The Messiah Would Be the Star Coming out of Jacob
In AD 132-135, the famous warrior Bar Kochba led the second rebellion against Rome. His real name was Bar Kozeba, but Rabbi Akiva famously nicknamed him Bar Kochba – “son of the star” – based on Numbers 24:17, and declared him to be the Messiah. Unfortunately, Bar Kochba was killed in the battle against Rome, his Messiahship came to naught, and Israel was exiled from Jerusalem.
Even earlier, in the first rebellion of AD 66-70, this verse was used, undoubtedly because of the part that prophesies victory over Israel’s enemies. Earlier still, the Dead Sea Scrolls gave a messianic interpretation to the verse.
And in fact, Akiva was right to see in this verse a promise of a coming deliverer and redeemer. It was the pagan seer Balaam who offered this prophecy almost in spite of himself, as time after time he blessed Israel, though he had been given instruction to curse Israel. So this prophecy is part of the larger theme of God’s blessing to Israel.
Rabbinic writings also viewed it messianically. Targum Onkelos, one of the renditions of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic, translated “star” as “the king” and “scepter” as “the Messiah.” Maimonides also viewed it messianically (though he divided portions of the verse between King David and the Messiah). While some have seen King David’s military victories as the fulfillment, his victories did not last, and the echo of this prophecy in Amos 9:11 shows that Amos still looked for a future fulfillment even after the time of David.
In the New Testament (Matthew 2), we read of “magi” – likely Babylonian astrologers – who come from the East bearing gifts for the newborn Yeshua. As they make their way, they are guided by a star. Whatever that star was – and speculation runs from a comet, to a supernova, to a special supernatural guiding light – the text appears to be alluding to Numbers 24. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, speaks of the “rise” of a star from Jacob, echoed in the New Testament’s star that “rose” (Matthew 2:2, 9), using the same Greek word. At the other end of the New Testament, in Revelation 22:16, Yeshua calls himself the “bright morning star,” likewise in allusion to the Numbers verse.
Yeshua is the promised deliverer spoken of in Numbers 24. King David had some measure of victory over his enemies, but the hope of the Hebrew Bible is that a greater David would someday arise to fully realize what David himself could not. Moreover, Moab and Edom may well include all kinds of physical and spiritual enemies, whatever threatens God’s people – for the Scripture always links the physical and military with the spiritual condition of Israel. And so while at his first coming Yeshua defeated the enemies of sin and death on the cross, at his second advent he will defeat all foes of God’s people as the great Star and Scepter, both symbols for a ruler in the ancient world. What Bar Kochba failed to accomplish, Yeshua will.