Can we believe in Epiphany?

Three_wise_men_6th_Century_Roman_MosaicThe Feast of the Epiphany in the church’s liturgical calendar is based on the events of Matt 2.1–12, the visit of the ‘wise men’ from the East to the infant Jesus. There are plenty of things about the story which might make us instinctively treat it as just another part of the constellation of Christmas traditions, which does not have very much connection with reality.

The first is the sparseness of the story. As with other parts of the gospels, the details are given to us in bare outline compared with what we are used to in modern literature. We are told little of the historical reality that might interest us, and the temptation is to fill in details for ourselves. This leads to the second issue—the development of sometimes quite elaborate traditions which do the work of filling in for us. So these ‘magoi’ (which gives us our word ‘magic’) became ‘three’ (because of the number of their gifts), then ‘wise men’ and then ‘kings’ (probably under the influence of Ps 72.10. By the time of this Roman mosaic from the church in Ravenna built in 547, they have even acquired names. Christopher Howse comments:

[T]hink how deeply these three men have entered our imagination as part of the Christmas story. “A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey, in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, the very dead of winter.”

Those words, in a tremendous sermon by Lancelot Andrewes that King James I heard on Christmas Day 1622, were brilliantly stolen by TS Eliot and incorporated into his poem The Journey of the Magi. And we can see it all: the camels’ breath steaming in the night air as the kings, in their gorgeous robes of silk and cloth-of-gold and clutching their precious gifts, kneel to adore the baby in the manger.

Yet, that is not entirely what the Gospel says…

In response to this, critical scholarship has moved in the other direction, and by and large has pulled apart Matthew’s story and confidently decided it that none of it actually happened. Instead, it was constructed by Matthew out of a series of OT texts in order to tell us the real significance of Jesus. So Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in The First Christmas: what the gospels really teach about Jesus’ birth, come to this conclusion:

In our judgement, there was no special star, no wise men and no plot by Herod to kill Jesus. So is the story factually true? No. But as a parable, is it true? For us as Christians, the answer is a robust affirmative. Is Jesus light shining in the darkness? Yes. Do the Herods of this world seek to extinguish the light? Yes, Does Jesus still shine in the darkness? Yes. (p 184).

The approach presents problems of its own. For one, the stories are not presented as parables, but in continuity with the events Matthew relates in Jesus’ life later in the gospel. For another, if God in Jesus did not outwit Herod, on what grounds might we think he can outwit ‘the Herods of this world’? More fundamentally, Matthew and his first readers appeared to believe that the claims about Jesus were ‘parabolically true’ because these things actually happened. If none of them did, what grounds do we now have? Even if the events we read about are heavily interpreted, there is an irreducible facticity in testimony; if this has gone, we ought to question the value of the testimony itself.

A good working example of this approach is found in Paul Davidson’s blog. Davidson is a professional translator, rather than a biblical studies academic, but he offers a good outline of what critical scholarship has to say about Matthew’s nativity.

His basic assumption is that Matthew is a ‘multi-layered’ document—Matthew is writing from the basis of other, differing sources. He takes over large parts of Mark’s gospel, as does Luke, and Matthew and Luke never agree in contradiction to Mark, a key piece of the argument of ‘Marcan priority’, that Mark was earlier than either of the other two. Whether or not you believe in the existence of the so-called Q, another early written source (and with Mark Goodacre, I don’t), Matthew is clearly dealing with some pre-existing material, oral or written. It is striking, for example, that Joseph is a central character in Matthew’s account before and after the story of the magi, and is the key actor in contrast to Luke’s nativity, where the women are central. Yet in this section (Matt 2.1–12) the focus is on ‘the child’ or ‘the child and his mother Mary’ (Matt 2.9, 2.11; see also Matt 2.14, 20 and 21). Some scholars therefore argue that this story comes from a different source, and so might be unhistorical.

This is where we need to start being critical of criticism. Handling texts in this way requires the making of some bold assumptions, not least that of author invariants. If a change of style indicates a change of source, then this can only be seen if the writer is absolutely consistent in his (or her) own writing, and fails to make the source material his or her own. In other words, we (at 20 centuries distant) need to be a lot smarter than the writer him- or herself. Even a basic appreciation of writing suggests that authors are just not that consistent.

Davidson goes on in his exploration to explain the story of the star in terms of OT source texts.

The basis for the star and the magi comes from Numbers 22–24, a story in which Balaam, a soothsayer from the east (and a magus in Jewish tradition) foretells the coming of a great ruler “out of Jacob”. Significantly, the Greek version of this passage has messianic overtones, as it replaces “sceptre” in 24:17 with “man.”

He is quite right to identify the connections here; any good commentary will point out these allusions, and it would be surprising if Matthew, writing what most would regard as a ‘Jewish’ gospel, was not aware of this. But if he is using these texts as a ‘source’, he is not doing a very good job. The star points to Jesus, but Jesus is not described as a ‘star’, and no gospels make use of this as a title. In fact, this is the only place where the word ‘star’ occurs in the gospel. (It does occur as a title in Rev 22.16, and possibly in 2 Peter 1.19, but neither make any connection with this passage.)

Next, Davidson looks at the citation in Matt 2.5–6, which for many critical scholars provides the rationale for a passage explaining that Jesus was born in Bethlehem when he is otherwise universally known as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (19 times in all four gospels and Acts). But, as Davidson points out, Matthew has to work hard to get these texts to help him. For one, he has to bolt together two texts which are otherwise completely unconnected, from Micah 5.2 and 2 Sam 5.2. Secondly, he has to change the text of Micah 5.2 so that:

  • Bethlehem, the ‘least’ of the cities of Judah, now becomes ‘by no means the least’;
  • the well-known epithet ‘Ephrathah’ becomes ‘Judah’ to make the geography clear; and
  • the ‘clans’ becomes ‘clan leader’ i.e. ‘ruler’ to make the text relevant.

Moreover, Matthew is making use of a text which was not known as ‘messianic’; in the first century, the idea that messiah had to come from Bethlehem as a son of David was known but not very widespread.

All this is rather bad news for those who would argue that Jesus’ birth was carefully planned to be a literal fulfilment of OT prophecy. But it is equally bad news for those who argue that Matthew made the story up to fit such texts, and for exactly the same reason. Of course, Matthew is working in a context where midrashic reading of texts means that they are a good deal more flexible than we would consider them. But he is needing to make maximum use of this flexibility, and the logical conclusion of this would be that he was constrained by the other sources he is using—by the account he has of what actually happened.

St Denis 2012 - 26 - Version 2Davidson now turns to consider the magi and the star. He notes a certain coherence up to the point where the magi arrive in Jerusalem.

So far, the story makes logical sense despite its theological problems (e.g. the fact that it encourages people to believe in the “deceptive science of astrology”, as Strauss noted). The star is just that: a star.

Then everything changes. The star is transformed into an atmospheric light that guides the magi right from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where it hovers over a single house—the one where the child is. We are no longer dealing with a distant celestial body, but something else entirely, like a pixie or will-o’-the-wisp.

Here again critical assumptions need some critical reflection. Matthew’s inclusion of magi is theologically very problematic indeed. Simon Magus and Elymas (Acts 8.9, 13.8) hardly get a good press, not surprising in light of OT prohibitions on sorcery, magic and astrology. Western romanticism has embraced the Epiphany as a suggestive mystery, but earlier readings (like that of Irenaeus) saw the point as the humiliation of paganism; the giving of the gifts was an act of submission and capitulation to a greater power. For Matthew the Jew, they are an unlikely and risky feature to include, especially when Jesus is clear he has come to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 10.6, 15.24).

There have been many attempts to explain the appearance of the star scientifically. The best contenders are a comet (for which there is no independence evidence), a supernova (observed by the Chinese in 4 BC) or the conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn in the constellation Pisces. I think the latter is the best candidate; Jupiter signified ‘leader’, Saturn denoted ‘the Westland’, and Pisces stood for ‘the end of the age’. So this conjunction would communicate to astrologers ‘A leader in the Westland [Palestine] in the end days.’ This highlights a key problem with Davidson’s criticism; the issue is not whether a star could in fact indicate a particular house in our, modern scientific terms. This is clearly impossible. The real issue is whether Matthew thought it could—or even whether Matthew thought the magi thought it could. As Dick France highlights in his NICNT commentary, this was actually a common understanding for which we have documentary evidence. And any naturalistic explanations miss Matthew’s central point: this was something miraculous provided by God. If you don’t think the miraculous is possible, you are bound to disbelieve Matthew’s story—but on the basis of your own assumptions, not on any criteria of historical reliability or the nature of Matthew’s text.

Davidson cites the 19th-century rationalist critic David Friedrich Strauss in his objection to the plausibility of Herod’s action:

With regard to Herod’s instructions to report back to him, Strauss notes that surely the magi would have seen through his plan at once. There were also less clumsy methods Herod might have used to find out where the child was; why did he not, for example, send companions along with the magi to Bethlehem?

In fact, we know from Josephus that Herod had a fondness for using secret spies. And in terms of the story, the magi are unaware of Herod’s motives; we are deploying our prior knowledge of the outcome to decide what we think Herod ought to have done, which is hardly a good basis for questioning Matthew’s credibility.

botticelli-c-1475-adoration-of-the-magiFinally, we come to the arrival of the magi at the home of the family. Interestingly, Matthew talks of their ‘house’ (Matt 2.11) which supports the idea that Jesus was not born in a stable—though from the age of children Herod has executed (less than two years) we should think of the magi arriving some time after the birth. No shepherds and magi together here!

Davidson again sees (with critical scholars) this event constructed from OT texts:

According to Brown, Goulder (2004), and others, the Old Testament provided the inspiration for the gifts of the magi. This passage is an implicit citation of Isaiah 60.3, 6 and Psalm 72.10, 15, which describe the bringing of gifts in homage to the king, God’s royal son.

But again, the problem here is that Matthew’s account just doesn’t fit very well. Given that these OT texts uniformly mention kings, not magi, if Matthew was constructing his account from these, why choose the embarrassing astrologers? And why three gifts rather than two? Where has the myrrh come from? Again, it is Irenaeus who first interprets the gifts as indicators of kingship, priesthood and sacrificial death respectively, but Matthew does not appear to do so. In the narrative, they are simply extravagant gifts fit for the true ‘king of the Jews’. Subsequent tradition has to do the work that Matthew has here failed to do, and make the story fit the prophecies rather better than Matthew has managed to.

Davidson closes his analysis of this section with a final observation from Strauss:

If the magi can receive divine guidance in dreams, why are they not told in a dream to avoid Jerusalem and go straight to Bethlehem in the first place? Many innocent lives would have been saved that way.

Clearly, God could have done a much better job of the whole business. But it rather appears as though Matthew felt unable to improve on what happened by fitting it either to the OT texts or his sense of what ought to have happened.

The modern reader might struggle with aspects of Matthew’s story. But it seems to me you can only dismiss it by making a large number of other, unwarranted assumptions.

(First published in 2015)

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20 thoughts on “Can we believe in Epiphany?”

  1. Oh dear,
    I’m so pleased not to be a biblical scholar, but I am pleased that you are, Ian!
    I’m not sure I find this useful in my walk with Christ, though it is useful to know the influences and influencers in the academy that filter down to the church, teachers and leaders.
    What I found interesting, a while ago now, was listening to a talk on the Mere Fidelity Podcast, where Andrew Wilson, Alistair Roberts, Mat Anderson, (I think they were the interlocutors) hosted a talk with Tim Keller. Keller described himself as a practitioner rather than a theologian.
    He’s enough of a theologian for me and would that there were more practitioners. There are others, I’m pleased to say.

  2. >Matthew is making use of a text which was not known as ‘messianic’; in the first century, the idea that messiah had to come from Bethlehem as a son of David was known but not very widespread.

    >He is quite right to identify the connections [to Num 22-24] here; any good commentary will point out these allusions.<

    So what are the connections? It seems to me you have made a good case for saying they are not evident at all.

    I wonder what the evidence for this is. In any case, Herod asked the theologians a specific question: where was Messiah to be born? Micah 5:2 is then the best answer. To my knowledge there are no other prophecies indicating his birthplace.

  3. I suppose we just need to know wise men from the East came to pay homage to the Messiah.

    Thank you for your contemporary academic rigour Ian.

  4. In this article, the stable-family room issue is bought up again. Is the idea that Joseph would have gone to one family and asked to stay and having been told they only had room where the family and animals slept been compelled to accept and wouldn’t have tried to find elsewhere? And that they would have been compelled by hospitality to offer it?

    • It seems reasonable to assume that the visit of the Magi was some time after Jesus’ birth, perhaps over a year. So the circumstances could have been very different. What is needed is to understand why the family remained in Bethlehem for that length of time.

      In the comments to Ian’s ‘was there a stable’ post of 2018 there was raised a very interesting idea: Bethlehem was Joseph’s home prior to the birth of Jesus. The journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Luke 2:5), with Mary described as his betrothed, is the journey from the bride’s home to the bridegroom’s home, after the ceremony at the former and for the ceremony at the latter. It seems unlikely that a man would travel with his wife-to-be under other circumstances. If there is a hurry because of the census, perhaps that is because of Joseph’s desire to ensure that the baby is born in wedlock, takes his name, and that is recognised by the authorities conducting the census.

      So, the reason that the family remained in Bethlehem is because it was Joseph’s home.

      The family flees to Egypt, and after Herod’s death they return. However, Bethlehem would still seem risky and perhaps given what happened there, their presence might not have been welcome. So, it would be natural to go to Nazareth, as they have Mary’s family there, and it is the other end of the country, well away from Jerusalem.

      Why does a girl from Nazareth marry a man from Bethlehem? When Mary finds out that she is to bear Jesus, she goes to her relative Elizabeth who is in the hill country of Judea. Bethlehem is in the hill country of Judea. So, there could well be a connection of friends and family to arrange the marriage.

  5. I have to admit at one time I thought that the birth narratives, especially this one in Matthew were literary constructs which while they were metaphorically true as myth did not contain reliable historical content. Well that was what some of the scholars and commentators said. It was all a bit airy fairy, mysterious men from the East…who were they, what were they doing there? How likely was this at all – would these wandering fortune tellers have been received by Herod, his court and had an impact which would throw Jerusalem into panic? What kind of interest would THEY have had in announcing a future King of the Jews? Well I used to think that – but that was a result of very sloppy critical scholarship, Having continued in my reading and studying in the field of ancient history as well as Biblical studies I have grown to understand that the story in Matthew is credible and likely and quite frankly I believe it thoroughly, from the coming of the Magi to the flight and return from Egypt. To understand the story of the Magi you need a good appreciation of the geo-politics of the time, as well as the religious situation. Without this you will flounder and make wild stabs in the dark as to the historical anchor of Matthew 2 and may well end up, like I did consigning it to the category of “myth” – a story constructed to teach truths but not necessarily being true in itself. While this may be ok in some holy literature, as far as the Gospels are concerned this sits uncomfortably with me, particularly if it is poorly done.

    Lets talk about the political situation in Israel at the time. Herod is in power as an ethnarc – ruling over the Jews. How did he get there? The Roman general, Pompey had invaded and in 63BC put an end to Jewish independence and carved up the state of Israel. Herod, the son of an advisor to Julius Ceasar was appointed governor of Galilee in 47BC and then in 41 BC promoted to tetrarch by Mark Anthony and in 39BC the senate exclusively proclaims him “ King of the Jews because his reign of terror brought in plenty of taxes to the coffers of Rome. However during this time he had to contend with the Parthians – who were in essence Persians.

    The Parthian empire was second only to Rome. The Parthians ruled from 247 BC to 224 AD creating a vast empire that stretched from the Mediterranean in the west to India and China in the east. East of the Caspian Sea there emerged from the steppe of Central Asia a nomadic Scythian tribe called the Parni. Later called the Parthians and taking over the Seleucid Empire and fending off the Romans, they established themselves as a superpower in their own right. They were especially proficient in cavalry fighting using light cavalry horse archers and heavily armoured cataphracts. It was an equine culture, the Parthians only had a relatively small standing army but could call upon militia whose culture equipped them for this means of combat. Camels were used for baggage only….

    The Parthians took advantage of the Roman infighting of the later years of the 1st century BC. They intervened in the region sending 500 warriors and in AD40 placed Antigonus II on the throne of Judea and made him High Priest while the unpopular Herod retreated to his fortress in Masada. However as the Romans reorganised and re-established their influence in the area they defeated the Parthians in Syria who pulled their expeditionary force back to their former borders. Herod then fought a war with the assistance of Mark Anthony to regain control of Judea, culminating with the defeat of Antigonus in 37BC and his subsequent brutal execution by Mark Antony. At various times there was peace and at other times disputes between Rome and Parthia. The Parthians were ever watchful of their borders and like the Romans persisted in trying to influence the buffer states along their borders. The traffic though was two way, as Herod attempted to influence the Jewish population within the Parthian empire by deposing the local priests and instead appointing priests to the Jerusalem temple from this Jewish diaspora.

    Now what is of primary importance is the term Magi. Yes the term has been used of some individuals using supernatural powers “magic” as a means of making a living – but the primary usage and common understanding of the term Magi is related to the “tribe” of priests who acted almost like a religious civil service to the various empires of the area, from the Babylonian through to the Medo-Persian era and then to the Parthians. Josephus tells us that no one could be King in Parthia unless they knew the ways of the Magi and were supported by the Magi who some understood to operate in a not dissimilar way to a US senate. They were indeed the not the Kings but they were the power behind the throne – the King makers. You may remember in the book of Daniel that Daniel is appointed chief of the Magi. They had a reputation throughout the region for being educated, wise, learned, religious priests with knowledge of religion from previous empires to that of Zoroastrainsim, the prevalent religion of the Parthian empire. Conventional learning was interlaced with astrology, alchemy and other esoteric knowledge.

    As Herod’s life was drawing to a close there was plenty of public debate concerning his succession – Herod had 11 Sons (and five daughters) but was subject to Roman support.. In 7 BC he executed his own sons Alexander and Aristobulos because he believed they were plotting regicide and a coup and again in 4 BC he had his favourite son, his eldest, Antipater executed for the same reason causing Augustus Ceasar (who was no pussycat) to remark “Better to be Herod’s (hus) pig than his (hious) son. Many other members of the family were also casualties including his favourite wife, Mariamne as were various members of his staff. There was much uncertainty as to his succession as Herod’s will changed more than once and on top of this the population were ready for revolt – which did in fact come to pass at Herod’s death in 4BC. Herod used secret police, spies and brutality to achieve his ends. He suffered depression and paranoia throughout his life and was now suffering according to Josephus suffering gangrene, severe itching, convulsions and ulcers. His feet were covered with tumours and he had constant fevers.

    It is to this scenario that the Magi (King makers) came from Parthia (the neighbouring empire with a track record) seeking “he who is to be born King of the Jews” causing a huge amount of anguish to both Herod’s court and the establishment in Jerusalem. The Herodian appointed Priests who depended on his patronage would have been as disturbed as Herod himself at the news of a new King. Had these strangers been wandering Gypsylike fortune tellers they would neither have gained access to Herod’s court or been given any credibility. However as they were the respected Magi – the Parthian religious civil service they received a hearing. We don’t know how many Magi there were, there is no record, but it is likely they arrived with an escort and would have been protected both physically and diplomatically from any action that Herod may have desired to bring against them.

    It was not uncommon for astronomical events to be interpreted through astrology and significant potents such as comets or conjunctions of stars could signify a shift in the order of events on earth. This is what has alerted the Magi in Matthew’s story and they go seeking the new King of the Jews as it is in their interest to honour him as future good relations with this new King will stand them (the Parthians) in good stead. Herod (as may be expected) sees this as a threat and seeks to eliminate the new King. The Magi are warned in a dream to return by another route – and as we know from Daniel, was the bread and butter of Magi.

    In so many modern day depictions of Magi they are riding camels. If, as I believe the extremely persuasive evidence indicates that they were Parthians, there is as much hope them arriving on a camel as there would be of a chapter of bikers opting to travel in a van rather than on a bike. Camels were for luggage and yes they would have had some of this, but horses were for personal transport and the few depictions there are in the history of art of Magi on horseback, have got it right.

    So I now do believe the story of the Magi in Matthew 2 to be credible and likely. As was the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt – who in the light of the rebellion against Herod’s family in 4BC (and the subsequent brutal massacre, rape and enslavement of Jews following Varrus’ punitive recapture of the land when he sent in FOUR whole legions, laid waste to the land and crucified 2000 Galileans alone for rebellion) would have not been the only refugees fleeing the middle East in bloody and uncertain times.

    • Many thanks for your work and progress in moving from the promulgated myth to historical weight

      Clearly necessary from your intro. and for some audiences. I think of national figure in Methodism, speaking “evangistically” locally, at Christmas, pronouncing that you don’t want to get hung up about the miraculous virgin birth when in fact the dual nature of Jesus, fully man, fully God, is central; there is no Good News without.

      At the same time your comment adds gospel weight to who Jesus is, was seen to be and to gospel reliability. Thanks for your perseverance.

        • One might add that camels are a much more suitable means of transport when crossing the desert than horses, so in point of fact the magi are likely to have used camels.

          • It’s an interesting assumption that they crossed a dessert. Abram in his journeying from Ur seems most likely to, in part, have followed the Euphrates… crossing into current day Turkey and then south via Alleppo (hence the tradition that it was named in association with him or at least his vows!). Why would the Magi not have used the existing trade routes? Camels bearing goods became a vast enterprise. The remaining caravanesserai, though much later in their present form are not small things.

            But the “desert” East isn’t exactly shifting sands. Our Syrian guide described it as “steppe”. Out of apparently nowhere you suddenly see sheep…. and remote, primitive villages, still exist.

  6. Hi Ian,
    a great article on a very difficult passage.
    I have always thought that the star was not a real star but the light of God’s presence.
    This is how God appears and leads in the Old Testament and continues in the New with the Mount of Transfiguration and the incident with Saul, why would God use another method.
    Neil Houlton

  7. Yes, ultimately very apposite. But for ‘AD40’ read ‘40 BC’ and there is debate over the date of Herod’s death – current scholarship tends to favour 1 BC. See also David Wilson’s comment above: ‘It seems reasonable to assume that the visit of the Magi was some time after Jesus’ birth, perhaps over a year.’ The magi were seeking one who had already been born (Matt 2:2), not “he who is to be born”. This would have been after the 40th day when Jesus was presented at the Temple. We need not suppose that they ‘returned’ to Galilee (Luke 2:39) immediately after the presentation. In the light of Matthew’s account, they were returning from exile – possibly the prime meaning. In the other direction they were returning to Nazareth, which was Mary’s town but not Joseph’s. It seems Luke was including Joseph, the adoptive parent, in what was essentially Mary’s story – hence the plural in Luke 2:22a (Leviticus did not require Joseph to be purified). The same phrase ‘returned to’ first appears at Luke 1:56, where Mary returns to her home.

    Likewise ‘their relatives’ in Luke 2:44 would be her relatives if Joseph’s relatives lived in Bethlehem and after the Feast returned home in the opposite direction.

    That the Magi visited possibly a year or so after the birth is suggested by the slaughter of infants under 2 years of age. Then followed the flight to Egypt, and only after that the dream saying it was safe to return because Herod was dead. If Herod died in 4 BC, that implies that Jesus was born c. 6 BC or earlier, which is too early if he was 30 years of age in AD 27, the most likely year when he began his ministry.

    The magi were not inquiring after a king who would in due time be Herod’s successor, but after one who was king of the Jews from birth. Herod understood, possibly independently, that they were seeking the long-awaited Messiah (Matt 2:4). He then asked the theologians a specific question: where was the Messiah to be born? Citing Micah 5:2, they gave the right answer, and they went to the right place for the answer. I may be wrong, but to my knowledge no other prophecies in the OT indicated his birthplace.

    I struggle with the plausibility of Gentile magi looking to worship a foreign Messiah, travelling such a great distance and offering such expensive gifts. John mentions that Daniel was appointed chief of the magi, and that later there was a Jewish population within the Parthian empire. It could be that the magi in Matthew were Jews – in which case the modern interpretation of the magi has been entirely misconceived!

    Finally, when they did not report back, Herod was furious, but not because they had ‘outwitted’ him as translations wrongly have it (Matt 2:16), but because he was ‘mocked’ (enepaichthe), i.e. he felt humiliated.

    Having made the request several times, I look forward to my earlier, technologically scrambled comments being deleted. The only other point I wished to raise was a query as to what *are* the allusions to Num 22-24 that ‘any good commentary’ should point out?


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