.”

Sounds more like a curse on Moab/Šet and Edom/Seir. (Those are different names for the same nations, just like Jacob/Israel.)

Through Balám, the LORD was clearly telling Baláq his nightmare would come true: Israel would eventually smite them. And smite Edom.

The star and scepter Balám spoke of are the ancient symbols (and still the present-day symbols) of a king. But bear in mind Israel had no king. The closest thing they had to a king was a head priest—and a thousand years later the head priests did become kings, but that’s leapfrogging a few centuries of the first monarchy—namely Saul, David and his descendants, and Jeroboam and the various Ephraimite dynasties. Saul’s kingdom was three centuries away, and till then Israel was randomly led by prophets, priests, and libertarian anarchy. No sign of any star and scepter for a long time.

So yeah, it’s a prophecy of a future king of Israel. Which, to be honest, isn’t that miraculous a thing to foretell. Nations need leadership, and in those pre-democracy days it meant one guy would find a reason to declare himself king, eliminate his competition, rule, and leave his throne to a competent son… or an incompetent one who’d quickly be overthrown. Predicting a king was sorta commonsense.

The miraculous part was stating this king would smite Edom and Moab, and win. Which David eventually did, 300 years later. Hence this is considered a messianic prophecy, ’cause David was God’s mašiakh/“messiah,” his anointed king.

And if it’s about one messiah, Christians tend to figure it’s also a prophecy about our Messiah, Jesus the Nazarene.

The star of Bethlehem?

Now, applying this prophecy to Christ Jesus is slightly weird. Because read Balám’s prophecy again. Jesus didn’t shatter Moab’s sides and tear down Šet’s children. Didn’t occupy Edom/Seir, ’cause Edom was assimilated into Israel in the first century BC, and by Jesus’s day they were all Judeans (and in our day they’re all Jews).

So what part of this prophecy has to do with Jesus at all? Well, insist many Christians, the part about the star: It’s about the star of Bethlehem!

Matthew 2.1-2 KWL
1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judea, in the days of King Herod,
look: Zoroastrians came to Jerusalem from the east, 2 saying, “Where’s the newborn king of Judea?
For we saw his star in the east, and came to bow before him.”

“See?” these Christians say: Balám predicted the star of Bethlehem, 14 centuries before the Zoroastrian astrologers deduced it meant Jesus was born, and followed it to his birthplace.

Okay. To anyone with a hairsbreadth of commonsense, Balám’s prophecy isn’t about that. At all. Just because a prophecy mentions a star, doesn’t mean we stretch it like taffy and claim it predicts a weird astronomical occurrence above a little farming village; one you could see all the way from Iran.

But here’s where bad interpreters apply the magic of analogy. And by “magic” I of course mean trickery. If you apply analogy liberally enough, you can make a verse mean whatever you want. It can mean anything!… but that ultimately means it means nothing.

To the misinterpreters, Jesus doesn’t literally smite Moab and Edom. Those nations represent evildoers. (’Cause ancient Moab and Edom were evildoers. As was ancient Israel, but let’s conveniently forget that fact for now; it buggers the interpretation.) That’s how the Pharisees misinterpreted this verse: They expected Messiah to come smite the Romans, to defeat any evil nation, and not just the specific ones Balám pointed to. Likewise Jesus comes to defeat evil, right? So interpret the verse that way. There ya go.

In the meanwhile “star,” which actually is a non-literal metaphor for a ruler, is interpreted as a literal star. That is, when we’re talking about the star of Bethlehem. The rest of the time, star and scepter can refer to a messiah/king which arises from Jacob/Israel, and Jesus just happens to be one of those kings.

You see how it works? Bounce around from literal to metaphor wherever you please, and ignore how casually and disrespectfully you’re treating God’s word. After all, you’re trying to claim this is a prophecy about Jesus, so whatever you gotta do to defend your argument, you do. Ends justify means, even when the means consists of making hash of the bible.

But once again, I gotta object. This is not how we properly treat the scriptures.

Balám’s prophecy is a legitimate messianic prophecy, because it’s about the LORD’s anointed king/messiah, David ben Jesse. However, not all prophecies about one messiah apply to all messiahs. This one doesn’t apply to Jesus. He doesn’t fulfill it better, or more completely, than David did. Nor will he when he comes back, ’cause he’s not coming to destroy Moab and Edom, but save them.

Nor is this a prophecy about the star of Bethlehem. There is no prophecy about the star of Bethlehem in the bible. Now that doesn’t mean there was no prophecy about the star at all: Something got the Zoroastrians to come to Judea to seek the newborn king. It’s entirely likely a prophet, or some pagans who sought God despite their paganism, actually heard God inform ’em, “Hey, this star means something; go to Judea.” After all Jesus did come to save them too.