Many of us have heard the centuries-old saying “for the want of a nail,” referring to the aphorism (which has a few variations):
For Want of a Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Sometimes little things have an enormous impact. So what if I told you that, in a way, the star of Bethlehem was a key factor spurring the return of the Jews to their homeland after over 1,700 years of exile all around the world?
We are all intrigued by what ifs and sliding doors moments, and history is replete with them. For example, Kelvin Crombie has written a number of books* exploring the history of the holy land in the 1800s, and he makes a compelling case that a series of developments helped open the holy land to the return of the Jews. He also shows how Christian investment in hospitals, schools, industry, and missionary activity was a major force in persuading wealthy European Jews, who saw this Christian activity as a threat, to refocus their own investments toward the holy land. They didn’t want the masses of poor Jews who were returning to be compelled to work for Christians and be exposed to missionizing situations or “unkosher” medical settings. But just prior to much of this, something interesting happened.
In the mid-1800s the holy land was a backwater, long neglected by the Ottoman Turks who had ruled it since 1517. The population of 300,000-380,000 people was a mixture of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, in proportions that had shifted over the previous centuries. It was around this time that the Sultan began granting permission to major European powers to buy land–this had previously been forbidden–and to facilitate Christian pilgrimage, largely for economic reasons. With the influx of pilgrims the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox churches in the Holy Land found themselves competing for congregants and vying over control of the holy sites. For centuries control of the pilgrimage sites in the holy land had ping- ponged back and forth between the Catholics and the Greek Orthodox. More than a century earlier, in 1717, the Catholics commissioned a silver star, inscribed in Latin, which was placed in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem at the traditional site commemorating the birth of Jesus.
By 1847 the Greek Orthodox gained control of the Church of the Nativity from the Catholics and the Greek Patriarch had the Latin-engraved silver star removed from the grotto. This outraged the Catholics!
At that time the Catholic and Orthodox churches were closely connected to the corridors of power in their respective countries. Driven by a desire to protect Catholic interests in the Holy Land, Napoleon III, the emperor of France, intervened in the dispute. In 1852, he forced the Ottoman Empire to recognize France as the “sovereign authority” over Christian holy sites, including the Church of the Nativity. The Russian Empire, citing the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, which granted them protection rights over Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire, disputed this change in authority and deployed troops to the Danube area, and in short order the Crimean War broke out between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, with France and Britain eventually joining the fray on the side of the Ottomans. In 1856 the war ended and the Status Quo agreement was instituted, which has remained in force until today regarding the management of the holy sites.
To make a long story short, the removal of the silver star marking the site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem helped spark the Crimean War, which further impoverished the Ottoman Empire and led to Ottoman legislation granting equality before the law to non-Muslims, enshrining religious freedom in law, and creating an opportunity for Jews return to their ancestral homeland. And many Jews did return over the course of the ensuing decades, eventually leading to entire waves of immigration back to their ancestral homeland against the backdrop of the wars in Europe.
So there you have it. Obviously there were other factors, and it may not have been the star of Bethlehem you were initially thinking of, but the star of Bethlehem stoked a war, led to changes in the political scene, and ultimately both spurred and facilitated the return of Jews en masse to their homeland after almost two millennia.
Or to use the phrasing of the axiom we began with:
For the want of a star, a homeland was regained.
And this star of Bethlehem lit the way for the advent of another form of deliverance, in addition to the Advent widely celebrated during this season: The advent of the modern state of Israel, the promised homeland of the Jewish people. Let’s all pray that through God’s grace the advent of the State of Israel will in time also prove to be accompanied by the blessing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and goodwill among men.”
* See for example:
Crombie, Kelvin – For the Love of Zion, 2008
Crombie, Kelvin – ANZACs, Empires and Israel’s Restoration, 1998