The Greek word translated wise men in the NRSV is magoi. We see this word once in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in Daniel 2. King Nebuchadnezzar “commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams (Daniel 2:2).”
Here are some interesting (and random) observations about the magoi.
First, they come from the East. This is the direction of the exile. Adam and Eve were exiled “east of Eden.” Babylon and Persia are in the East. See the Bible Project Podcast series on Exile for more on this. The visit of the Magoi seems to connect Jesus’ story to the end of the Hebrew scripture. This seems especially apparent since Daniel is the final story in the TaNaK.
Check out The Bible Project’s work on Exile.
Second, the practice of sorcery was strictly prohibited in the Law of Moses. Now it is magoi who are the first to recognize the true King of the Jews.
What is Matthew trying to communicate through this story?
There are multiple Herods in the Christian scripture. The one in this story is Herod the Great. He reigned in Israel for over forty years, yet he was not properly from the line of David. He was placed on the throne by the Roman Empire and maintained allegiance to it.
Although he led many great construction projects, thus Romanizing Israel, he was a cruel Tyrant and despised by most Jews.
This video shows the scope of his Temple project. Compare its size to the tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple that preceded it.
The word Bethlehem means house of bread. This is David’s city. It makes sense that the Messiah would be born here. This fulfills the prophecy of Micah 5:2.
All we know is that the magoi brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These were valuable items in the ancient world. Many have speculated that each gift has symbolic meaning: Gold for the King, Frankincense for the Priest, and Myrrh for the Prophet and the burial spices for the Suffering Servant. The truth is that Matthew does not tell us more than the fact of the gifts.
Another messenger warns Joseph, in another dream, to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape the slaughter Herod had just ordered on the children of Bethlehem. This fulfills the prophecy of Hosea 11:1.
It also aligns Jesus’ life with the story of Israel and Moses. Jesus represents both the entire nation as it was led out of Egypt and also the leader, Moses, himself. Matthew will demonstrate how Jesus reboots the Exodus story to be the redemption of God’s people and the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham to bless all nations.
This is a horrifying story that often gets left out of Christmas. This story is important for many reasons:
First, it parallels the killing of the infant boys in Exodus under the rule of Pharaoh. Herod is the new Pharaoh in our rebooted Exodus story.
Second, it demonstrates the cruelty and the extent to which the power structures will go to preserve their power. The people of Israel suffer greatly and desperately need a savior. Rachel, indeed, weeps for her children (Jeremiah 31:15)
When Herod dies, Joseph and Mary return from Egypt and settle in the village of Nazareth, in the northern province of Galilee.