The Magi – Exegesis of Matthew 2:9-12

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by Felipe Diez III

Jesus is born in Bethlehem as was prophesied in Hosea 11:1. The Magi, who arrived to worship the child, had been summoned somehow by Herod. (v.7). This “summoning” is not part of my chosen section by a question that came to my mind was “how did they know Herod?” They must have been important and there may at least have been correspondence between them and Herod before this incident. But possibly, Herod may have met them when they arrived in the city, and since they were no regular set of travelers, through intermediaries (customs agents) inquired as to why men of their grand astrological caliber were here. Maybe Herod, who undoubtedly had noticed the large star, sought their counsel. In this ancient Near East setting, shared knowledge about the cosmos would have sparked wonderful conversations, especially by Herod, who possessed much time, money, and power. But Matthew spares us these details.

These four verses (9-12) of the 2nd chapter of Matthew’s Magi pericope are purely narrative, and form the beginning of an idea (“after they…”). As is common for this type of literary style, past-tense verbs or verb forms are used, such as eporeuthesan [v.9] (went / were gone) and in v.10, echaresan (“they rejoiced”). The wise men leave the presence of the king (or that general area) in this verse until they reach the vicinity where the child was. Any events in between were no events at all for Matthew, until of course there was rejoicing. The wise men found the large star again as they practiced their craft, yet this time, there was a final sign, perhaps of superior brightness. They had reached their destination and were ready to worship. Matthew’s narrative here is fairly short but standard for a biblical narrative, and there is room for speculation as to the time it took for the magi to get from Herod’s area to the vicinity where Mary and the child were. Almost nothing is said, also, of the interaction between the men and what the star itself signified. We may assume that since this was such a special occasion, that God had somehow brightened a star or planet in order to lead them to the child. Many Christians believe that divine providence played a great role in getting the wise men from their Persian estates to the little house – their destination which upon the knowledge of them being close to, brought them joy.

There seems to be a bit of a culmination effect in verse 10. Not only had this trip been a long one for the wise men, but theologically, Matthew thinks of it significant to express the fact that the wise men were happy upon their arrival. But what were they happy about? Had their craft of star-mapping given them such pleasure or had they reached a higher echelon of skill? I believe that Matthew has been not so much focused on the star itself but what the star signified. After all, the telos of the whole trip was to worship someone Who many of us believe the wise men knew next to nothing about? Did some kind of faith take them there? At any rate, it seems a bit odd that the wise men simply decided to travel to worship a little child. This is odd, since it is a behavior practically unheard of, unless they knew that the child was going to be or do somebody / something someday. The wise men had to have known that this young king was going to bring some sort of human paradigm shift to the area because His sacred nature had bought them a long way. This was not a socio-political circumstance. I believe there was a true desire for worship in their hearts, and that Matthew designates it as such.

Light is a theme that is connected to holiness. Holy men who have seen the brilliance of the throne of God (Ezekiel in particular did not feel holy) record highly abnormal and transcendent experiences in Scripture. In Jesus’s Baptism, there is record of the Holy Spirit illuminating Jesus like a dove when the Heavens open.  Where there is kingship of this magnitude, there is a heavenly light.

Verse 11 confirms what the true heart of the eastern worshippers as – that of true adoration (prosekunesan). They prostrated themselves, falling / bowing down (pesontes). One may imagine the surprised look on Mary’s face as these gentile Persians fell at the feet of her child. She knew the special nature of Jesus, but was Mary truly ready for some probably random gentile Persians to show up unannounced into the area to worship the child Jesus? It is more probable that they first made their intentions known somehow, in whatever regional set of protocols, and did not simply open the door in a sudden. The second part of the verse is common knowledge – the 3 gifts that were given to Jesus. (hence the mistaken interpretation that there were three men). This is no place for a discussion of the gifts themselves and their purpose, as there are many theories, but a short mention of a few details is in order. Gold is obviously of value – it is money.

Many theorists state that the frankincense was used for perfume. Incense was common in Persia. Myrrh, on the other hand, may be used as anointing oil. Some writers such as Origen posited that the gifts symbolized something spiritual. The text itself, however, only describes the type of gifts and leaves the matter there. Also, the religious views of the wise men are omitted by Matthew and we may only speculate as to whether or not they were truly Zoroastrians. At any rate, they came here not to impose Zoroastrian presuppositions but to bow down to the king of the Jews, whom they worshipped as though He were God. Frequently, Psalm 72:10 is invoked to shed light into the possibility that these men were themselves kings. Matthew, again, bypasses any desire to go into these details. He continues to use the idea of kingship to state, implicitly, that Herod was no true king. He had power, but in verse 12, something startling occurs. Sometime during their hours of sleep, the wise men had a dream or trance (onar). The interesting word here to designate the origin of the dream in this verse is chrematisthontes (they were imparted or warned). The word chrematizo means to impart revelation or warning, so in this usage, Matthew is stating that the magi were warned by impartation through a dream or trance. Presumably, as nearly all translations state, this was done by God’s action, although this is an implicit assumption. However, it is not unreasonable, for how could another autonomous divine benevolent agent whom Matthew would approve of warn them to go back to their country via another route to avoid the evil Herod? Even if the wise men employed some kind of Zoroastrian meditation, as some aver, it was clearly not nefarious and occultic of itself, since we need to understand v.12 in context of Matthean theology, not extrabiblical speculation. At any rate, Matthew continues to awe the reader with the fact that the Lord’s control and not the control of Herod or the Persians is the one driving the story, since it is the story of Jesus and His Lordship.

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