Matthew 2:11: “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary 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.”
The identity of the wise men in this Matthew account is uncertain. Matthew only tells us that they came from the East or in a literal translation of the Greek from the rising (of the sun). It is believed by many that they came from Persia as they were called magi. This word comes from the Old Persian word magus and is a reference to the priest of a Zoroastrian cult which was pantheistic and studied astrology. Some scholars believe they were sages from India and others, as Chrysostom, believe they were from Yemen as the kings of Yemen were Jewish. A recent discovery of a document in an old dialect of Aramaic speaks of a religious order devoted to private prayer in an unknown land called Shir who believed that God would be born as a human and his birth would be announced by an unusually bright star.
One thing we can be sure of, however, is that they were either Jewish or had a great affinity toward the Jewish God Jehovah. They were also very knowledgeable of Jewish worship for their gift of gold, frankincense and myrrh were the three key elements in Jewish worship.
Reading this story in the Pershitta, the Aramaic Bible, I discovered something very interesting about these gifts. For one thing there was only one gift. The Aramaic word used for gift is qorbana. This word is in a singular form and ends with a definite article, hence it would be rendered, they presented Him with the gift. But this word being rendered as gift is very misleading. It comes from the word corban, the word Jesus used in Matthew 15:6 where he rebukes the Pharisees for calling their offering a corban. A corban is literally an offering or sacrifice to God. It could be an animal sacrifice or an incense offering which was most likely the case here. The word corban comes from a Semitic root which has its origins in the Akkadian word QRB which means to draw close to someone. It evolved into the meaning of offering or gift as the intent of the offering or gift is to bring you closer to the receiver. Thus, the purpose of the incense offering was to bring you closer to God.
Frankincense or myrrh were used only in the Holy of Holies and was mixed in a golden vessel and burned on a golden plate. Actually, the term Frankincense and myrrh represented a combination of essential oils but to avoid listing all the oils the incense or oil was given the name of the primary oil that was used. In the case of Frankincense, Frankincense was the primary oil which had stacte, onycha and galbanum added. Myrrah was the primary oil with the addition of aromatic bark, cassia and cinnamon added (Talmud, Kritut 6A). Exodus 30:33-37 warns that these compounds are not to be used outside of the Holy of Holies and not for anyone other than God, lest they be cut off from the people. When the high priest entered the Holy of Holies and burned these incenses it was said that God presence appeared in the midst of the vapors. The people outside the Holy of Holies would know that God presence was there because they would smell the incense. I had a friend who told me that when she worshipped God in her car on time she suddenly smelled this sweet fragrance. Her sister, also in the car, claimed to not really smell it but my friend did. I think what she smelled was that fragrance that the Hebrews associated with the presence of God.
Anyways, it soon was believed that burning such incense would summon the presence of God, but Amos cleared that up in Amos 5:21 where he said, “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies.” The word smell is ‘arich which comes from the root word ruch which means spirit but is also used for an aroma. In the context where it is used it is most likely a play on the Aramaic word ‘arak which has the idea of restoration or healing. This appears to be a direct reference to the incense burned in the Holy of Holies and God is saying that he despises these incenses when they are offered without sincerity as they were doing it. Instead it was being offered only to draw the presence of God so they could get some goodies like a healing or restoration. In other words they were burning the incense to call upon God to solve their problems and to draw closer to him, not to use it as a corban. God is literally saying, you cannot conjuror me up by burning incense.
Yet, there was a purpose for using the incense, the frankincense and myrrh in worship as it was commanded by God. It was used as a corban, an offering to draw near to God. This was what the wise men presented to Jesus. That is why I believe people like my friend who smelled a fragrance while worshipping God because God may just use that fragrance to draw them closer to Him. The word in Aramaic used for present is qeren which also has a Semitic root meaning to present an offering or sacrifice to draw near. It has almost the same meaning as qorbana. Thus the wise did not present unto him gifts, but in the Aramaic Bible it could be rendered as they drew near to Him with their incense sacrifice.
Oh, but behold, they were not in the Holy of Holies when they offered this corban, which is in direct violation of Exodus 30. Or was it? Was not the Holy of Holies the place where the presence of God rested? Thus, there in that little manger, not the holy of holies, these wise men combined the sacred oils in golden vessels before the baby Jesus, the very presence of God, where they then burned these oil on golden plates and worshipped God as the high priest did in the Holy of Holies. Were the wise men ushering in a new age of worship, worship which needed no human high priest, it was a worship that every one could perform, for when Jesus died on the cross the veil separating the Holy of Holies was ripped apart and now we all have access to the very presence of God through our new high priest, Jesus Christ.
Oh, and the third element to the worship, gold? Everything in the Holy of Holies was to be made of pure gold. You see, ancient man discovered that gold had a property that no other metal had. All other metals that you hold in your hand will grow warm, except gold. Gold will remain cool, passive and aloof, like the gods. Thus it was believed that gold was the skin of the gods. All idols were made of gold, the skin of the gods and they worshipped the gold or the skin of the gods. But the Hebrews merely used this gold or what the pagans believed to be the skin of their gods to service the true God Jehovah, to mix his oils and serve as a platform to burn His incense.
You see the gold, frankincense and myrrh were not the gifts given by the wise men. They burned up the frankincense and myrrh and most likely took the golden cups and plates home with them to continue to burn their oils and worship God. Mary and Joseph didn’t take the oils and the gold and sell it for passage to Egypt as that was not the gift that the magi gave to Jesus. The Gift of the Magi was a hazardous journey untaken for only one purpose found in Matthew 2:2, “we are come to worship Him.” The Gift of the Magi is the only gift that is acceptable to God, the only gift we can truly give to God this Christmas and that is to worship Him.
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