Thursday, December 22, 2005

There in the way of Ephrath; the same is Bethlehem (Matthew 2)

Shoot. I looked back at my post on Genesis 1:14, and see that I didn't bother to really address the issue of astrology at that time. Honestly, I don't know what that verse is trying to say exactly, but there is some musing in the comments section, as well as an excellent (IMHO) mini-essay on the difficulty of translation, particularly prepositions. I'm hoping people will read that and reflect on it, although it doesn't have anything to do with the topic at hand, which I suppose I should address.

Although I addressed the issue of time frame in my first post on Luke 2, I'm finding it interesting to put this story in perspective. If Herod died in 4 B.C., and Jesus was born in 6 B.C., and the Magi came to Jerusalem about two years after Jesus' birth, then Herod didn't live too long after this story. Jesus' time in Egypt must have been very short.

So, astrology... In verses 2 and 9, there is mention of a "star" that the Magi were following to find Jesus. Oh, the issues this brings up... As far as astrology, a case might be able to be made that these men, not being Jews, were not prohibited from astrology, but that would surely go against conventional wisdom in Christian circles that astrology is just plain bad. I myself am not fond of the astrology column in the paper, think it's a load of crap and have thought so since before I was a Christian. Yet I don't think one can deny that the Bible is saying something here (and perhaps in Genesis 1:14 as well) to suggest that looking up to the sky can tell some people something about what happens on earth. What, though?

First of all, despite verse 9 (which I'm stumped on, as admittedly it doesn't make a whole lot of sense), I think it's sound to reject the notion of the "Star of Bethlehem" being a supernatural light in the sky that was hanging over the manger (or the house where Jesus lived) that could actually be literally "followed" to a specific spot. Aside from the fact that celestial objects don't act like that in general (although of course this could be another miracle), it begs the question: why didn't the Magi go straight to Bethlehem if they were following a "star" that could pinpoint the Messiah's location? No, they head to Jerusalem. If you're looking for a King in Judea, where else would you go? It's the capital. Whatever the signal was that these men had to go, it simply told them to go to Israel. When they got there, they were surprised to find Herod, and not a baby.

What did Genesis say? "Let there be lights...and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years." The "signs" set apart for a moment, the plain meaning here is that the objects which light the sky serve as a sort of calendar; and of course, they do. In numerous sci-fi stories that I have read, it's been used as a plot device the fact that knowing the positions of the planets within the solar system can tell you what the date is, and this is true. As for the "signs", most calendars have important dates noted on them, and perhaps God's is no different. Some have suggested a significant planetary conjunction occurring at the time of Jesus' birth. I have heard it suggested on one hand that this conjunction may have occurred in a manner or location in the sky that suggested to the Magi a significant event in Israel. I have also heard it suggested that the Magi may have been familiar with the prophecies of Daniel, as Daniel lived east in Babylon during his life. If Daniel was well-versed in Babylonian astronomy, which is a reasonable assumption, and he had some special knowledge as to the time the Messiah would appear (which is believed very strongly by Christians, but is too complicated to go over here), then he might have told them to look out for this conjunction as a sign.

Anyway, Herod is worried by these men, who are probably not--as sometimes traditionally pictured--three kings riding alone on camels, but more likely a procession of prominent men with a military guard who have come from east of the Roman Empire, and are implying a challenge to Herod's authority. He goes to his advisors and asks them their perspective on where the Messiah ought to be, and they quote (inaccurately) Micah 5:2, which points to Bethlehem. The SAB has a lot to say about this, so I'll take it one point at a time.
"Bethlehem Ephratah" in Micah 5:2 refers not to a town, but to a clan: the clan of Bethlehem, who was the son of Caleb's second wife, Ephrathah.
Interesting catch, that bit of info, but there are problems with this claim. None of the verses linked to give definitive evidence as far as I can see that Bethlehem actually is a person. Knowing that Bethlehem is a location (and its name in Hebrew sure sounds like a location, and not a person), it is quite likely that the phrase "father of Bethlehem" means that Salma and Hur were co-founders of the city of Bethlehem. After all, despite the fact that there are verses that seem to be referring to Bethlehem as a person, this "person" never has any children, nor does anything else for that matter. Maybe I missed it, but "clan of Bethlehem" is not a phrase that I've seen anywhere in the Bible. Whether a person or not, there are certainly many places in the Bible that are named after people and vice-versa, including Ephrathah herself. Rachel was buried near "Ephrath, which is Bethlehem" hundreds of years before Ephrathah and/or Bethlehem were born.
The prophecy (if that is what it is) does not refer to the Messiah, but rather to a military leader, as can be seen from Micah 5:6. This leader is supposed to defeat the Assyrians, which, of course, Jesus never did.
True, and yet not true. The common Christian approach to Biblical prophecy is that any given prophecy may have different levels of interpretation and fulfillment. The most well-known of such prophecies is the one Jesus talks about in Matthew 24:15. The "abomination of desolation" spoken of by the prophet Daniel in various passages was believed by the Jews of Jesus' time to have been fulfilled in 168 B.C. when Antiochus Epiphanes slaughtered a pig and erected a statue of Zeus in the Jewish Temple. Jesus hints that this prophecy is not yet completely fulfilled, alluding to both the destruction of the Temple on 70 A.D. and an event still future from today that will supposedly happen when the Temple is rebuilt one more time. So Micah 5:2 is prophesying the birth of two important leaders. This explanation also applies to verses 15 and 17-18 of Matthew 2.
It should also be noted that Matthew altered the text of Micah 5:2...
Maybe; I'll grant it's a reasonable assumption. It may be that the scribes and priests misquoted it in the first place. It doesn't matter so much, though, because as I noted, both "Bethlehem" and "Ephratah" are place-names in the land of Judah.

Hopefully, I covered the issue of verse 14 in my last post, in which I essentially pointed out that despite the note in the SAB, the word "directly" does not appear in Luke 2:39, nor any synonym.

The massacre spoken of in verse 2:16 is indeed not recorded anywhere outside of the book of Matthew, which casts a question of authenticity upon it. The only possible explanation is that Bethlehem, being a fairly small town may have been small enough that this atrocity went largely unnoticed among many others committed by Herod.

The last verse refers to a non-existent prophecy that has pretty much stumped all scholars. Some have suggested a misunderstanding or misspelling of the Hebrew word for "branch" in some prophecies, while others have suggested that the fact that many prophecies refer to the Messiah as being rejected could be fulfilled by having him grow up in a place of ill-repute. I think both of these explanations are more than a little bit of a stretch, myself, but I present them just because they exist.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Chanukah Sameach, Prosperous Ramadan, and Happy Kwanzaa.

1 comment:

Brucker said...

As a further note on the "massacre" at Bethlehem, I was reading in a more scholarly blog than my own* that in Jesus' day, Bethlehem was such a small town that this was "perhaps 6-8" infants. Such an event would indeed be hardly historically notable compared to other acts of violence committed by Herod.

*This is a large post, so if you want to read this comment but not the whole, search for "Micah".