Why Did the Magi Go to Herod?

A friend recently asked me this Bible knowledge question:

Why did the magi approach King Herod? After all, doing so provoked him to slaughter the boys in Bethlehem, 2 yrs. and younger (Matthew 2:1-12). If they hadn’t gone to Herod, wouldn’t that have prevented this unnecessary carnage?

Here is some helpful, related Bible study information in reply:

Who are the magi?

The magi (or wise men) were men having a longstanding tradition of studying the stars, planets and other astronomical phenomena. Most likely from the Babylon/Mesopotamia/Fertile Crescent region, they received broad respect. In contrast, they were not evil magicians and astrologers associated with the occult.

Now, when we recount the story and sing our famous hymns about the birth of Jesus, we usually promote certain details which are not accurate.

  • We say that there were three wise men, but we don’t know the actual number. In fact, there were probably many more than three, forming a large entourage. So why do we say three? Because three gifts are mentioned in Matt. 2:11 – gold, frankincense and myrrh. But these are the three kinds of gifts they gave to Jesus, not the number. They gave Christ gold, frankincense and myrrh, in unknown quantities.
  • We also imagine that they appeared at the house where Jesus was born, when Jesus was laying in the manger. But the wise men believed that Jesus had already been born when they arrived in Jerusalem (Matt. 2:2), needed adequate time (as much as 1-2 years) to make the journey by land and met Joseph, Mary and Jesus in a house where they resided, not a cave (Matt. 2:11)

Why did they travel to Jerusalem?

As scholars, the magi studied the movements, cycles, patterns and occurrences of the many celestial bodies in the solar system. They also studied various historical documents, prophecies and oral traditions passed down through generations and cultures, tracing back to the earliest generations. They may actually have believed in the Messiah prophesied throughout the Old Testament, who would be Jesus Christ. Their research and awareness of Old Testament prophecies would have confronted them with this information.

Daniel (and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) appear to have been a part of this magi tradition, or somehow related or intersected with it. The ancient Babylonian Empire would take prisoners from the nations they defeated. They would recruit men, like Daniel, from each captive nation who would be able to provide them with key insights from their background, culture, religion and tradition – looking to expand their wisdom as an Empire.

We know that Daniel was very wise, that he enjoyed leadership and influence over the empire and over the wise men and counselors to the king(s) of the Bablyonian and Syrian empires. We also know that he rigorously studied the Old Testament Scriptures available to him to learn more about God’s prophecies and promises to the Jewish nation.

In one instance, Numbers 24:17, God prophesied about the coming Messiah, speaking through Balaam (who was a Mesopotamian).

I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.

If the magi were aware of this prophecy, they would have associated a future star rising from the direction of the nation of Israel with a future king rising to reign over Israel. When they noticed an unusual or noteworthy phenomenon in the sky regarding a star of some kind or another rising over Israel, they would have recognized this as a potentially significant occurrence. So they acted on what they observed and followed the star to Israel.

What actually happened when they arrived at Jerusalem?

Considering the question at hand, being “why did the magi approach King Herod,” we should notice that the magi did not immediately present themselves to King Herod. They expected to find a king who had been born somewhere in the nation of Israel, but they didn’t have a more specific location in mind. So they traveled to the most logical destination, the capital city of Israel – Jerusalem.

After they entered the city, they asked people they encountered for the whereabouts of the boy who had been born, King of the Jews. Word of these guests and their questions reached King Herod, which prompted him to do two things.

  • First, he summoned the local Jewish religious leaders and OT scholars, the scribes. He asked them where a prophesied King of the Jews might be born. They cited Micah 5:2 (cf. Matt. 2:6), but didn’t seem to know that this event had already occurred.
  • Second, he summoned the visiting wise men to a private meeting with himself. He told them the answer to their question, where the King of the Jews might be born – Bethlehem. This was the detail they didn’t know. And in exchange for this vital information, Herod asked them when the star had appeared so that he would have a point of reference to know how old the child might be already.

At the conclusion of Herod’s two meetings, he instructed the magi to return to him to report on their visit and the whereabouts of this child, after they had found him. Only after they visited Jesus did God warn them to have no further communication with Herod. They had no such warning earlier, and they had never initiated the meeting with Herod.

So why did the magi approach Herod?

  • First, they had no instructions from God to stay clear of Herod.
  • Second, they probably didn’t know that Herod was maddeningly obsessed with protecting his newfound title, given by Rome, as the King of the Jews.
  • Third, they didn’t know where in Israel the child would be born. (Note: The book of Daniel was probably written by Daniel in Babylon about 500 years before the birth of Christ. The book of Malachi was probably written about 100 years later. Unlike the prophecy of Balaam, in Num. 24:17, Daniel and subsequent wise men would not have had access to Malachi, though they would have had access to Numbers. So the wise men knew when the Messiah had been born (Num. 24:17) and the Jerusalem rabbis knew where the Messiah would be born (Micah 6:2), and God used Herod to bring these two facts together, which made it possible for the wise men to locate Jesus.

Have you ever observed a star? The star can point you in a general direction (north, south, east and west), but due to various geographical, special and astronomical factors, it is difficult to say that a star is situated above a particular city, what’s more a small village like Bethlehem, and what’s more, a particular house in Bethlehem!

The wise men knew enough from Numbers 24:17 and their observation of the movement of the stars to go to Israel, and then naturally to the capital city, Jerusalem. Once there, they inquired for more information about where in Israel the King of the Jews had been born.

What can we learn from this account? We learn that while the sitting King of the Jews (Herod) and eventually Jerusalem and the Jewish nation in general would seek to destroy the Messiah, there were Gentile scholars from a place like Bablyon who were actually looking for the Messiah and wanting to worship Him! The birth of Christ was something that some Gentiles in the world were looking for even more than the Jewish nation!

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