Balaam’s Third Oracle (cont’d), 1-14

Num 24:1 Now when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not resort to sorcery as at other times, but turned his face toward the desert. 2 When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came upon him 3 and he uttered his oracle:

“The oracle of Balaam son of Beor,
the oracle of one whose eye sees clearly,
Num 24:4 the oracle of one who hears the words of God,
who sees a vision from the Almighty,
who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened:

Num 24:5 “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob,
your dwelling places, O Israel!

Num 24:6 “Like valleys they spread out,
like gardens beside a river,
like aloes planted by the LORD,
like cedars beside the waters.
Num 24:7 Water will flow from their buckets;
their seed will have abundant water.

“Their king will be greater than Agag;
their kingdom will be exalted.

Num 24:8 “God brought them out of Egypt;
they have the strength of a wild ox.
They devour hostile nations
and break their bones in pieces;
with their arrows they pierce them.
Num 24:9 Like a lion they crouch and lie down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse them?

“May those who bless you be blessed
and those who curse you be cursed!”

Num 24:10 Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam. He struck his hands together and said to him, “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them these three times. 11 Now leave at once and go home! I said I would reward you handsomely, but the LORD has kept you from being rewarded.”
Num 24:12 Balaam answered Balak, “Did I not tell the messengers you sent me, 13 ‘Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything of my own accord, good or bad, to go beyond the command of the LORD—and I must say only what the LORD says’? 14 Now I am going back to my people, but come, let me warn you of what this people will do to your people in days to come.”

Balaam’s Fourth Oracle, 15-19

Num 24:15 Then he uttered his oracle:

“The oracle of Balaam son of Beor,
the oracle of one whose eye sees clearly,
Num 24:16 the oracle of one who hears the words of God,
who has knowledge from the Most High,
who sees a vision from the Almighty,
who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened:

Num 24:17 “I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a scepter will rise out of Israel.
He will crush the foreheads of Moab,
the skulls of all the sons of Sheth.
Num 24:18 Edom will be conquered;
Seir, his enemy, will be conquered,
but Israel will grow strong.
Num 24:19 A ruler will come out of Jacob
and destroy the survivors of the city.”

The star of Bethlehem

With regard to the identity of the ‘star of Bethlehem’ (Luke 2), scholars have canvassed various options.

1. Some regard the entire story as fictional – a tale weaved out of various strands of Scripture from the Old Testament.  The strongest argument in favour of such scepticism is the movement of the ‘star’ as described in the biblical text.  Clearly, if we can give a plausible explanation for the behaviour of the star, we raise the index of confidence in the historicity of the event.

2. At the opposite end of the scale, some regard the star as entirely supernatural.  France leans towards this view.  It has been suggested that the ‘star’ was actually an angel – a description by no means unknown in the Bible (Job 38:7; Dan. 8:10; Rev. 1:16, 20; 2:1; 3:1).  Wilkins (NIVAC) suggests that this ‘is consistent with the prominent place of the angel of the Lord in the overall infancy narrative: announcing to Joseph the virginal conception of Jesus (Mt 1:20), warning the Magi not to return to Herod (Mt 2:12), warning Joseph to flee with the family to Egypt (Mt 2:13), telling them to go back to Israel (Mt 2:19), and guiding them in a dream to Nazareth (Mt 2:22).’

3. Others, seeking an explanation where the miracle is in the timing of the phenomenon, rather than in the event itself, suggest that the ‘star’ was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC.  Mounce, following Stauffer, suggests that this was unusual in that it took place in the constellation of Pisces (an event that occurred only once in 794 years).  Mounce quotes Stauffer as maintaining that ‘since Jupiter was regarded as the star of the universe, Saturn the planet of Palestine, and the constellation of the Fishes the sign of the last days, this rare conjunction “could only mean that the ruler of the last days would appear in Palestine”.’  An alternative interpretation would see Jupiter (representing the new king) overtaking Saturn (the old king) in the sky.

Writing in New Scientist, David Hughes says that following his own investigation: ‘I plumped for the planetary conjunction, mainly because in Jewish astrology it suggested the overtaking of the old king (Saturn) by the new (Jupiter)-in Pisces, associated with Israel. It was also sufficiently insignificant to the non-stargazer to explain why Herod was surprised when the Magi turned up on his doorstep. This conjunction indicated that Christ was born near Tuesday 15 September, 7 BC.’

4. Still others have made a case for a supernova.  France says that ‘Chinese astronomers recorded a nova which was visible for 70 days in 5/4 B.C., which would fit a date shortly before the death of Herod.’

5. Again, there are those who think that the ‘star’ was a nova.  This theory is discussed by Mark Kidger in his 1999 book The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer’s View.  Kidger suggests that the appearance of the nova was the culmination of a number of celestial portents.  Nicholl detects a number of flaws in Kidger’s argument, as does Pettem.

Note that it is difficult to reconcile (3) – (5) with the movements of the star as described in Matthew 2.

It is not surprising, then, that a number of distinguished commentators, including Morris and France, express agnosticism on the matter.

6. For myself, I have long suspected that the ‘star of Bethlehem’ was, in fact, a comet.  A good case for this had been made by Sir Colin Humphreys in this article.

Biblical scholar Colin Nicholl has developed a yet more detailed, convincing, and nuanced case in his 2015 book The Great Christ Comet: Revealing The True Star of Bethlehem (Crossway, 2015).

(The BBC’s ‘The Sky At Night’, in its ‘Christmas special’ broadcast on 30th December 2015 also plumped for the comet theory, but with no reference to Nichol’s work, or indeed to Humphreys’).

Nicholl argues that

  1. the magi were Babylonian scholars, skilled in astronomy and astrology, and used to making astronomical observation
  2. there was a considerable Jewish population in Babylon, who would have been able to point the magi to Old Testament scriptures such as Numbers 24:17 (which may well refer specifically to a comet) and Isaiah 7:14 (the famous passage about the ‘virgin’ conceiving) that would have helped them to discern its meaning and significance
  3. the appearance and of movement of the ‘star’ in the sky was so remarkable that it convinced the magi that a royal birth had taken place in Judea and led them to make the 550-mile journey
  4. the word translated ‘star’ was used in ancient times for a variety of celestial phenomena, including comets
  5. the sudden appearance of this object, and its visibility for over a year, makes sense only if it was a supernova or a comet
  6. its ‘rising’ (first appearance in the evening or dawn twilight), which so impressed the Magi, points strongly to it being a comet
  7. the movement of the object, over a couple of months, from the eastern morning sky (as seen originally from Babylon) to the southern evening sky (as seen when journeying from Jerusalem to Bethlehem), is possible only for an object in the inner solar system, again pointing strongly to its identity as a comet
  8. the description of the object ‘standing over’ the place of Jesus’ birth, and pinpointing its location, again fits its identity as a comet, with a long and prominent tail
  9. Revelation 12:1-5 appears to be a vivid account of the comet’s appearance and progress.  It is ‘born’ in the constellation of Virgo.  Soon afterwards, a great meteor storm occurs in the neighbouring constellation of Hydra.  This account is consistent with that found in Matthew 2, and they are explicable in astronomical terms

According to Pettem, the strongest arguments against the comet identification are (a) that there are no extant Chinese records that would support this within the correct time frame, and (b) that a comet would normally be considered a bad omen, and not a good omen.  But the first of these objections assumes that the ancient records are complete, and the second that there might not have been good reasons for the Star of Bethlehem not to conform to this norm.

Nicholl suggests that Old Testament passages such as Numbers 24:17 and Isaiah 9:2 refer to comets, and may well have formed the basis of the belief of the Magi that their comet heralded the birth of a great king.  Nichols also links the comet to Revelation 12:1-5, suggesting that this passage paints a picture of what the Magi witnessed.

A strength of the work is that Nicholl has done a great deal of astronomical homework.  Although I have an amateur interest astronomy, I have not been able (yet) to follow the details of his discussion about the movements of the comet.  For most of us, it will be sufficient to know that this work has been done, and that professional astronomers have both assisted with this work and have reviewed the work favourably from that point of work.

I thought that Nicholl was sometimes a little too confident in some of his conclusions (‘possibly’ tends to morph into ‘probably’).  Also, I found some details of the argument rather speculative (for example, he did not convince me that the references to ‘light’ in John’s Gospel convey a memory of the natal ‘star’).  Nevertheless, his case as a whole is very solid indeed.

I occurred to me as I read the book (as it will occur to many other readers) that if the comet put on such as spectacular display as Nicholl suggests, then why is there no record of it in, say, the Chinese records of the day?  Nicholl explains that this is not so surprising as at first seems, because the Chinese records were, in fact, very incomplete (he includes a substantial appendix documenting this).

Obviously, all future discussions of the magi and their ‘star’ will need to take Nicholl’s work into account.  (How unfortunate, then, that Michael Pettem’s The Star of Bethlehem: Science, History and Meaning, does not mention Nicholl at all.)  But his theory, if correct, sheds light (if you will pardon the expression) on much more besides.  It demonstrates the historicity of the biblical account at a point where it might have been thought most vulnerable, and it provides a vivid example of a particular kind of phenomenon: where the marvel is not so much in what happened, but in the timing of what happened.  It thus challenges those of a sceptical frame of mind to confront the possibility that the God of heaven and earth has intervened in this world, and not left himself without a witness to that fact.

With this last thought in mind, I have turned to one review in particular of Nicholl’s book.  Writing in the Spectator, astronomer Marek Kakula concedes that ‘since he is a Biblical scholar by training, Nicholl’s grasp of the essential astronomy and astrophysics is all the more impressive.’  Then, surprisingly, Kakula suggests that all of this careful and even-handed treatment of the astronomy ‘sits somewhat uneasily’ with the book’s assumption about the historicity of biblical account of the event itself.  But surely that is part of the point: it would have been near-impossible to fabricate a myth about a ‘star’ that behaved as the ‘star of Bethlehem’ did.  As Kakula himself acknowledges, it takes 21st-century knowledge and 21st-century technology to make astronomical sense of the record.  Far more rational, then, to assume that it actually happened and that we are now in a better position to understand more precisely what happened, and (in scientific terms) how.

Kakula continues in this rather irrational vein when he asks: ‘Does it really matter whether the Star of Bethlehem was a real astronomical object or not?’  He answers his own question by preaching a little sermon: ‘Read as a parable of hope and salvation, the Biblical account of the Nativity is a universal story: peace on earth and goodwill to all men is a message that even the most hardline atheist can get behind.’  But just as you cannot make words mean anything you like (despite the protestations of Humpty Dumpty), so you cannot make stories mean whatever you want them to mean.  The question we should be asking of the story of the magi and their ‘star’ is: Did it really happen that way?  And if it did, it does not bear the kindly but vague meaning that Kakula would like it it have: it means, rather, that our planet may have been visited in a remarkable and very specific way.

But, then again, some people may refuse to be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel – This was widely regarded, around the time of Jesus’ birth, as a Messianic prophecy.  It may well be appropriate to link it to the star of Bethlehem, which was probably a bright comet, with its tail representing a sceptre.  See the notes on Mt 2 and Rev 12.

Both ‘star and ‘scepter’ frequently symbolised rulers (Gen 49:10; Psa 45:6; Isa 14:12).  Nicholl (The Great Christ Comet) says that the Babylonian Talmud specifically refers to a comet as a ‘scepter star’.  Indeed, a number of scholars, and also the NEB, REB and GNB render the word here translated ‘scepter’ as ‘comet’.  There is, therefore, a double meaning in Balaam’s words: they are both literal (referring to a comet) and metaphorical (referring to a ruler).

Was David the scepter-star?  2 Sam 8 shows that he conquered Moab and Edom.  But this did not lead to a permanent subservience.  Moreover, the is no hint the Scripture that David’s birth was attended by any unusual astronomical phenomena.

Mt 2:2 probably contains an allusion to this verse.  2 Pet 1:19 and Rev 22:16 also appear to allude this verse and apply it to Jesus as Messiah.  But the strongest link is with Rev 12:5, a passage clearly about the birth of Christ, and which represents the comet at it rising as a shining scepter.

Early Christian teaching linked this verse not only generally with the birth of Christ, but also more specifically with the magi and the star of Bethlehem:-

Eusebius linked this verse with the magi: ‘We are told that Balaam’s successors moved by this [the star of Bethlehem] (for the prediction was preserved most likely among them) [the Gentiles] when they noticed in the heavens a strange star besides the usual ones, fixed above the head, so to say, and vertically above Judea, hastened to arrive at Palestine, to inquire about the king announced by the star’s appearance.’

Chryostom maintained that Balaam prophesied the coming of the Messiah: ‘Listen to the Evangelist’s words about Caiaphas, the high priest of the Jews: “He did not give this as a personal opinion, but in his capacity of high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was destined to die, not for the person alone but to bring together into one also the nations that had been scattered.” You will find something like it occurring again in the story of Balaam also: When urged to curse the people, he not merely did not curse them but even prophesied great and wonderful things, not merely about the people but also about the coming of the Savior.’
Leo the Great links this prophecy with the wise men following the star: ‘Although it was a gift of divine favor that the birth of the Savior should become recognizable to the nations, nevertheless, to understand the wonder of the sign, the wise men were also able to be reminded through the ancient pronouncements of Balaam, for they knew that it had at one time been spread abroad in a famous and memorable prediction: “A star will appear out of Jacob, and a man will rise up from Israel. He will rule over the nations.” So the three men, stirred by God through the shining of this unusual star, follow the course of its gleaming light ahead of them, thinking that they would find the indicated child in the royal city of Jerusalem.
When this conjecture had failed them, however, they learned from scribes and teachers of the Jews what the sacred Scriptures had told about the birth of Christ. Encouraged by the double evidence, they sought him out with an even more ardent faith, the one to whom both the brightness of the star and the authority of prophets pointed.’

Caesarius of Arles thought that the magi had copies of Balaam’s prophecies: ‘If God’s prophecies were inserted in the sacred books by Moses, how much more so were they copied by men who then lived in Mesopotamia, for they considered Balaam splendid and certainly were   p 249  disciples of his art! After his time the profession and instruction of the seers is said to have flourished in parts of the Orient. Possessing copies of everything which Balaam prophesied, they even have it written: “A star shall advance from Jacob, and a man shall rise from Israel.” The magi kept these writings more among themselves, and so when Jesus was born they recognized the star and understood that the prophecy was fulfilled more than did the people of Israel who disdained to hear the words of the holy prophets. Therefore, only from the writings which Balaam had left, they learned that the time was approaching, came and immediately sought to adore him. Moreover, in order to show their great faith, they honored the little boy as a king.’

(The above quotations from ACCS)

Balaam’s Final Oracles, 20-25

Num 24:20 Then Balaam saw Amalek and uttered his oracle:

“Amalek was first among the nations,
but he will come to ruin at last.”

Num 24:21 Then he saw the Kenites and uttered his oracle:

“Your dwelling place is secure,
your nest is set in a rock;
Num 24:22 yet you Kenites will be destroyed
when Asshur takes you captive.”

Num 24:23 Then he uttered his oracle:

“Ah, who can live when God does this?
Num 24:24 Ships will come from the shores of Kittim;
they will subdue Asshur and Eber,
but they too will come to ruin.”

Num 24:25 Then Balaam got up and returned home and Balak went his own way.