Sermon on the Mount, The Emmaus View

Emmaus View,

The legacy of Balaam’s star. (Version 1.11)

The legacy of Balaam’s star

Herod, the troubled tyrant

Having used events in the time of Ahaz to established the failure of a ruler of Judah as a context for Jesus birth, Matthew moves on to introduce us to Herod and with him perhaps the most puzzling of differences between the gospel’s two nativities. I shall touch on the matter of dating briefly, but of greater interest at this point are the theological statements that Matthew weaves into his account of the magi’s visit (Matt 2:1-12). For only the scriptural significance, of these travellers and the star that they have seen, makes sense of the Herod’s seemingly disproportionate reaction.

As Israel’s exodus from Egypt tested various precedents for the occupation of land, the resultant confrontation between ‘brother’ nations gave rise to the prophecy of Balaam, a prediction of a rising star that would echo down the ages and come to rest in Herod’s court. That star illuminates not only the significance of the magi and their observations, but also the wise advice to refer to Mica’s prophesy, the movements of the star and even the gifts the magi brought.

Inconvenient dates

Whilst Matthew has Jesus born in the reign of Herod the Great and returning to Nazareth after the succession to Archelaus his grandson (about 4 B.C.E.), Luke appears to place Jesus birth about the time when Rome extended Quirinius control over Judea following Archelaus’ banishment (i.e. after 6 C.E.). Attempts to reconcile the Gospel’s birth dates range across a spectrum from apostolic fabrication to modern scholastic error, taking in most points in between. Yet, to my mind something odd is going on, for Luke states that Jesus started his ministry aged about thirty (Luke 3:23), yet from available evidence 30 C.E. appears to be about the best fit for the crucifixion. Add to that a three-year ministry and Luke’s birth date becomes far closer to the end of Herod’s reign and way too early for the census with which it is usually associated. Has Matthew transplanted events into a different context to make a point (as both he and Luke appear to do elsewhere) or is Luke intimating that Jesus birth took place around the year of Herod’s death? Could Quirinius’ have carried out a census at that time? Whatever was the case, it does not alter the theological significance of Matthew’s text as an interpretation of the role of Jesus and the state of Israel under the Herodian dynasty.

Edom ignore an ancient precedent

King Herod ‘the Great’ rose to power through skilful navigation of the tides of roman politics, a judicious marriage and the ruthless elimination of competitors1. Despite marriage into their royal family and re-building the Temple, many still felt that a man with Herod’s Idumean ancestry had no place in ruling Judah. Like Ahaz, he owed his position to the intervention of a foreign power (2 Kgs 16:7-9), for recognition by Rome successfully secured his rule, at least until the appearance of the magi’s star.

Even amongst the patriarchs, God was forging the significance of this star, for its origins lay in precedents concerning access to the land. When Canaan became too small for both Abraham and his nephew Lot, Lot moved eastward (Gen 13:8-9). When Abraham wanted Isaac to inherited uncontested access to the Promised Land, he sent the children of his other wives eastward (Gen 25:6). When the question of space arose between Isaac’s sons, Esau left the bulk of Canaan to Jacob and moved eastward to Sier (Gen 36:6-7). Thus, whenever the heir to the Promised Land needed access to that territory, the precedents dictated that his relatives should move eastward and ensured he got it.

On their return from Egypt, Israel’s preferred route to Canaan crossed Edom, the land of Esau’s descendants. However, Edom’s intransigent refusal to make way for Israel forced them to seek another route (Num 20:14-21). Israel’s next request for peaceful passage, through the adjacent territory of Sihon, king of the Amorites, fared even worse and ended in overt hostility (Num 21:23-26). Defeating the Amorites out of self-preservation, they moved one step closer to Canaan.

Balak’s dilemma

Together the Midianite elders and Balak, the Moabite king, watched Israel’s progress anxiously, for Israel’s presence on the plains of Moab created a dilemma for these descendants of Abraham and Lot (Gen 25:1-2, Num 22:1)2. As Balak complained to the elders, a nation of Israel’s size would consume all the local resources, i.e. the land was not big enough for both of them, so someone would have to move (Num 22:2-4).

Balak, heedless of the ancestral precedents, remained determined to stay put. However, as Sihon had so recently displaced Moab from much of their land3, to stand any chance against the Amorite’s nemesis, the Moabite king needed to tip the military balance. To Balak, who appreciated the spiritual dimension of Israel’s military success, it appeared that a suitably powerful curse might do the trick. However, he needed an occult heavyweight, an expert in the ancient texts with a proven record of success. Amongst the sons of his people, he knew of just such a man, Balaam the son of Beor (Num 22:4-6).

Balaam, a man with a reputation

Balaam’s reputation was big enough to have spread beyond the pages of the Bible, for an early Aramaic inscription (on fallen plaster fragments from the ruins of Deir Alla) tells of a prophet called Balaam who received visitations from ‘gods’ by night and used sorcery to intervene in the affairs of nations4.

The First Century Jewish philosopher Philo gives us something more akin to Herod’s perspective on Balaam. Philo sees him as both a prophet known for accuracy and a magus5, i.e. an adept practitioner of the occult arts of Mesopotamia and a man who shared the visiting magi’s traditions6.

Donkey wisdom and a prophet’s prediction

Balaam indeed came from Mesopotamia, the land of ‘the River’, as the Bible calls the Euphrates (Num 22:5, 23:7)’. His city was Pethor in the territory of Aram (Num 23:7), so the sons of Balak’s people, amongst whom he lived, were probably in the area of Carchemish7 (a city that, like Moab, worshiped the deity Chemosh8). After God warned Balaam of Israel’s blessing, the magus refused his assistance. However, when Balak persevered, God released Balaam to go to Peor and deliver a warning in person. The eventful journey helps provides context to the prophecy of the star.

As Balaam and his two servants travelled from Mesopotamia to Moab (Num 22:22), the threesome’s journey foreshadowed that which centuries later would bring the magi to Herod9. However, during their passage God revealed both what was at stake at Peor and how Balaam was to act. On route, Balaam stepped into Balak’s shoes and his donkey took the prophet’s role. Thus, as Balaam’s discernment failed, his donkey’s apparent disobedience twice saved her master from certain supernatural destruction. Then, as the angel stood before them with no way to safely pass, she refused to move at all. Amidst Balaam’s anger, the donkey miraculously gained a voice. She reminded the magus how obediently she had always served his interests and then she queried why it should be any different on this occasion. The donkey’s question opened her master’s eyes, there was more to faithfully serving a master than simply obeying their commands.

On the slopes of Peor the smoke rose from seven altars. Twice Balak offered sacrifices and asked Balaam to curse Israel, twice Balaam, playing the donkey to his master Balak, blessed the Sons of Jacob instead. When Balak sought a third time to persuade the magus, the altars became superfluous and the smoking sacrifices pointless. Balaam, following his donkey’s lead, refused to venture along the lines the king proposed (Num. 24:1). Instead, he set his face toward the tents of Israel and blessed them, reiterating Isaac’s blessing upon his son Jacob, aka Israel (Gen. 27:28, Num. 24:7)10. Those who cursed him would be cursed and those who blessed him would be blessed. Thus, Balaam revealed the disaster from which these three times he had saved the king.

Stars and sceptres, agents of truth

With the third blessing delivered, ‘Donkey’ Balaam gained the prophetic voice of truth and opened Balak’s eyes to the future that awaited his nation. At first, he saw a person and then he saw a rising star. “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:17a, NKJV). The sceptre informed Balaam’s audience that he had seen a king and the juxtaposition of the star and sceptre indicated what sort.

The culture of ancient Israel saw stars as truth-revealing agents of God, set amongst the light givers that governed day and night (Gen 1:16, Ps 43:3, 136:9). They achieve this revelation by the simple expedient of producing light, rather than through the esoteric arts of human intermediaries (such as Astrologers). Thus, even the smallest patch of star filled sky could dispel something of the terrifying uncertainty of a pitch-black nightscape. In revealing truth they resemble wisdom (Eccl 2:13-14), the gift from God that uncovers motivation, exposes the heart and unveils the spirit (2 Chr 1:10-12)11. Thus, the scriptures liken righteous wisdom to the shining of stars (Ps 37:5, Dan. 12:3), its light bringing understanding to those who possess it and enlightenment to those who experience it (Prov 4:5-7). Proverbs consistently sees the outcome of such wisdom as power and influence, for it is by great wisdom that righteous rulers reign (Prov 8:12,14-16, 16:15). Thus, Balaam’s ruler would be a ‘star’ because his rule would be characterised by great wisdom, insight and righteousness12.

Balaam, having predicted the advent a wise ruler, went on to announce that this event would see Moab taking a battering and Edom becoming that ruler’s possession (Num 24:17-19). Thus, for the nations who refused to observe their forefathers precedents, the rising star would usher in a time of reckoning. Isaac had blessed Jacob with the service of his brother Esau (Edom) and the Star would make sure that blessing was honoured (Gen 27:40). Thus, for Herod, an Idumean (i.e. descended from Edom), Balaam’s prophecy would have struck an uncomfortable note.

Beyond the fulfilment of Balaam’s prophecy

His predictions made, Balaam wandered off, leaving the Middle East to await the arrival of this ‘not near’ star. It was eventually with the ascension of David that it began to shine. He was the first to subdue the Moabites and extracted tribute from them (2 Sam 8:2). Furthermore, he placed garrisons in Edom and forced the Edomites to serve him (2 Sam. 8:14).

Along with God given authority and power David enjoyed divinely granted light (Ps 132:17-18). However, the prophetic voice within Israel suggested that a greater fulfilment lay in store. Isaiah, reporting people’s desperation at the lack of light, i.e. righteous rule (Isa 59:9), builds to a great declaration of his faith that God would intervene. Responding to the prophet’s piety, the Lord revealed that a redeemer would come to Zion (Isa 59:20), a redeemer to whom God says: "Arise, shine; For your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, And deep darkness the people; But the Lord will arise over you, And His glory will be seen upon you. The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising,” (Isa 60:1-3, NKJV).

For those in darkness, a redeeming ‘star’ would rise, shining with a light that emanated from the Glory of God Himself, the same Glory that had burned on Mt Sinai (Exod 24:17), filled the temple in the days of Solomon (2 Chr 7:1-3) and appeared to Ezekiel in exile (Ezek 1:4).

John Hyrcanus and the Messianic star

In post-exilic Israel, the prophetic voice became subdued, yet the concept remained, a righteous person was like a star. Thus, the teachings of a Jewish educator, Jeshua ben Eleazer ben Sira (from almost two centuries before Jesus) likened the revered High Priest Simon to the morning star, lighting up the clouds just as the Glory of God illuminated those that hid it (Sir 50:6)13.

Another fascinating insight comes from The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a book whose complex history is rooted during the First Century B.C.E. during which John Hyrcanus threw off Syrian rule and came to hold the triple offices of Prophet, Priest and King14. The Pharisee party, considered him the redeemer of whom Isaiah spoke (Isa 59:20), but before circumstances could reveal their error, someone penned the Testaments. The resulting text is a collection of ‘prophetic’ propaganda, written as if from the perspective of Jacob but containing Messianic predictions. Concerning a leader from Judah, it says ‘And after these things shall a star arise to you from Jacob in peace, And a man shall arise [from my seed], like the sun of righteousness’ (T. Jud 24:115) and ‘Then shall the sceptre of my kingdom shine forth’ (T. Jud. 24:5a 16). However, to legitimise John’s monarchic role it says of a leader from Levi ‘his star shall arise in heaven as of a king. Lighting up the light of knowledge as the sun the day’ (T. Lev. 18:317). Thus, during the century before Jesus’ birth Balaam’s words remained a central concern for the priestly classes and the rising star lingered as an unfulfilled expectation18.

Return of the Magi

Matthew’s words place emphases as clearly as with a highlighter pen. The travellers were magi like Balaam. They too had seen a star that represented a King of Israel, a star that was rising (as any star seen in the East does)19. Moreover, this was not a vision for some far off time that had led these men to the City of David but a glimpse of current events.

As the magi resurrected the prophecy of Balaam before Herod’s eyes, he sought aid in interpreting this unexpected revelation. His advisers pointed him to a prophecy from Micah that specifically linked the birth of a great ruler from David’s house with Balaam’s prophecy. Whilst Matthew quoted only a small part of Micah’s word (Mic 5:2), he expected his readers to remember its context. Micah’s new ruler, like ‘the Star’, would subdue the nations and deal with those who chose not to obey. His birth would trigger a return of God’s people from amongst the nations (cf. Isa 60:4), which, whilst Micah may not have called it such, was effectively a latter day ‘Exodus’.

Micah ends this section of his message by cautioning his audience to remember the plans of Balak (how he opposed the return during the original Exodus) and the response of Balaam (the prediction of ‘the star’ and Edom’s subjugation) (Mic 6:5). The significance of this warning appeared lost on Herod and his advisors, though possibly not on Matthew’s target audience.

Ichabod, the star on the move

Matthew’s star has already proved most illuminating, yet it has more to show us. As it ‘went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was’ (Matt 2.9, NKJV), it behaved quite atypically for a cosmological object, moving from north to south20. Yet, as we have seen, its light originated in the Glory of the Lord. Thus, the same Glory that went before Israel to lead them to their promised land took stellar form to guide the magi to their promised child (Exodus 13:21-22).

As the Glory moved it is important to notice not only where it went, but also from whence it departed. In Moses’ day, as in David’s, it was common knowledge that the Glory of God appeared above the Ark of the Covenant (Exod 25:22, 1 Sam 4:4), the holy repository of Israel’s sacred treasures that doubled as God’s portable throne. However, the debacle during Eli’s priesthood led to the temporary loss of the Ark to the Philistines (1 Sam 3:11-14), leaving Eli’s daughter-in-law to enshrined the calamity by naming her child Ichabod, meaning ‘the Glory has departed’ (1 Samuel 4:21-22). The Ark eventually came to rest in ‘exile’ amidst faithful Kiriath-Jearim for twenty years (1 Sam 7:1).

Ezekiel’s visions graphically depict a similar departure of God’s Glory. In his first vision, it is amongst those in exile in Mesopotamia, majestic and standing above wheels and four awesome cherubim. In his next, God reveals, as if in flashback, the corruptness of the Jerusalem temple and the Glory departing from it to hover over the cherubim (Ezekiel 10:1-11:24). Once again, the Glory had accompanied a portable throne, as it departed a corrupt religious establishment to dwell amongst their conquerors, and the faithful dwelt there with it.

As Matthew allows his words to take their form from Ezekiel’s vision (Matt 2:9, Ezek 10:18), his implication is clear. A corrupt priesthood ministered in the Jerusalem of Jesus day and once again it could be said Ichabod. The Glory had departed from the corrupt temple in Jerusalem, to stand above Jesus, the portable throne upon which God would dwell in exile amongst the faithful.

The proper context for rejoicing and great joy

Matthew has an interesting technique of burying significance within responses attributed to groups of people. He uses this as he describes how the magi rejoiced exceedingly with great joy as the star came to rest (Matt 2:9). Only on three occasions does the Jewish Bible describe such rejoicing with great joy and each time the circumstances are similar. It characterised the precipitous coronation of Solomon that foiled Adonijah’s plans and secured the building of the temple (1 Kgs 1:40), it followed Hezekiah’s re-inauguration of temple worship after Ahaz had shut its doors (2 Chr 30:25-26) and finally, it marked the establishment of a new temple after Solomon’s had been destroyed (Neh 12:43). On each occasion, rejoicing and great joy accompanied the revival of David’s hope, that God would have a dwelling place amongst men. Thus, through the magi’s reaction, Matthew seeks to convey that the infant Jesus was a new temple wherein God’s Glory would dwell among men.

Gifts from Tarshish and Sheba

By now it should be clear that this party of magi arrived in Judea laden with symbolic significance. However, they carried yet more than we have discovered so far. Balak summoned Balaam from Aram and now we find Matthew describing a group of proxy Arameans bringing with them three gifts and prostrating themselves before the infant Jesus (Num 23:7). Only once previously do the scriptures record that a party from Aram arrived in Canaan, proffered three gifts and prostrated themselves. For Jacob, returning from Aram, sent three gifts to Esau and prostrated himself before his brother.

Whilst we may now understand Jacob’s actions, they were nevertheless not what Isaac’s blessing upon him had anticipated (Gen 27:28-29). Esau should have been prostrating himself and giving gifts, rather than the other way around. Indeed, all the nations should have been falling down before Jacob and serving him.

Balaam’s words reflected something of Isaac’s blessing and the psalmist wove them into Psalm 72 when he wrote:

He shall have dominion also from sea to sea,
And from the River to the ends of the earth.

Those who dwell in the wilderness will bow before Him,
And His enemies will lick the dust.

The kings of Tarshish and of the isles Will bring presents;
The kings of Sheba and Seba Will offer gifts.

Yes, all kings shall fall down before Him;
All nations shall serve Him.

(Ps 72:8-11, NKJV, re-formatted for emphasis)

Based on precisely this text, at least one strand of Jewish tradition sought to mitigate the apparent injustice of Jacob giving gifts to Esau. It claimed that the kings of the foreign nations described in Psalm 72:8-11 would return Jacob’s gifts in the form of three gifts to the Messiah21. This cast the magi’s offerings in a new light, especially since, with a little scriptural extrapolation, it is possible to draw up a shortlist of the acceptable forms in which Jacob’s gifts could return.

Psalm 72 and the expectations of tradition

Psalm 72:1-20 may represent a prayer for Solomon’s rule or it may be a prayer by Solomon for those who would follow him as king. Either way, it is reasonable to suggest that it anticipates gifts such as those that Solomon himself received from ‘all the kings of the earth’ (2 Chr 9:23, NKJV), including silver, gold, garments, fragrant resin22, spices, horses, and mules (2 Chr 9:23-24). Both Frankincense and Myrrh were fragrant resins used in abundance by Solomon (Song 3:6) and the Hebrew’s use of a word that also referred to weaponry suggests the psalmist had the latter in mind. Frankincense may seem absent, however we have already touched upon a prophecy that revisits the theme of Psalm 72, for as Isaiah calls upon a redeemer to ‘arise and shine’ (Isa 60:1-3) he portrays Sheba and Tarshish bringing gifts. As these and other nations flood to the light, they bring both gold and frankincense (Isa 60:6, cf. Jer 6:20).

The magi’s gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, were a subset of those that Judaism might reasonably have expected the nations to bring in homage to Messiah. Moreover, as Psalm 72:8-11 places ‘the River’ and ‘the ends of the earth’ in parallel with Sheba and Seba, and as Balaam was from ‘Pethor which is near the River’ (Num 22:5, NKJV), the magi stand as representative of the nations described in Psalm 72. Thus, the traveller’s origin and the presents they brought provide further support for Matthew’s messianic claims.

A dwelling place for God’s glory

The magi came and offered their three gifts in fulfilment of Psalm 72’s ancient hope, but why gold, frankincense and myrrh, rather than say ivory, precious stones and fine garments (1 Kgs 10:2, Ps 45:8, Isa 60:6)23? Perhaps they were the most exotic, valuable or difficult to obtain. Maybe each suggested an aspect of the life Christ was to lead, gold for his deity, frankincense for the fragrance of his life, myrrh for his sacrificial death24. However, I suspect the magi had something else in mind.

Each of these materials appears in Exodus, which lists them, in precisely the same sequence, at the climactic moment when the tabernacle was finally ready for God’s use (Exod 39:38). As it describes the items produced for the tabernacle’s service, we find the gold altar, anointing oil in which myrrh was the main ingredient (Exod 30:23) and fragrant incense in which frankincense was a key component (Exod 30:34). I may be reading too much into the text, but given where ‘rejoicing with great joy’ has already led, I suspect I am not, for her we have another reference to the preparation of a place for God to dwell amongst men. To the construction of the first temple, its reinstatement by Hezekiah, and the erection of the second temple, we can now add the creation of the ‘portable temple’ which enabled God to dwell in their midst in the way that their captivity in Egypt had threatened to prevented (Exod 40:34-36).

The inference here is a powerful one. Four times, despite sin threatening to deny God a place amongst Israel, a place fit for divine habitation was nevertheless prepared allowing God to graciously dwell in their midst. By implication, a fifth time a corrupt establishment was threatening to deny God a place. Yet, despite that, a place was prepared and God inhabited it. The uniqueness this time was that God had seen fit to use a temple made of flesh and blood.

The magi make their exit

As the significance-laden travellers make their exit (Matt 2:12), Matthew seeks once again to underline their links with Balaam. He cannot resist mentioning that, just as the magus received his warning in a dream, so the magi received theirs the same way. Then, in a final mimicking of the author of Numbers, Matthew makes specific mention of their departure (Num 24:25).

At the start of this chapter, we discovered how the patriarchal family established a precedent and how their descendants in Edom and Moab chose to ignore it. En-route to Balaam’s prophecy we saw how donkey like disobedience could prove an eloquent and faithful way to serve a master. Then, as we explored the synergy between Balaam and Matthew’s visiting magi, we began to understand the significance of Balaam’s star to Israeli history and of a rising star for Herod’s dynasty. Envisioned by Balaam and first fulfilled in David, this star-like wise and righteous leader rose again in the prophecy of Isaiah to shine with the Glory of the Lord. For Matthew’s Magi the Glory had risen in the east and led them. Like the Glory, it then deserted a corrupt establishment to take its stand amongst the faithful. There, amidst the rejoicing and great joy that characterised such an event, God revealed his new dwelling place to these Mesopotamian representatives of ‘all nations’. The Star had begun to receive the tribute that the nations owed and a new Exodus was in the making.

The magi’s departure left the stage lighting irrevocably altered. A new star had risen, the glory of the Lord had moved and the gifts had returned to Jacob. Like Herod, Matthew’s readers had to choose their response, recalling as they did so, the plans of Balak and how Balam responded to them. Their choice was stark, make way for Jesus or try in vain to oppose what God has blessed.

Return to outline of The Emmaus View book

1 H. W. Hoehner, “Herod,” ISBE, 2:688-98.

2 The Midanites descended from Abraham and his wife Keturah the Moabites from Lot.

3 The Amorites had overrun the northern territories of Moab and pushed as far south as the river Arnon.

4 Avraham Negev, “Deir Alla (Tell),” Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, n.p; Baruch A. Levine, “Deir ʿAlla: The Dier ʿAlla Plaster Inscriptions (2:27): (The Book of Balaam, son of Beor),” COS, 2:140-45, in particular 142.

5 M. Robert Mulholland Jr., "The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke-Of History, Theology and Literature:A review article of Raymond E. Brown's monumental The Birth of the Messiah," BAR 7: 2 (March/April 1981; Logos Electronic Edition, 2002): n.p.

6 Gerhard Delling, “mágos,” TDNT, 547.

7 R. E. Hayden “Pethor,” ISBE, 3:819.

8 William Sanford LaSor and T. Nicol, “Chemosh,” ISBE, 1:640-41.

9 Matthew’s three gifts, automatically evoke the thought of three magi and therefore Balaam’s party.

10 As Balaam lived amongst the sons of Balak’s people (Num 22:5), he was probably familiar with their Semitic traditions concerning the sons of Abraham.

11 Wisdom was a gift from God that could be developed both by diligent attention to teaching and by breadth of experience (Eccl 1:12-18). Thus, great wisdom characteristically resided with the aged (Job 12:12), or with those wealthy and powerful enough to have the time to study (Sir 38:24).

12 Babylonian propaganda advocating the deity Marduk (in the form of a letter, possibly of the nineteenth century B.C.E., though probably later) contains the related idea that a foolish ruler’s star will not stand in the sky and they will loose their sceptre. See Alan Millard, “The Weidner Chronicle (1.138)," COS, 1:468-470, in particular 469.

13 R. C. Van Leeuwen, “Sirach,” ISBE, 4:529-533, in particular 529.

14 Once dismissed as a Christian forgery, the Testaments are now being recognised as a much older work with a complex history. See Charles, APOT, 2:282-83.

15 Charles, APOT, 2:323.

16 Charles, APOT, 2:323.

17 Charles, APOT, 2:314.

18 Evidence of this is also found in Fragments of a Zadokite Work, 9:8-9. See Charles, APOT, 2:815.

19 See the footnotes for Matthew 2:2 in the NET for a defence of this interpretation.

20 John F. Walvoord and Roy. B. Zuck, The Bible knowledge commentary, (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1983), 2:22.

21 Huckel, “Ps 62:10”, Rabbinic Messiah, n.p.

22 Whilst BHS/WIVU has נֵ֣שֶׁק, which can mean either fragrance or fighting, the LXX has στακτός, oozing, which suggests a fragrant resin as these oozed from the trees that produced them.

23 Even if the magi brought more gifts, and Matthew mentioned only three, the question remains.

24 Walvoord and Zuck, Bible knowledge commentary, 2:22.