“I see him, but not now.
I see him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob.
A scepter will rise out of Israel,
and shall strike through the corners of Moab,
and break down all the sons of Seth.”
Numbers 24:17

WHAT IS A STAR?

From the earth’s viewpoint, a star appears as a tiny, sparkling point of light, piercing the unfathomable sea of darkness. Yet, a star is a massive luminous sphere of a plasma, an incredible thermonuclear reactor made of helium and hydrogen. Our own sun is a star that provides light, warmth and energy to the earth. It may sound strange, but every living human being is made up of “stardust.” In the beginning, the early universe did not contain heavy elements like carbon or iron, but was limited to light atoms like helium and hydrogen. When star undergoes a supernova, heavier elements are created via nucleosynthesis. Even today, the process of nucleosynthesis occurs in the extreme temperatures when a star explodes. These heavier elements that are created during this process make up the planets, and are the molecular building blocks of our own bodies. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says,

“The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago. For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson

800px-Pleiades_large

כִּימָה (Kimah) or the The Pleiades Star Cluster. “…who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south…” Job 9:9

THE STAR OF ABRAHAM

There is a tradition regarding Abraham, that at his birth, there was a star in the East,

“When our father Abraham was born, a star rose in the east and swallowed four stars in the four corners of heaven. Nimrod’s wizards said to him: To Terah, at this hour, a son has been born, out of whom will issue a people destined to inherit this world and the world-to-come. With your permission, let his father be given a house full of silver and gold, on condition that his newly born son be slain.”
Beit haMidrash 2:118-196 cited in Sefer HaAggadah, Schocken Books

From the beginning, the children of Israel are likened to stars,

“And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed HaShem, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
Genesis 15:5-6

According to Rashi, R’ Shlomo Yitzhaki, R’ HaShem lifted up Abraham above the stars, and told him to look down on them,

הוציאו מחללו של עולם והגביהו למעלה מן הכוכבים, וזהו לשון הבטה מלמעלה למטה

“He took him out of the terrestrial sphere and lifted him above the stars. This explains the expression of הַבָּטָה, looking down from above (Gen. Rabbah 44:12).”
Rashi on Genesis 15:5, cited at Chabad.org

Though twinkling stars appear small, they are blazing sources of immense power. Deuteronomy says,

“HaShem your G-d has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day as the stars of the sky for multitude.”
Deuteronomy 1:10

Rashi asks an interesting question on this verse,

וכי ככוכבי השמים היו באותו היום, והלא לא היו אלא שישים רבוא, מהו והנכם היום, הנכם משולים כיום, קיימים כחמה וכלבנה וככוכבים

“But were they [the Israelites] on that day as [many as] the stars of the heavens? Were they not only six hundred thousand? What, then, is [the meaning of] “And, behold, you are today…?” [It means]-Behold, you are compared to the sun, [signifying that you will] exist forever as do the sun, the moon, and the stars (cf. Sifrei).”
Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:10, cited at Chabad.org

THE STAR IN THE EAST

Like Abraham’s birth, the revelation of the Messiah is connected to the Star in the East,

“A star steps forth from Jacob’ (Num 24:17). It is taught in the name of our Sages: the septennial cycle wherein the Son of David comes (will transpire as follows): (in) the first (year), there will not be food for all who need it; (in) the second (year), the ‘arrows of famine’ (cf. Ezek 5:16) will be unleashed; (in) the third (year), a severe famine; in the fourth (year), neither famine nor plenty; in the fifth (year), great plenty, and a star will emerge in the east. This is the star of the Messiah, and it will be visible in the east for fifteen days. Should it linger, it will be to Israel’s benefit. (In) the sixth (year), noises and sounds. (In) the seventh (year), battles. And at the end of the seventh (year), one will behold the Messiah.”
Aggadat HaMashiach, Trajectories in Near Eastern Apocalyptic, Translated by John C. Reeves

Coin from Bar Kozeba

Coin minted by Bar Kozeba during the year 134/135. An image of a star over the Temple is visible. Image credit Classical Numismatic Coin Group.

The concept of the star linking to the Messiah is an ancient thread in Jewish tradition. R’ Akiva gave Shimon bar Kozeba the name “Bar Kochva” (Son of the Star), proclaiming him the Messiah, linking him to the prophecy in Numbers 24:17. During this time, after the destruction of the Temple, Israel was battling the Roman Empire in a last stand for freedom. The text named The Prayer of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai states,

“And during the sixth (year) a star shall appear from the east and on top of it a rod of fire like a spear.  The Gentile nations will claim ‘this star is ours,’ but it is not so; rather, it pertains to Israel, as Scripture forecasts: ‘a star shall step forth from Jacob, etc.’ (Num 24:17).  The time of its shining will be during the first watch of the night for two hours.  It will set (for) fifteen days in the east, and then revolve to the west and act (similarly?) for fifteen days.  If it should be more (its period of shining), this is good for Israel.”
Tefilat Shimon Bar Yochai, Trajectories in Near Eastern Apocalyptic, Translated by John C. Reeves

All of these traditions are linked together and show a consistent theme connecting the Star in the East with the coming of the King Messiah,

“And this will be the sign for you—when you see that at the beginning of one week there is rain, and in the second (week) the loosing of the ‘arrows of hunger,’ and in the third a severe famine, and in the fourth no hunger but (also) no satisfaction, and in the fifth there is great satiety.  A star shall appear from the east with a rod on top of it—this is the star of Israel, as Scripture says: ‘a star shall step forth from Jacob etc.’ (Num 24:17).  If it shines, it is for the benefit of Israel.  Then the Messiah of the lineage of David shall emerge.”
Nistarot Shimon Bar Yochai, Trajectories in Near Eastern Apocalyptic, Translated by John C. Reeves

The Zohar amazingly links this revelation of the Messiah to the land of Galilee,

“The glory of his majesty” refers to the Messiah when he shall reveal himself in the land of Galilee; for in this part of the Holy Land the desolation first began, and therefore he will manifest himself there first . . . and when the Messiah shall have manifested himself, a star shall come forth from the East variegated in hue and shining brilliantly, and seven other stars shall surround it, and make war on it from all sides, three times a day for seventy days, before the eyes of the whole world. The one star shall fight against the seven with rays of fire flashing on every side, and it shall smite them until they are extinguished, evening after evening.  . . . After the seventy days the one star shall vanish.”
Zohar, Volume II, Shemot 7b, Soncino Press Edition, pg. 21

Matthew also links Galilee to the Messiah, based on a prophecy from Isaiah,

“And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Kfar Nachum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zevulon and Naftali: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying, ‘The land of Zevulon, and the land of Naftali, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.”
Matthew 4:13-16

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Magi_Journeying_(Les_rois_mages_en_voyage)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

The Magi by James Tissot

THE MAGI

The Midrash then notes that Gentile astrologers will recognize the star,

And there shall be a ruler amidst Jacob [Numb. 24.19] At first a star arose in the east, at the head of which there was a sword. Israel saw it, and said to one another, “What is that?” The other nations asked their astrologers, “What is the character of this star?” They [the astrologers] said to them, “This is the star of Israel. This is the king who shall yet arise for them.: As soon as Israel heard that, they approached the prophet Samuel and said to him, Give us a king to judge us, just like all the nations [I Sam. 8.5] – just as the nations said. in this context it says, a star shall arise from Jacob. [ Num. 24.17] And so also at the end [of days], a star shall arise in the east, and it is the star of the Messiah; as it says, and there shall be a ruler (yerd) amidst Jacob. Rabbi Yose said: In the language of the Arameans, the east is called yerd. And it spends fifteen days in the east. If it tarries even longer, it is only for the good of Israel; and then you may expect the footsteps of the Messiah.”
Midrash ha-Gadol, Numbers, Yemenite Midrash, translated by Yitzchak Tzvi Langerman, HarperCollins, pg. 175-176

This sounds unusually familiar to Matthew’s account,

“Now when Yeshua was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came Magi from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
Matthew 2:1-2

Philo comments as to the identity of the Magi,

“And in the land of the barbarians. . . there are very numerous companies of virtuous and honorable men celebrated. Among the Persians there exists a group, the Magi, who investigating the works of nature for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the truth. . . initiate others in the divine virtues, by very clear explanations.”
Philo, Every Good Man is Free, 74

The Magi give gifts to the newborn King Messiah,

“… the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they came into the house, they saw the young child with Miriam his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”
Matthew 2:9-11

The gifts of the Magi have special significance, as illustrated by the Zohar,

 “Sin is red, as it says, “Though your sins be as scarlet”; man puts the sacrificial animal on the fire, which is also red; the priest sprinkles the red blood round the altar, but the smoke ascending to heaven is white. Thus the red is turned to white. The attribute of Justice is turned into the attribute of Mercy. . . R. Issac said: ‘Red (blood) and white (fat) are offered for sacrifice, and the odour ascends from both. The spices of incense are in part red and in part white – frankincense is white, pure myrrh is red – and the odour ascends from red to white.”
Zohar, Volume III, Shemoth 20b. Soncino Press Edition, pg. 6

Rashi cites Onkelos explaining the link between “myrrh” and Moriah, the site of Yitzchak’s sacrifice,

ואונקלוס תרגמו על שם עבודת הקטורת שיש בו מור נרד ושאר בשמים

“Onkelos rendered it [“the land of service”] as alluding to the service of the incense, which contained myrrh [“mor” is phonetically similar to Moriah], spikenard, and other spices.”
Rashi on Genesis 22, cited at Chabad.org

The gifts that are brought to the Messiah are a foreshadow of the Messianic era, in which all of the non-Jews of the world will bring gifts to the King Messiah,

“R. Judah bar Simon taught: The nations of the earth will bring gifts to the King Messiah the son of David, and to Messiah the son of Ephraim. . . the nations will bring gifts to the King Messiah. And as soon as the nations of the earth come to the King Messiah, he will ask: “Are there children of Israel among you? Bring them as gifts to me….”
Midrash Tehilim 87.6, translated by William G. Braude, Yale University Press, pg. 77

HEROD

comet-63145_640

שביט / Comet Lovejoy

“Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”
Matthew 2:7,16

Sights like the star above were believed by the ancients to portend the fall of rulers. When a comet appeared, the crazed emperor Nero later acted in a very similar fashion to Herod,

“It chanced that a comet had begun to appear on several successive nights, a thing which is commonly believed to portend the death of great rulers. Worried by this, and learning from the astrologer Balbillus that kings usually averted such omens by the death of some distinguished man, thus turning them from themselves upon the heads of the nobles, he resolved on the death of all the eminent men of the State…”
Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Book 6, Nero, pg. 188

WHAT WAS THE STAR?

The nature of the star seen over Bethlehem is the subject of debate. The possibilities include a supernova, a comet, a planetary conjunction or a supernatural event. Haley’s comet blazed across the sky in 12BC. German astronomer Johnnes Kepler discovered three conjunctions of the planets Jupiter and Saturn during the year 7BC. Chinese astronomers saw a nova in the year 5BC. In favor of the conjunction hypothesis, Alfred Edersheim mentions, then dismisses, a commentary of Abarbanel, which would support the conjunction hypothesis,

“In his Commentary on Daniel that Rabbi laid it down, that the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces betokened not only the most important events, but referred especially to Israel (for which he gives five mystic reasons). He further argues that, as that conjunction had taken place three years before the birth of Moses, which heralded the first deliverance of Israel, so it would also precede the birth of the Messiah, and the final deliverance of Israel.”
Albert Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Chapter 8

The arguments for and against each position are complex and deserved to be studied in detail. It seems likely, though by no means conclusive, that the star was not a natural phenomenon but a supernatural event.

THE GEULAH

The process of the stars coming out, and finally the dawn breaking upon the world, is a pattern of what the Geulah, Redemption will look like,

“At night, though it be night, one has the light of the moon, the stars, and the planets. Then when is it really dark? Just before dawn! After the moon sets and the stars set and the planets vanish, there is no darkness deeper than the hour before dawn. And in that hour the Holy One answers the world and all that are in it: out of the darkness He brings forth the dawn and gives light to the world. The hind of the dawn [the morning star]–its light rays out as it rises. At the beginning, light comes little by little; then it spreads wider and wider, grows and increases; and at last it bursts into shining glory.”
Sefer HaAggadah, Translated by Schocken Books, citing Midrash Tehillim 22:4 and 22:13; Aggadat Esther 7:10 (ed. Buber, p. 68); B. Yoma 29a

R’ Moshe Alshich (1508–1593) says,

“I see it, but not now,” he refers to the gradual arrival of redemption for Israel, the Mashiach ben Joseph, to whom he refers as “there arose a tribe (rod) in Israel.”
Midrash of R’ Moshe Alshich on the Torah, translated and edited by Eliyahu Munk, pg. 910 

R’ Chayim ben Moshe ibn Attar,

“He also repeats the message about the Messiah but describes him differently each time, i.e. the “star” and “scepter” . . . the entire prophecy concerns the Messiah and is best understood in light of Sanhedrin 98 where the Talmud discusses the meaning of the apparently contradictory prophecy, :as its appointed time, I will hasten it” (Isaiah 60,22). The Talmud explains that the timing of the arrival of the Messiah depends on the conduct of the Jewish people. If they merit it, G’d will accelerate His timetable; if not, the Messiah will arrive at the time appointed for this event…Zachariah 9,9 describes in a vision of the redeemer as being a poor man, riding on the lowly donkey. When Bileam spoke of the arrival of the Messiah as a result of Israel’s merits, he described his arrival as similar to that of a star, i.e. a celestial figure making a prominent appearance in the sky…when Bileam describes the Messiah as a star emerging from Jacob, he refers to the Messiah who is the descendant of David, whereas when he speaks of the Messiah in terms of his being a sceptre rising out of Israel, this is a reference to the Messiah from the tribe of Ephrayim.”
Or HaChayim, Chaim ben Attar, translated by R’ Eliyahu Munk, Lambda Publishers, pg. 1628-1629

Pirke Mashiach says,

“And now we will celebrate the praise of the King Messiah. He is going to arrive ‘with the clouds of heaven,’ and two seraphim will be on his right and on his left, as scripture says: ‘and behold, one like a human being came with the clouds of heaven’ (Dan 7:13). Fiery seraphim will be sent into the palace, and stars will appear like fire in every place during the generation when the son of David comes.”
Pirkei Mashiach, Trajectories in Near Eastern Apocalyptic, Translated by John C. Reeves

The book of Daniel says of the Resurrection,

“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
Daniel 12:2-3

Tali Loewenthal of Chabad.org states,

“To us on earth, looking with the unaided eye and perhaps not thinking too much about the matter, the stars seem tiny and insignificant. Yet in fact, each star is a powerful and unique force. So too is the case with each individual. In the context of the big wide world, he or she might feel insignificant. Yet, in truth, within each one of us there is an inner source of tremendous spiritual power, tailored to the unique and essential task we must carry out in the course of our lives.”
Numbers and Stars, Tali Loewenthal, Chabad.org

THE ULTIMATE STAR

Ancient Jews interpreted the Star of Numbers 24 as the Messiah, as Targum Onkelos states,

“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh When a king shall arise out of Jacob, And the Meshiha be anointed from Israel, He will slay the princes of Moab, and reign over all the children of men;  And Edom shall be an inheritance, and Seir a possession of his adversaries. But Israel shall prosper in riches.One will descend from the house of Jacob, who will destroy him that escapes from the city of the peoples.”
Targum Onkelos to Numbers 24:17

Although not Masorah, the Dead Sea Scrolls interpret the prophecy as follows,

“The star is the Interpreter of the Law who comes to Damascus as it is written, “A star has left Jacob, a staff has risen from Israel” (Numbers 24:17).”
Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 7:19-21, Translated by Abegg, Wise and Cook, pg. 58

The Ramban, R’ Moshe ben Nachman (1194 CE -1270 CE), states,

“THERE SHALL STEP FORTH A STAR OUT OF JACOB. Because the Messiah will gather together the dispersed of Israel from all corners of the earth, Balaam compares him [metaphorically] to a star that passes through the firmament from the ends of heaven, just as it is said about [the Messiah]: and behold, there came with the clouds of heaven, one like unto a son of man etc.”
Ramban, Balak, Translated by Rabbi C. Chavel, Shilo Publishing House, Pg 283

The Maharal of Prague, R’ Judah Loew ben Betzalel (1520CE – 1609CE) says,

“A star shall come forth from Yaakov…” He calls the King Messiah a “star” nivdal [separate, exalted] from man, just as a star is in the firmament and man is on earth. Messiah is described as “exalted, and on high, and exceedingly lofty” [Isa. 52:13], such that he is called “star,” loftier than anything in the universe. The star rules over the world as it circuits the world (Devarim Rabbah 1:14), and the extent of his domain is described by the rest of the verse. The star is not fixed, but shoots across the heavens like zikin [meteors] that leave a trailing light [Rashi, Ber. 58b], with great force.”
Maharal, The Lion Cub of Prague, Volume 3: Numbers, Deuteronomy, translated by Moshe David Kuhr, Gefen Publishing House, pgs. 64-65

The Zohar says,

“Moreover the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun’ (Isa. 30:26), and then will this cause the seventh window to open to the whole world, whose star is the “Star of Jacob”, concerning which Balaam said: ‘There shall come a star out of Jacob’ (Num. 24:17). This star will shine for forty days and forty nights, and when the Messiah shall be revealed and all the nations of the world shall gather around him, then will the verse of Scripture be fulfilled which says: ‘And in that day the root of Jesse which stands for an ensign of the peoples, to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious (Isa. 11:10).'”
Zohar II:172b, Soncino Press Edition

Perhaps we may interpret Numbers 24 as follows,

אֶרְאֶנּוּ וְלֹא עַתָּה אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ וְלֹא קָרֹוב דָּרַךְ כֹּוךָב מִֽיַּעֲקֹב וְקָ֥ם שֵׁבֶט מִיִּשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וּמָחַץ פַּאֲתֵי מֹואָ֔ב וְקַרְקַר כָּל־בְּנֵי־שֵֽׁת

 

“I see him,” He appears, that is Mashiach ben Yosef
“but not now.” He disappears. This is the concealment of the Tzaddik.

“I behold him,” – He reappears, this is Mashiach ben David coming on the clouds of heaven.
“but not near.” – 3500+ years from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu.

“A star will come out of Jacob.” – To be a light to the Gentiles. This is the mission of Yonah HaNavi, and Yosef HaTzaddik, who are in the line of Mashiach ben Yosef.
“A scepter will rise out of Israel” – To rule the nations (Mashiach ben David) with a rod of iron, smashing those who reject his authority like pottery.
Numbers 24:17

Yeshua is indeed the Star and the Scepter, the unification of the two missions of Mashiach. He illuminates the world before he comes to reign, in that the world may have the opportunity to repent and return to the G-d of Israel. In the Book of Revelation, Yeshua says,

אנכי שרש דוד ותולדתו כוכב נגה השחר

  I am the Root and the Offspring of David,
the Bright and Morning Star.”
Revelation 22:16


REFERENCES

  1. Are we really made up of Stardust? – Physics.org
  2. Rashi on Genesis 15:5, Chabad.org
  3. Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:10, Chabad.org
  4. Aggadat HaMashiach – Translated by John C. Reeves, UNC Charlotte
  5. Tefilat R’ Shimon bar Yochai – Translated by John C. Reeves, UNC Charlotte
  6. Nistarot R’ Shimon bar Yochai – Translated by John C. Reeves, UNC Charlotte
  7. Numbers and Stars, Tali Loewenthal, Chabad.org
  8. Zohar, Soncino Press Edition, 5 Vol Set – Amazon.com
  9. The Star of Bethlehem Video – Amazon.com (for informational purposes only)