Magi, a Manger and a Menace: The Christmas Story

Mandy WorbyArticles, Mandy Worby

Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem - the first Christmas

I want to tell you the age old Christmas story, a story that’s been told for the past two millennia but this time, I’m going to tell it from a decidedly non-European bent.

There are a number of key players in this story; the Magi, Herod and the Romans, the Shepherds, and of course, Miriam (Mary) and Yosef (Joseph) and their tiny, baby boy, Yeshua (Jesus).

Let’s begin with the Magi and in this vein, I begin with the prophet Daniel.

According to the Scripture, Daniel was promoted to leader of the Wise Men, the Magi. The word Magi, I believe, has long been misinterpreted as being a group of magicians. It is true that the root word for magician is the same as the root word for Magi, but it’s also the root word for the word we use for magistrates, experts in the law and advisors of rulers and monarchies. If you look closer at the role of the Wise Men, or Magi in ancient Babylon and eventually Persia, you’ll see that the common belief that they were simply magicians is entirely inadequate. The Magi were experts in the law, they instructed kings in how to conduct business and national governance and they were also expected to be experts in their spiritual and religious affairs.

Daniel was low in the ranks of the Wise Men when he was taken captive to Babylon, and you can read about his exploits under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar and then under the rule of King Darius and how after various plots and schemes against him, Daniel proved himself faithful and trustworthy and he became the leader of the Magi. In that position he then promptly promoted his fellow Jews, Shadrach, Meshac and Abednego.
(Dan 2:46-49; 5:29-31; 6:25-28) If you read all the book of Daniel, you’ll read how God revealed to Daniel much of history future and mostly about the coming of the Messiah and what would precede His arrival and when…even going so far as to state an exact amount of time from the command to restore and rebuild Jerusalem to the time the Anointed One would be ‘cut off’ or killed. (Dan 9:24-27) This is very exact.

Why would three rich men from Persia, a nation with no political or religious connection to the Jews, travel to give gifts to a Jewish baby they would have no further connection with?

No doubt the members of the Magi watched and counted the weeks from the time the command was made for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and at the right time became aware of a supernatural spectacle in the sky, a ‘star’ the Bible describes it as and this was the motivation for them to send a delegation to Judea, to see the fulfilment of the prophecy of Daniel they’d been patiently waiting for. It’s a long trek from ancient Persia to Judea on camel back, and the Bible doesn’t tell us how many of them made the journey. But considering Herod’s response, their delegation was probably a sizable one with domestic staff and soldiers for security.

It’s important to note that the names and identities of the ‘Three Wise Men’ have come about through church tradition, not through historical fact. I must also ask this question…why would three rich men from Persia, a nation with no political or religious connection to the Jews, travel to Judea to give gifts to a Jewish baby they would have no further connection with, and then disappear on the backroads and never have any connection or contact with Him again? Unless they were Jewish themselves, it makes zero sense?

Next, I want to take a look at the Shepherds.

Bethlehem was always a shepherd community going all the way back to Boaz and Ruth who were farmers. From this couple comes David who was himself a shepherd and from the line of David, comes both Miriam and Yosef who were Yeshua’s earthly parents.

Bethlehem is about 8.5km from Jerusalem and the Temple. By the time Yeshua arrives the priesthood, primarily made up of Saduccees (the liberals of that day), had a great gig going; a money making gig whereby, the animals required for sacrifice were sold to the people for a large profit. For example, the sacrifices for Passover were specific…a first born year old male lamb without spot or blemish. How could the priests be sure that any lamb presented by a worshipper did in fact meet those criteria? Never mind, don’t bother, we’ll sell you one that we have certified ourselves from our own temple flocks from nearby Bethlehem. This is why Yeshua was so angry with them when He entered the Temple precincts and drove them out; they’d turned God’s house into a place of profiteering and greed.

The nearby shepherds, working for the priests, bred the first born male lambs that would be sacrificed at Passover. In Bethlehem there are many caves in which the lambs and goats were born and at the time of year Yeshua was born; approx around the end of September, it was still quite warm and it was natural for the shepherds to be caring for the sheep outdoors. Any later in the year, say around December 25, it would be freezing and possibly even snowing, so they most certainly wouldn’t have been outdoors.

It’s also important to note that most country people had animals, mostly sheep and goats and they all had mangers (feeding troughs); but when the angels told the shepherds that their Messiah had just been born and was laying in a manger, they didn’t ask which one, they knew it was the manger they were most familiar with…perhaps in the lambing caves they themselves worked in?

Sure enough, when they went to find out, there He was, their Messiah, laying in the manger and they were the first human beings to set eyes on the Son of God made manifest.

The next characters in this age old saga is King Herod and the Romans.

King Herod was titled the king of the Jews but his ancestry was not Jewish but Idumean. His father had been forcibly converted to Judaism but Herod was about as Jewish as a strip of bacon! However, because of his appointment by Rome to be the monarch of the Jewish people in the province of Judea under Roman protection, Herod tried repeatedly to ingratiate himself with the Jewish people, touting himself as their Jewish king so they would accept him. They never did, in fact they hated him passionately.

Herodian Theatre overlooking the Shepherds fields in Bethlehem

Photo from the theatre ruins of the Herodian Fortress – one of 3 ancient fortresses built by Herod the Great. This Fortress overlooks the nearby Shepherds fields in Bethlehem.

The Romans were a cruel and brutal people, at their peak, they were an enormous military and political power but they were always fighting on several fronts and one of the most volatile provinces they governed was Judea. Not only that, but Judea was beside a region Rome had never had any success at subjugating, and in particular, Persia was untouchable for them. So when the Magi from the east (Persia) arrived in Jerusalem, with an entire political delegation from the royal court; king makers, religious authorities and political elites, accompanied by military guard and security, asking to see the new born ‘King of the Jews’, it’s little wonder that Herod and all Jerusalem were worried. (Matt 2:1-6) Herod got some prophetic updates from the priests, and sent the Magi to Bethlehem and asked them to keep him updated on what they found. If it was only 3 rich guys on camels who arrived in Jerusalem, why was he and all Jerusalem so worried? Herod was paranoid of anyone, so yes, he would have been bothered by their arrival…but all Jerusalem?

The final characters in this drama are of course the main characters; Miriam, Yosef and Yeshua.

Brave young Miriam was in the final days of her pregnancy when word arrived in Nazareth about the Roman edict for the Jewish population to return to their home towns to register in a census, it was most inconvenient, but the Romans never did anything for the convenience of anyone but themselves. So Yosef and Miriam set out on the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the tiny shepherding village of their ancestors.

Upon arrival however, the town was overflowing with other’s who like Yosef and Miriam, had returned to register but it meant there was nowhere for them to stay. Unfortunately, Miriam’s pregnancy was about to end and she was in full labour and Yosef had to find somewhere for her to birth their baby. What he found was a clean, quiet cave and it was there that Miriam, with the help of Yosef, delivered tiny Yeshua. They bathed Him, wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and Miriam would have fed Him and laid Him down to sleep in the manger, the only place available for Him.

Is it possible that God entrusted the protection and guardianship of His only Son to shepherds in Bethlehem…?

No doubt Yosef helped Miriam after her ordeal and helped her get comfortable as she would have been sore and exhausted. It would have been quite a surprise for them when a group of shepherds arrived with the fantastical story of angels in the sky and the announcement of ‘Good News for all mankind’ and directions to the manger in which their baby boy now lay sleeping. Perhaps not so fantastical because both Miriam and Yosef had had their own encounters and messages with angels.

By the time the Magi arrived in Bethlehem of course, Miriam and Yosef were no longer in a cave and Yeshua was no longer laying in a manger, rather they were in a house when their distinguished guests arrived and Yeshua wasn’t described as a babe but rather a child. (Matt 2:11)

The Magi then have their own encounter with angels as they dreamt and realised that Herod was not a friend at all, and they fled Judea by a route other than Jerusalem so as not to draw attention to the small child putting Him in danger. When Herod found out he’d been thwarted, he commanded all the boys in Bethlehem 2 years old and under be slaughtered.

I can’t help but wonder how many of the shepherds who had been protecting the identity of their Messiah lost young children in the slaughter that day? What a price they paid to protect their Messiah. Yosef of course, also had a warning dream to take Yeshua and Miriam to Egypt to protect them from Herod’s rage and insanity.

Did you know that Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’? Who was Yeshua? He is the Bread of Life; the Bread that came down from heaven. (John 6:35-38)

Now I want to pull all these threads together in the form of hypothetical questions.

Is it possible that the God of heaven, foretold to His prophet Daniel the exact time His Son would be born, ensuring His children, living in Persia would travel to Israel to bless His Son with resources that not only reflected His ministry of being King, Prophet and Priest, but would ensure His survival in Egypt during His first years of life?

Is it possible that God entrusted the protection and guardianship of His only Son to shepherds in Bethlehem who witnessed their Messiah while He lay sleeping in a manger?

Is it possible God orchestrated The Lamb to be born in a cave where First Born Male Lambs were born in preparation for sacrifice at the Passover, when God saved His people from slavery?

I make no claims that history unfolded exactly as I’ve written above, but after reading, studying and researching, this makes a whole lot more sense than the narrative we’ve heard for so many years.

Be like the Bereans (Acts 17:11) and study these things for yourself and come to your own conclusions and have a very, very merry Christmas.