If the Magi were three little guys on camels, why would Herod the King be troubled, and all Jerusalem with him?
In the New Testament, we first encounter the “magi” in Matthew 2:1. However, the translation in the English is “wise men”. The word that is translated “wise men” is magos in Greek, the original language and is defined a magician, oriental scientist, sorcerer. Sounds ominous, but it really is not when looked at a little closer. They were astrologers and king makers. What a combination. So, what were they doing looking for a baby?
In order to understand a little more about these guys, let us go back to the book of Daniel. It is the only place they are mentioned, outside of Matthew. When King Nebuchadnezzar has a bad dream, he instinctively calls for the “magicians”. The word here in its original Hebrew language is chartom and it means a horoscopist; as drawing magical lines or circles. When we think of magicians, we think of tricks. That is what the word has come to mean over the many centuries. It was originally defining astrological scientists that read the stars. They understood that God revealed things through the stars and made a science of it. Therefore, King Nebuchadnezzar called on them when he had his dreams.
The book of Daniel is very mysterious and prophetic. A little closer look shows that King Nebuchadnezzar not only called the “magicians”, but also the astrologers, the Chaldeans, and the soothsayers. These words are all descriptive of various forms of astrologers that read the stars and dreams; except “soothsayer”. This word, in its original language, means to determine, quarry, cut out. This group, that later fell under one title, became king makers. They were to “cut out” and “determine” who would be the ruler to come. That group later fell under one heading, magi. Sound odd? The word “soothsayer” is used only in the book of Daniel. It is used six times. Four times it is used as the group of men it describes. However, twice it is used to describe a “stone that was cut out”. Through prophecy, we know that “Stone” as the Messiah; Jesus Christ. They knew from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream that this “Stone” would come. Daniel later became “chief of the governors”. Nebuchadnezzar made him head of this group because he was able to do what they were not. Daniel made it clear that only God could give this information. Because they were a hereditary sect, they had it out for him throughout his life. In other words, they were all related and he was an outsider. See the lion’s den for more information on that.
Fast forward to Jesus’ birth. In all our Christmas cards, literature, etc., we see three little guys on camels, and this is supposed to be the magi. Where were they originally from? What was the social climate like in Judea? Why would three little guys on camels create such an uproar. The original magi were based in Persia, which is modern-day Iran. The distance to travel would be about 2,300 kilometers. That is about 1,500 miles. The terrain is very mountainous and rocky through most of the journey. We will come back to this.
The social climate was very hostile at the time. Rome was at war with Idumea. This was an ancient region between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba which bordered ancient Palestine. The magi would have had to go right between these warring factions. Why is that significant? Because they knew it was very dangerous, so they prepared. To give you an idea, Augustus Caesar gave Herod his title of “King of the Jews” and it took three years before he could even feel safe enough to occupy his own capital city. In short, Herod ruled over a rebellious buffer state. It would be like Canada and Mexico fighting and we were in the middle.
What about the number of travelers? The Bible does not say that there were only three “wise men”. It only mentions three gifts that the “wise men” brought. To give you an idea of how big this caravan must have been, we will assume that there were only three “wise men”. Knowing how long the trip would take, the conditions they would encounter, the things needed, etc., they would have prepared accordingly. If the trip was 1,500 miles, traveling through that type of terrain would allow maybe a couple miles per day. That means the trip would have taken about two years. Traveling that far meant carrying a lot of money. There were no credit cards or banks. They would need to travel with valuables. This required armed protection. What about food? What about change of clothes and astronomy equipment? Remember, this is what they did per their title so equipment would have been necessary. After all, they were following a star, were they not? No doubt that with that much gold, valuables, servants, etc., there would have been literally hundreds coming in a caravan; perhaps thousands. To summarize, there would be enough cavalry escort to protect the valuables, the king makers, and all the servants. There would be enough food and servants for the trip. There would be enough equipment. This was a BIG deal!
Fast forward to our narrative from Matthew 2. The first thing out of their mouth is, “Where is He that is BORN King of the Jews?” This was a put down on Herod. They knew his background and how he obtained his throne. The magi understood the prophecies and the astronomy of it. This led to their next statement, “for we have seen His star in the east”. They had been waiting centuries for this moment. They came to make the baby, King! This leads to the last part of that verse, “and are come to worship Him.” They travelled many miles and days to worship this baby king.
They did not show up at the birth of Jesus, as is portrayed in the modern Christmas narrative. In Matthew 2:9, they “stood over the young child”. The word for child here is paidion in Greek. It means a young child. In the manger scene in Luke 2, the angels tell the shepherds “ye shall find the babe”. The word for babe here is brephos in Greek which means newborn. In Matthew 2:16, Herod order the slaughter of all the children “from two years old and under”. He understood from consulting with the chief priests and scribes that the birth of the Messiah would have been about two years prior. This lines up with the time frame that the magi first saw the star and how long it took to travel to honor Him. The cool part of this narrative is that in Matthew 2:12, “being warned of God in a dream”. This is the original job that they had in Daniel; interpret dreams!
You see, three little guys on camels would not create an uproar to a very powerful king, much less an entire city. However, a couple thousand people with armed cavalry and king makers travelling through the area which was a buffer zone during a major war would be quite a tumult and very unnerving to everyone.
While we wait to celebrate the birth of our Messiah, Jesus Christ, we, like the magi, understand He is King and long to worship Him with what we have to offer.