The Star of David and
the Star of Bethlehem

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, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and ­destroy all the children of Sheth.—Numbers 24:17

Carl Hagensick

Distinguished by its elegant simplicity, the blue Star of David has graced the flag of Israel since the nation’s birth in 1948. Far older than that, archaeologists have found first century carvings of the star in the ruins of the synagogue at Capernaum. Still more ancient findings trace the symbol back to at least the time of King Solomon. Therefore, it may well have been appropriately titled, “The Star of David.”

 The six-pointed star is simply formed by two intertwined triangles set in apposition to each other. It is the purpose of this article to examine the origin and possible meaning of the symbol and the role it may have played in prophecy.

Origin of the Symbol

There are many theories as to the origin of the symbol. Some trace it to Gentile origins. This seems highly unlikely in light of the antiquity of the archaeological findings. Other believe it arose from an occult symbol. This also is not credible since it is found frequently in the ruins of ancient synagogues.

The historic name of the symbol is Magen David (the Shield of David) and Solomon’s Seal (supposedly the design on Solomon’s signet ring). In a well researched article, “Is the Star of David Kosher?” in the magazine Petach Tikvah (Volume 16, Number 4), David Chaimberlin suggests that it was the first and last letters of David’s name (the Hebrew character daleth, which in ancient Hebrew was shaped like a triangle) placed in reverse overlapping positions.

A more appealing suggestion lies in the great aim of David to rule over a united kingdom of Israel. After the death of his predecessor, Saul, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin were the only ones to come under the hegemony of David. The other ten remained loyal to the house of Saul for some seven years.

It was only during the last 33 years of David’s reign and the forty years of Solomon’s rule that all twelve tribes were reunited, before being divided in the schism of Jeroboam shortly after the accession to the throne of Solomon’s son Rehoboam. As a triangle is the architectural form for strength, so David envisioned a strong union between these two Jewish kingdoms. The intertwining of the triangles further suggests this close-knit bond. Additionally, the six-pointed star thus formed has twelve external line segments, one for each of the tribes of Israel.

The Star in Prophecy

“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, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth” (Numbers 24:17).

This prophecy of Balaam has been interpreted by both Jewish and Christian scholars over the centuries as applying to either David or Jesus, or to both. The Targum of Onkelos translates the whole passage thus: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but he is not near. When a king shall arise from the house of Jacob, and the Messiah be anointed from the house of Israel, he shall slay the princes of Moab, and rule over all the children of men.”

The Jewish scholar Moses ben Maimon gave it a dual application. “I shall see him, but not now. This is David.—I shall behold him, but not nigh. This is the king Messiah.—A Star shall come out of Jacob. This is David.—And a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel. This is the king Messiah.—And shall smite the corners of Moab. This is David (as it is written, 2 Samuel 8:2: ‘And he smote Moab, casting them down to the ground.’)—And shall destroy all the children of Sheth. This is the king Messiah (of whom it is written, Psalm 72:8, ‘He shall have dominion from sea to sea’).” Both the great Maimonides and Rabbi Ben Ezra agree with this interpretation.

Certainly Genesis 49:10 applies the scepter to both David and Jesus, “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” This dual application seems supported also in Revelation 22:16. “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.”

All agree, however, that if there be a dual significance to the prophecy, the application to King David is only prototypical, the emphasis being on the Messiah, of whom David is but a picture.

In the second century, some sixty years after the Roman armies under Titus overthrew Jerusalem, a revolt against the Roman government in Judea was fomented under the leadership of Simon bar Kosiba. The leading rabbi of the time, Rabbi Akiba, drummed up support for the rebel leader by changing his name to Bar Cochba, “son of the star” and proclaiming him to be the Messianic fulfillment of the prophecy of Balaam.

Initially successful to the extent of driving the armies of the Roman general Hadrian completely out of Judea, Bar Cochba retreated, allowing the occupying forces to regroup, re-enter Palestine and defeat the guerrilla leader in a massive slaughter both in Jerusalem and at the Herodium fortress near Bethlehem.

The Star of Bethlehem

John Gill, in his commentary, suggests that Numbers 24:17 could be better rendered: “When a star steers its course unto Jacob, then a scepter-bearer shall rise up unto Israel.” This would indicate that the star would be an index finger pointing to the prophesied owner of the scepter, the right to the government of Israel. Thus it is natural to look for an application of the Balaam prophecy to the star which guided the Magi to the manger where Jesus was born1

As the Magi came from the East, so Ba­laam was a prophet who lived in Pethor, on the west bank of the Euphrates, and journeyed from the Northeast to deliver his prophecy in the plains of trans-Jordan. As the “Star of David” may well have been the coat of arms on the shields of David’s forces (as the title “Magen David” or shield of David suggests), and would have marked his military coming, so the star of Bethlehem marked the coming of the greater than David.

The Magi were supposedly followers of Zarathustra (Zoroaster). Both Darius and Cyrus were thought to be Zoroastrians and thus the influence of both the prophecies of Balaam and of Daniel may have been known by these leaders. The religion arose in the city of Harat, now in Afghanistan near the Iranian border. The leader of the group bore the title of Rab-Mag, or Chief Magi (wise man), a post filled by Daniel (Daniel 2:48) and later by Nergalsharezar in the time of Zedekiah (Jeremiah 39:13).

Noting the similarities between the star of Balaam’s prophecy and the star the Magi followed, the commentator Lange writes: “The star which the wise men from the East saw and which led them to the newborn king of the Jews, clearly refers to the prophecy of Balaam. It was not the [literal] star which he foretold, which he saw, but not nigh. That star was Christ. The Star which appeared to them announced that the star which Balaam foretold had now risen out of Jacob in the birth of the king of the Jews. These Magi, like Balaam, were from the East. They were engaged in similar pursuits, devoting their lives to the study of science, men whose disposition would lead them to study eagerly the revelation made to the people of God scattered widely throughout the known world. They would naturally be drawn to the predictions of Balaam, one of their own class from their own country. God unfolded to their minds, which were already filled with a longing for the star out of Jacob foretold by Balaam, the meaning of the star which proclaimed the fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy” (Lange’s Commentary, vol. 2, p. 143).

The Prophecy of Balaam

The prophecy of Balaam (Numbers 24:17-24) which treats first King David, and then more importantly King Jesus, gives a thumbnail sketch of Jewish history from the conquest of Canaan to the establishment of Messiah’s kingdom. The prophecy is easily identifiable in four sections, each opening with the expression, “and [he] took up his parable.”

Section 1—Verses 17-19. The emphasis here appears to be mainly on King David, whose conquest of Moab is narrated in 2 Samuel 8:1, 2 and of Edom in 2 Samuel 8:14. David, in his poem celebrating this victory, seems to refer to the latter part of verse 18 when he writes in Psalm 60:12, “Through God we will do valiantly for he it is that shall tread down our enemies.” The term “children of Sheth” is somewhat ambiguous, some applying it to Seth as, through Noah, being the progenitor of the human race and showing eventual Jewish dominion over the entire world. Others apply it to a Moabite king whose name has been lost, and still others to the Egyptian Pharaoh Shethi, also known as Egyptus. Verse 19 may refer to the expansionist policies of David, completed by Solomon, to bring the kingdom of Israel to the apex of its glory.

Section 2—Verse 20. This verse looks backward from the time of Balaam to Israel’s first battle of the Exodus. This battle at Rephidim is narrated in Exodus 17. Though the victory there was great, it was only partial and Moses commanded the people to completely wipe out the Amalekites (Deuteronomy 25:19). A second failure to obey this command came in the days of King Saul (1 Samuel 15:8, 9). David further decimated their ranks (1 Samuel 27:8,9). The residue were slain in the days of Hezekiah (1 Chronicles 4:41-43).

Section 3—Verses 21, 22. This section covers the time period from Balaam’s day forward to the Assyrian captivity of the northern kingdom of Israel. They appear to be identified with the Midianites since Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, is called both a Midianite and a Kenite (Exodus 3:1; Judges 1:16). From the fact that the Kenites are included in the list of tribes to be dispossessed by Israel in Genesis 15, but not in the list of those to be conquered after the crossing of Jordan, we may conclude that their homeland was east of the Jordan river. Most scholars place the main encampment of the Kenites near present day Eilat, at the north end of the Red Sea. Since the above facts are in apparent conflict with each other, it is most probable that the name was not a tribal distinction, but rather refers to their trade, the word “Kenite” meaning artisan or craftsman. Thus they would settle wherever the trade routes plied their traffic, including the main caravan routes which went through either Seir or Damascus. In the days of the divided kingdom, they would have been active particularly in the northern kingdom. Thus, this passage ends with their being taken captive by Assyria.

Section 4—Verses 23, 24. Now the prophetic vision of Balaam leaps many years into the future, to a time when none who witnessed the Assyrian captivity would still be alive, to a time when the prophet asks, “Who shall live when God doeth this?” He deals with the destruction of the Assyrian empire, which became absorbed successively by the Babyloni­ans, the Medes and the Persians. This conquest, we are told, would come at the hands of “the ships of Chittim.”

Chittim (a son of Javan, associated with Greece) is positively identified in the Apocrypha. “And it happened, after that Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came out of the land of Chettiim, had smitten Darius king of the Persians and Medes, that he reigned in his stead, the first over Greece” (1 Maccabees 1:1). This is further confirmed in 1 Maccabees 8:5, “Besides this, how they had discomfited in battle Philip and Perseus, king of the Citims, with other that lifted up themselves against them, and had overcome them.”

Thus we progress rapidly to the third of the universal empires seen in the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel (Daniel 2 and 7). These empires are further identified as being those who would “afflict Eber,” the ancestor from whom the Hebrews derived their name. Jump­ing still farther forward, Balaam concludes that Greece (and Rome which conquered it) would also “perish forever.”

This would come when the great antitypical David, the Messiah of Israel, would stand on behalf of Daniel’s people, the descendants of Israel, in the end times of history (Daniel 12:1). Then the star of Balaam and the star of Bethlehem will arise as “the sun of righteousness with healing in his wings” to inaugurate his kingdom of universal peace and justice (Malachi 4:2).

1. For a comprehensive treatment of the star of Bethlehem, please see Beauties of the Truth, Volume 1, Number 2, December 1980.