THEY CAME FROM THE EAST
or, The Kings of Orient Ar
They came from the east. Sounds like the title of a creepy movie. Well, the “they” that came, the “they” that I am referring to, were not monsters at all; they were in fact learned men—wise men—as they are popularly known today. These men made a long journey from somewhere to “the east” of the town of Bethlehem just to see a little boy they referred to as the King of the Jews. They are a part of what we call the story of Christmas. There is a monster of sorts involved in the story, however. A different kind of king, a cruel puppet of Rome, played a significant role in the “travel log” of the eastern visitors…but I’m getting ahead of myself. And what about the subtitle above? I will answer that in the last paragraph.
I am a stickler for accuracy when it comes to relating stories and events of the Bible. Every year at Christmastime I become a bit bothered by all the traditional elements of the nativity story that have crept in over the centuries and are at variance with the simple and beautiful story that is found in the Gospel of Luke. Such non biblical insertions seem to me to dilute the power of the pure account, giving the story as presented in so many nativity pageants more of a sense of legend than historical record.
I could make quite a long list of these traditional but not necessarily accurate elements of the Christmas story, but I’ll save that for another time. What I want to focus on in these paragraphs are those travelers from the east mentioned above. Some of what I will mention is very well known as it’s information taken directly from the Scriptures. Other facets and implications of the journey of the wise men can only be discovered outside of the biblical record. In this regard I will also provide some geographical and historical background, as well as “stir in” some ingredients of what I believe is reasonable conjecture. And, for those who may be unfamiliar with the details of the biblical account, I will try to cover the basic story as well.
Were there three wise men? We don’t know; the Bible doesn’t say. There could have been many more; we only know there were at least two. One thing it definitely does not tell us is that these wise men, or magi (popularly but incorrectly called “kings”) were on hand to see the baby in the manger. The only visitors to the birthplace of Jesus that we know of from reading the gospel of Luke, were shepherds. Only shepherds. The wise men didn’t show up in Bethlehem for several months—probably over a year—after Christ’s birth. There, incidentally, they visited the child, not an infant, and they found him in a house, not a stable. I was still a kid when I learned of the absence of the wise men at the manger of baby Jesus, so that when my family’s manger scene was being set up, I made a point of placing the wise men and their camel (they only had one) across the room, far away from the cardboard stable where the plastic figures of Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus, a shepherd, a cow and some sheep were displayed. This didn’t really work too well, though, because one of the “kings” was always kneeling—not an appropriate pose for one who was supposed to be traversing the desert along with his companions.
The magi—originally a religious class among the Persians but of an indefinite origin at the time of Jesus’ birth (NIV dictionary)—were hundreds of miles away from Bethlehem when Jesus was born. When these learned observers of the heavens first saw the star they must have begun planning for what would amount to a long and arduous journey. When did the star (or some kind of celestial event) appear? It could have been at the time of Jesus’ birth but maybe not; we just aren’t given that information. This means that the absolute “certainty” of the star over Bethlehem on that special night is in doubt. I know—heresy. All the Christmas cards, all the great works of art that depict the Nativity show a dazzlingly bright star in the sky but the Bible doesn’t actually say that.
How is it that the magi were on the lookout for the King of the Jews in the first place? One part of the answer is that they were likely acquainted with Jewish prophecy because of the influence of Daniel, a Hebrew captive in Babylon who rose to prominence as a high-ranking government official as well as the prophet whose life story and writings still bear his name as a book in the Old Testament; Daniel lived centuries before the wise men were born. Babylon was somewhere near the location, if not the place itself, where the magis’ journey originated so they would have had ready access to Daniel’s writings. Perhaps also the wise men had learned of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to the Land of Israel to see a man of renown named Solomon, King of Israel, many generations before the time of Daniel. This visit is recorded in two of the historical books of the Old Testament: I Kings and II Chronicles. The Queen of Sheba and her entourage would have brought back to her country (southwest Arabia) a knowledge of the Jews’ expectation of a coming Messiah, and this belief or the awareness of this belief, may have endured to the time of the magi. If this were the case, the wise men would probably have been familiar with the following prophetic verse from the Hebrew scriptures: I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near—a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel (Numbers 24:17 NRSV). In reference to this verse it is stated in one commentary: This is a figure for a king… not only in the Bible but in the ancient Near Eastern literature as a whole. The immediate reference of the prophecy seems to be to David, but the eschatological theme goes beyond him. There is to be a connection made between this passage and the sighting of a star in its ascendancy by the magi, who then journey to Bethlehem to see him born King of the Jews. (NET Bible Notes)
The first destination of the wise men was Jerusalem, the city of David (King Solomons’s father). Where better to find out what they needed to know than the royal city? When they arrived they went to see the notorious King Herod, the Roman-appointed ruler of the region, thinking that he could give them some information as to the whereabouts of the King of the Jews. Herod had no answer for them but after inquiring of his own “wise men”, he learned that the prophesied king was to be born in Bethlehem. We can find this very prophecy in the Old Testament book of Micah: But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days (Micah 5:2 NET). Herod, lying through his teeth, asked the wise men to report back to him and tell him just where this king was to be found so he could himself go and “worship” him too; though he really planned to do away with him. But after finally finding the toddler Jesus in Bethlehem and presenting their gifts of gold, incense and myrrh to him, God warned the wise men in a dream of Herod’s true intentions. So rather than going back to Herod they returned home via a detour bypassing Jerusalem entirely. Herod was furious when he learned this; he was so angry that he tried to wipe out any potential rival to his throne by ordering the killing of all the boy babies aged two and under who were born in and around Bethlehem. Here King Herod revealed himself as the “monster” he could be. In addition to the Biblical account of his cruel act, it is known that he had one of his former wives executed and later, two of his sons met death at his orders. Joseph, husband of Mary, was also warned in a dream and wasted no time in taking Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt, far from Herod’s evil reach.
Without going too far afield into the realm of conjecture, when one considers geographical, historical and cultural factors that affected the journey of the wise men, I believe several inferences can be drawn concerning the details briefly stated in Matthew’s gospel. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the wise men would have been accompanied by armed guards and other attendants? Anyone carrying treasures such as gold, priceless incense and myrrh on such a long journey would have been very unwise to venture out into the vast stretches of wilderness without adequate protection and in small numbers where fierce bandits were known to attack unwary and defenseless travelers. Likely they would have brought along servants, both male and female; perhaps even their wives tagged along. For shelter and comfort I imagine they would have packed tents to set up wherever they camped. In other words, it is probable they traveled as a well-organized caravan. Camels would have been used as pack animals and maybe horses were on hand to pull carts of provisions and for the guards to ride as they scouted ahead for thieves and cutthroats. Consider also Matthew 2:2, When King Herod heard this [the wise men asking about the one born king of the Jews] he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. The “whole city of Jerusalem” (an obvious hyperbole) was disturbed (or frightened as another translation has it) along with Herod? One would think it would have taken a lot more than three visitors from the east and their camels to cause such a commotion.
Much of what I have written here is, admittedly, supposition and speculation. I invite anyone more knowledgeable about such matters to correct me in the comments section below. Yet, in looking closely at this amazing story, it’s obvious that there is a lot more to it than what is generally related each year when Christmas rolls around. There’s much more involved here than “three” richly dressed “kings” leaping on their camels and arriving in time to see the baby Jesus lying in a manger, and as a bright “star” blazed in the heavens above.
Now, what about the subtitle of this article? I wonder how many kids like me grew up singing “We three kings of Orient Ar” and wondered, just where or what is Orient Ar? I hate to admit how many years it took me to realize that the lyric carries over to the next line: “We three kings of Orient are bearing gifts…”. Who else will admit with me that they have also wondered as to the whereabouts of Orient Ar?
© 2011 by Dennis Dale Kemper