Christmas Foray #3 – The Guiding Star

Lastly and most provocatively on this nativity theme – what about the guiding star?  Christmas plays always present the star as sitting over the stable (that wasn’t)… I have never understood this.  A star is a giant thermonuclear explosion going off in space.  You can’t let them get that close to your stable, they ignite the hay.  What are we talking about?  One in the sky?  Over a specific house in a specific town??  I challenge you to pick a star in the sky and walk to the exact house that is directly under that star, knock on the door and say howdy.  Good luck with that.

A shooting star?  I.e. a meteorite?  Effectiveness at picking out a single house is inversely proportional with safety.  I’m not sure it’s that, either.  If you saw the Russian meteorite strike not so long ago, you’ll know what I mean.

No, these were astrologers.  They saw stars as portents, and read their positions against the constellations they appeared in to find their significance.  We’re not talking ordinary stars here, because they are ‘fixed’ with reference to Earth and keep their constellation arrangements on the scale of human lifetimes.  The only ‘stars’ that move are the other planets of our solar system, which the ancients regarded as ‘movable stars’, and occasionally comets.  Some have suggested a nova. Here’s some help from a Bible Dictionary:

“To relate a newly rising star to a king in Israel, the star would have to appear in the constellation governing the “land of Israel” (Matt 2:20-21), that is, the Roman province of Syro-Palestine. This constellation was Aries, the springtime constellation, the first-created, celestial Lamb of God.”  (Bruce J. Malina, ‘Star of Bethlehem’, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 5.371-2)  I don’t know how certain that is, or whether we can choose between a planet or planetary alignment, a comet or a (super)nova, or whether God miraculously put something on display for the magi.  But I do know how they discovered signs.  It wasn’t that they followed the star through the desert.  It’s that the ‘star’ appeared in the right quadrant of the sky, the right constellation, that when it appeared above the horizon for the first time, they interpreted it to refer to the rise of a new king.  And evidently that’s exactly the message God wanted these otherwise (if I can be so bold) fairly deluded guys with a great knowledge of the stars to get.

What about the stopping of the star over the place where the child was (Matt. 2:9)?  This may not go down so easily, but the Greek word for ‘stopped’ is quite a common word, ‘histemi‘ (long ‘e’) that can mean ‘stand’.  I quote from John Walton now, from his article ‘Ancient Near Eastern Backgrounds’, in the Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. K. Vanhoozer, p. 44:

“The Mesopotamian celestial omens use words like “wait,” “stand,” and “stop” to record the relative movements and positions of the celestial bodies.”  He is actually talking in that context about the ‘standing’ of the sun and moon in Joshua’s day in Joshua 10.  He understands it to refer to the rare event where the moon is still above the horizon in the west when the sun is just coming up in the east, called ‘opposition’, and probably understood as a portentous omen in that time.  He finds that “Josh. 10 operates in the world of omens, not physics.  We cannot ask what these terms mean to us; we must ask what they meant to an Israelite in their cultural context.”  Well, you may or may not like that, although I found it a breakthrough, and when you look at a map, it makes tremendous sense of the reference to the sun standing over Gibeon and the moon over the Valley of Aijalon – very plausibly the eastern and western horizons for the Israelite army in its position at the time!

The magi were in fact in the same part of the country in the time mentioned in Matthew 2.  Herod’s palace of the time, I understand, was Herodium, virtually an artificial palace in a hill that Herod had built, and you can still google it up for a look here.  From there Bethlehem is just a few kilometres to the NW and about 50m higher in elevation – a modest walk up the hill.  So I’m not positive how the ‘star’ could guide them to a particular spot, and there must be other clues out there for discovering.  But we probably are dealing once again with “the world of omens, not physics.”  We may not be comfortable with that yet.  But Matthew flagged it for us in nearly unmissable terms, when he told us these guys were magi, astrologers.

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” said William Cowper!  All to lead some superstitious Gentiles to the Anointed.  ‘Kyrie eleison’ (Lord have mercy) also to us.

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