“For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
How do we view this star the wise men saw? Was it a special miracle or was it a unique conspiracy of natural circumstances. Each way of viewing the star has much to speak for it.
The “star as miracle” way is a bit of a countercultural way of viewing the star, countercultural because our culture is scientific, and the default instinct of most modern people – including Christians – is to seek scientific or naturalistic explanations for biblical happenings. Many are the times I’ve listened as someone recounts something they saw on the History Channel which explains how the Nile turned red, or how the plague of flies happened, or what might have caused the walls of Jericho to fall. “They say the Red Sea split because there was a drought.” But then, when Israel crossed, the drought ended, just as Egypt entered into the sea? What else are “they” claiming?
Why can’t we just say a miracle happened? Last I checked we do believe in God, don’t we? God can suspend the laws of nature if He wants, if I understand the word “Almighty” properly.
Modern people struggle with miracles. It’s sort of a Gnostic thing, a forced cognitive dissonance between the world of the Bible and the world of reason.
On one hand, there’s the world we live in, where, quite frankly, we never really see miracles. “But isn’t the sun rising a miracle.” Yeah, yeah, but that’s obviously not what we’re talking about. Nor are we talking about the goofy signs we make to be from God in order to give meaning to aspects of our lives. Nor are we talking about the “miracles” claimed by those who, well, we’d expect to be touting miracles, because they have a psychological need to posit them. In the Bible sense of a miracle – a public sign obvious to all involved – we simply don’t have miracles in the modern age.
On the other hand, there’s the world of the Bible, where miracles seem to happen regularly. Why is that world so different than the world we live in?
The easy answer is from Jesus, Who simply says one miracle is necessary, the resurrection. We are in the age of faith, and faith is in some mysterious way the completion of man. Faith in the testimony of the resurrection is all we need, and if faith needs some proof beyond the apostolic testimony of the resurrection, we’re out of the realm of faith.
Another answer is an interesting statistical one. If you take all the miracles in the Bible and spread them out over the duration of biblical history, they occur at a relatively rare pace, like one every forty years or so. Also, most of those miracles were witnessed by few people. So, spread the amount of people over time who witnessed the miracle, and you get something like a handful of people witnessing a miracle every forty years or so.
There are big miracles seen by many – the entire exodus event, the feeding of the 5,000, the resurrection, Pentecost – and there’s a reason these events are signature events in Scripture, precisely because they were so epically rare. But the vast majority of miracles in the Bible were private affairs.
Private miracles of incredible wonderment probably occur today, and if they do, they probably occur at about the same pace as private miracles occurred in the Bible. One miracle every forty years, somewhere in the world, would both (a) continue the biblical pace of miracles and (b) be an acceptable exception to Jesus’ “no sign but one” principle I’m willing to live with, given we see such exceptions already in the book of Acts.
Here’s another possible answer to the lack of miracles, building off Jesus’ “no sign but one” principle. Did the resurrection of Jesus and advent of the Church Age introduce a truly revolutionary change in the manner of being itself. All the world – not just the biblical world – was once mythical or miraculous. What of the Greek gods and myths? What of the myths of other pagan religions? What of the Egyptians magicians?
Was the pre-Church world simply more full of odd manifestations of spiritual phenomenon? Perhaps the Church Age has put demons in their prison house, the abyss, locked until the end of time, as some Scriptures suggest. If that is the case, perhaps there simply was more supernatural stuff happening before Christ, and Jesus’ advent was a triumph of a peaceful order on the natural world.
The wise men could very well have seen a miracle, a standout phenomenon. And maybe it was only manifest to them, or maybe demons were presenting counterfeit miracles so regularly that a single star acting weird would only be noticed by a handful of men who, well…why did the wise men in the east correctly interpret the star? Likely they were living off of biblical traditions going back to the prophet Daniel, who spent some time in Babylon and likely taught disciples the prophecies of Isaiah. He was, after all, “chief of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers.”
Such prophecies would include, “Arise, shine; For your light has come!…The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising. …The wealth of the Gentiles shall come to you. The multitude of camels shall cover your land, The dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; All those from Sheba shall come; They shall bring gold and incense.”
So, when the magi saw the light shining in the east, they were just following the script.
More interesting, for me, than the “miracle” interpretation is the “unique conspiracy of natural occurrences” interpretation. That is, freak events were happening in the skies all at once, things with Jupiter, constellations, and the sun. Among the sun, moon, stars, and moving stars (planets) each doing their ordered things in their own way, you’ll get who-knows how many combinations of lights in the sky, like Jupiter hovering for a few days in the constellation of Leo as earth overpasses its orbit.
Normally such things would mean nothing. But if meaning is ascribed to the various lights – like, Jupiter is the king of stars, or Leo is the kingly constellation, or whatever – then meaning can be ascribed to heavenly happenings. Astrology is based on this principle, and before we Christians dismiss this out of hand, consider astrology (as well as magic and alchemy) were more accepted by Christians in the Middle Ages than today. The birth of Luther itself was signaled by astronomical occurrences in 1484, believed the priest and astrologer (!!) Johann Lichtenberger (1440-1503).
We talk of the “miracle of modern science” or speak of miracles when a doctor does a routine surgery to cure someone. We claim God is using the doctors to perform miracles. How is this different than previous Christians using the sciences of the day and seeing God using it for His purposes?
Beyond that, the Bible itself refers to the names of constellations several times, like Job saying, “He made the Bear, Orion, and the Pleiades, And the chambers of the south.” God made the constellations!
Here’s what I find most interesting about the “unique conspiracy of natural occurrences” interpretation. It goes back to the creation itself, to the fourth day. That day, we hear the Lord say, “Let [the] lights in the firmament of the heavens …be for signs…”
What signs? Why did God make so many stars it baffles the mind? Well, one reason is to underscore how many children Abraham would have. Imagine that. At the snap of a finger, God created the immenseness of the trillions of galaxies – all of which He named by the way! – as a visual aid for a point He was going to make a few thousand years later to Abraham. Wouldn’t the sand have sufficed? Nope, let’s create a universe too.
But God also set up the heavenly bodies in such a way that (a) several of the stars would be seen as a “kingly” constellation by later cultures, (b) earth would view that constellation in a certain way at a specific time when (c) Jupiter would hover in place for a few days, just as He sent His Son, because God wound up Jupiter just right so that it collided with Leo in the heavens after culture had evolved in such a way so as to result in wise men who would properly interpret the events in a manner catechized by the prophet Daniel.
I find that way more interesting than a miracle. It means God arranged the heavenly bodies themselves like a clock to sound a cosmic alarm just at the moment His Son was born. It means the rise of paganism by satanic operations was in the end orchestrated by God for His purposes. It means the exile of Israel in Babylon was partly to make a point about the gentiles being included in His divine plan. It means one of the reasons He choose David was because He was born in Bethlehem, which would play a role in how the heavenly bodies were situated relative to earthly locations.
What would we expect from a God who names the stars?
It’s on the basis of such wisdom too high to fathom that Job’s brooding needed to come to an end. We are microbes traversing brush strokes on the Mona Lisa, trying to make meaning of our little moment in place and time. We have no idea of that grand painting being worked by our Lord. It is enough for us to know that He is a God of love, that all that wisdom is mustered toward the One over Whom the star hovered, the one named Jesus, who saves people from their sins.