A Star, a Donkey, and a Sword

It’s not what you think. Well, not entirely.

stars in the northern lights

The Star

I was reading the Christmas story once again – the story of the birth of Jesus.   As I read Matthew 2 I realized that, contrary to my lifelong belief, the wise men did not follow the star from the East to Jerusalem.  They only saw the star in the East.

Matthew 2:1-2
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king,

behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying,
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?
For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him. ESV

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king,

magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?
For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him. NASB95

 I’ve always wondered how the wise men knew to go to Jerusalem, but didn’t know that the One they were seeking would be in Bethlehem. I think I figured it out today. It goes back to a prophecy in Numbers which must have been read by the wise men who may have lived in the region in which it was originally given.

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;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth
Numbers 24:17 

The wise men had partial knowledge they learned from this prophecy, so they set out to get as close to the birthplace of the king (scepter) as they could decipher on their own. They believed that Herod, as acting king of Israel, would undoubtedly have the answer they sought. However, they did not know Herod’s reputation for intense jealousy and violence.

The Donkey

walking path

What gets more interesting is learning how the prophecy came about. The prophet was a man named Balaam from Pethor, a man with a reputation for fulfilled blessings and curses. He was sent for by an insecure king, Balak, who was frightened of the Israelites and desperately wanted Balaam to curse them. King Balak sent an envoy, with money, to fetch Balaam. After hearing from God, Balaam refused and sent them home.

Balak didn’t give up. He sent an even more prestigious envoy to convince Balaam to come and curse the Israelites. Balaam once more inquired of the Lord whether he should go with them, even though God’s message had been clear the first time. So, God allowed him to go, but warned him to only speak the words He gave him.

Along the way, God’s anger against greedy Balaam was kindled, so the angel of the Lord stood in Balaam’s path, sword in hand. Balaam’s donkey saw the angel, so she turned aside into a field, and Balaam struck her. The angel returned and blocked the way where the path was narrow and had walls on both sides. With nowhere to turn, Balaam’s donkey pushed into the wall with Balaam’s foot getting squished in the process. Balaam struck her a second time. The angel of the Lord returned further up the narrowing path; the faithful donkey protected her owner by lying down under Balaam. Once again, the unseeing prophet struck his donkey who then spoke aloud to him.

I am always astonished at this part of the story – not that God gave the donkey the ability to speak, but that Balaam didn’t seem surprised. But, then again, Balaam was having visions and conversations with God Himself.

God opened Balaam’s eyes to see the sword-bearing angel who rebuked him and commended the donkey. Balaam repented. (Wouldn’t you?) Balaam proceeded to meet Balak with a renewed commitment to obey God.

Balaam said to Balak, “Behold, I have come to you!
Have I now any power of my own to speak anything?
The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak.” 
Num 22:38 

After instructing Balak to build seven altars, they offer bulls and rams to the Lord and then Balaam meets with God and receives the words to speak. Balaam then blesses Israel and Balak is frustrated. They repeat the process two more times in different locations. The king is angry and withdraws his promise of riches for Balaam. It is then that the prophecy of the Messiah is given in Numbers 24 beginning with verse 15.

And he took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered: 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; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. 

Balaam and King Balak parted company after the prophetic blessing, and both returned home. But, this is not the end of the story.

The Sword

Num 31:8 tells us, They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. And they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.

Was it an accident that Balaam was killed? After all, he was a man who talked with God and delivered his words – blessings and curses – to many. He even prophesied the birth of the coming Messiah! What did Balaam do to deserve such a violent death?

He turned against God.

Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice,
caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD 
in the incident of Peor,
and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. 
Numbers 31:16 

I find this a little frightening. A man who not only saw answered prayers regularly, even heard directly from God, influenced a pagan people to purposely entice the Israelites – God’s chosen people – to chase after idols and immorality. (See Numbers 25)

This was so destructive, it is remembered in several places in the Bible.  God even mentions it again in Revelation 2:14:   But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 

God dealt severely with his people, and with Balaam. The kings of Midian were killed. The men and wives of Midian were killed. Balaam was killed. Twenty-four thousand Israelites died in the plague. The penalty of sin is death.

The story of Balaam demonstrates that our past works, no matter how great, don’t supersede our current relationship with God.

 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.   On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’   And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'”  
Matthew 7:21-23 

However, with the birth and sacrifice of Jesus, the gift of God is forgiveness for all who put their trust in Him, resulting in eternal life.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 
John 3:16 

For the wages of sin is death,
but the free gift of God is eternal life
in Christ Jesus our Lord. 
 Romans 6:23 ESV

… the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it–
the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ
for all who believe. For there is no distinction:
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
and are justified by his grace as a gift,
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood,
to be received by faith. 
Rom 3:21-25 

We all need His forgiveness and redemption.
Will you receive His gift?
Let’s keep our eyes on Jesus, obey His Word,
and put our trust in the One who is Faithful and True.  


Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.