Is the New Star Really a Sign of a Messiah for Israel?
In 2022, approximately five years from now, a new star will appear in the night sky. Scientifically speaking, the appearance of this nova is the product of the collision of two other astral bodies. And for six months this new star will—to the naked eye—be the brightest in the heavens. Given that this is the first time that people will be able to witness a moment like this without technology, it’s a significant event in human history, but it may be much more than that. According to one rabbi, this new star is a sign of the coming of the Messiah.
Rabbi Yosef Berger, a rabbi of King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion, has proposed that the star is a fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy from the book of Numbers, in which a star precedes the arrival of an important military leader: “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Sethites” (NRSV Num 24:17)
The prophecy itself is significant because the speaker is not Moses, the Bible’s quintessential prophet, but Balaam, a historically attested outsider and foreigner. Jacqueline Vayntrub, a biblical studies professor at Brandeis University, told me, “The inclusion of a foreign prophet, Balaam, in a narrative history of Israel is puzzling. But when you realize that the story is about an important, well known foreign prophet who is blessing Israel, it makes a whole lot more sense. Moses, as Israel’s insider, of course wants the best for Israel; but even a famous foreign prophet blessing Israel, now that’s interesting.”
Rabbi Berger is not the only scholar to read Numbers 24 as a prediction of the Messiah. Berger quotes the preeminent 12th-century Jewish philosopher and commentator Maimonides, who connects this passage to the arrival of the Messiah and uses it as evidence that the Messiah would come from Judah. He also points to the Jewish mystical text the Zohar, which goes into some depth describing the astrological events that would surround the arrival of the Messiah.
The idea that important events would correspond to shifts in the heavens was a commonplace in the ancient world. The Roman historian Suetonius reports in his life of Nero that comets were “commonly believed to portend the death of great rulers.” Coins minted in honor of Alexander the Great, Augustus, and even King Herod sometimes used a star as a symbol of the king. And there was a popular idea among ancient Romans that every person was born under a star, which came into existence at their birth and was extinguished at their death.
Arguably the most famous example that connects the appearance of a star to the arrival of a messianic leader is found in the Christian New Testament. According to the Gospel of Matthew the magi find their way to the newborn Jesus by following a particularly noteworthy star. Historians have tried in vain to connect the nativity story star to an astrological event, but the story is evidence of the general ancient idea that births of historical significance would be written in the stars and of the ancient Jewish belief that the birth of the messiah would be foretold by a star.
With respect to the arrival of this new star in 2022, there is no doubt that it is a significant moment for astronomers and physicists. As far as Berger’s prediction’s go, other scholars are unconvinced. Joel Baden, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School, told me that this interpretation of the prophecy from Numbers is problematic because, grammatically speaking, the star doesn’t “rise”—it literally “treads,” as one would when crushing grapes. Furthermore, while Berger is in good company, it’s unclear why he thinks that the star in this verse is a literal star while the scepter is a symbol for a ruler. The two images are parallel to one another, Baden told The Daily Beast, so why not read them in the same way?
For some, this comes as good news. After all, Numbers 24 prophesies the destruction of the Sethites, which is pretty much everyone outside of the nation of Israel. For most of us, that’s not good news.