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The Wise Men and the Exodus

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.”

Matthew 2:1–2

In the New Testament, the writers relied heavily on themes from the Exodus to talk about Jesus and the kingdom of God. One interesting example of this is the wise men that came to visit Jesus when He was born. Here are a few observations:

  1. They came from East to West which means they passed over the Jordan.
  2. They followed a star, or you might say they followed a fire in the sky by night.
  3. They followed a burning object in the sky from East to West to be in the presence of God.

East and West

In the Hebrew Scriptures, traveling from East to West or West to East wasn’t just some geographical side note, but it often indicated one’s spiritual journey. There’s plenty of examples of this, but there are several that stand out to me.

  • Adam and Eve left the garden headed East.
  • Cain traveled East away from the presence of the Lord.
  • Those who constructed the Tower of Babel had traveled even further East.
  • Abraham was called to go West.
  • To get into the Promise Land, they had to go from East to West over the Jordan.
  • In Babylonian captivity, they were taken East.

Traveling East pictured a people that were going further and further away from the presence of God while traveling West meant a return to Him. When God’s people were in Babylonian captivity, they looked back towards the West when the prayed. The tabernacle and temple were even laid out East to West.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

In the Exodus, the children of Israel followed a fiery pillar by night while they wandered in the wilderness. Matthew seems to be referencing that event when he talks about the Wise Men following the star from the East.

After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.

Matthew 2:9

R. T. France points out that the expression “came and stood” means “that the star itself moved to guide the Magi.” (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 1985). This brings about, at least in my mind, the imagery of the children of Israel following God by light in the evenings all through the wilderness.

The Presence of God

Matthew points out in Matthew 1:22-23 that Jesus would be called Immanuel which means “God with us.” Like the Israelites crossed the Jordan from East to West to enter God’s presence in the Promise Land, the wise men traveled a great distance to witness God’s Son.

After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew 2:11

Frankincense was one of the main materials used for worship to God in the tabernacle. It was a very costly incense that was imported from Sheba (Jeremiah 6:20). Myrrh was also a type of incense, and it was used in the burial of Jesus (John 19:39).

So, when the Bible says that the wise men traveled from the East, there are a couple different ways one could read that: 1) they just happened to be from the East and it doesn’t matter, 2) their journey is meant to bring the theme of the Exodus into our minds, or 3) the participation of foreigners from the East in worshiping and welcoming the Son of God indicates that Jesus was offering the entire world an opportunity to enter into God’s presence, not just His tribe and His nation.

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