The tradition of giving birthday gifts is one that many cultures share and dates back to antiquity. The Bible speaks of no celebrations in honor of a Jewish person’s birth, not even the birth of Yeshua. Perhaps birthdays are not to be celebrated at all! So where did this tradition get its beginning? And is it okay to give gifts at that time?
Pharaoh’s Gift Giving
Genesis 40:20-22 – “On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, he gave a banquet for his servants . . .”
Three days after Joseph interpreted the dreams of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, Pharaoh holds a party for himself and for his servants. And what a party it is. The cupbearer is restored to service, and the baker is hanged. So don’t belittle those who hold their own parties and do all the cooking, so did Pharaoh – now you know where they get it from! Note that the party gifts are given by the birthday boy, not the guests, eh?
Herod’s Gift Giving
Matthew 14:6-12 – “On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests . . .”
Herod throws a party for himself and his guests, and John the Baptizer gets beheaded. Again, the party gift handed out by the birthday boy, and the gift isn’t that great.
Leviticus 18:3 – “You must not do as they do in Egypt . . . Do not follow their practices”
Yahweh commands his people not to copy the practices of the pagans. And no wonder why –pagan birthday celebrations generally end in murder. Not only do Yahweh’s people neglect to mark the day of their birth with festivity, some even curse this day. Job and Jeremiah both cursed the day! (Job 3:1-3, Jeremiah 20:14-18).
The Magi’s Gift Giving
In opposition to these examples of Pharaoh’s and Herod’s birthday gift giving, we have the example of the Magi and their gift giving. Note the differences:
• Pagan Gift Giving – the birthday boy holds the party and gives the gifts
• Magi Gift Giving – the Magi come from afar and present the gifts
The Three Gifts
Matthew 2:11 – “The Magi opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”
The Magi travel from the East to present Yeshua with three gifts – Yeshua doesn’t hold his own party and give his guests gifts. Each of the three gifts represents a component of Yeshua’s life, authority, and ministry.
1 Kings 9:14 – “And Hiram sent to the king 120 talents of gold.”
1 Kings 9:28 – “Hiram’s servants brought 400 talents of gold to the king from Ophir.”
1 Kings 10:10 – “And The Queen of Sheba gave the king 120 talents of gold.”
Gold symbolizes Yeshua’s kingly office. It symbolizes kingship, monarchy, and the wealth that such a station obtains. Hiram sent and his servants sent over 500 talents of gold to the king. The Queen of Sheba sent 120 talents of gold along with spices and precious stones. The Magi didn’t just bring a small bag of gold coins. The Magi were the king makers of that period. When they crowned a king, they did so by presenting a fortune worthy of that king. The gold may have contributed to the costs of moving to Egypt and back, as well as the cost of raising Yeshua to adulthood.
Exodus 25:11 – “You shall overlay it with pure gold. Inside and outside shall you overlay it.”
Gold also symbolizes Yeshua’s divine nature. The Ark of the Covenant and other Tabernacle implements were either made of gold or were overlaid with gold (). The gift of gold to Yeshua was symbolic of His divinity—God in flesh.
Leviticus 2:1 – “When anyone offers an offering of a meal offering to Yahweh . . . he shall put frankincense on it.”
Exodus 40:13 – “You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister as priests to me.”
Frankincense symbolizes Yeshua’s priestly office. Frankincense was one of the primary ingredients used to cover the meal offerings as well as to anoint Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. The pleasant odor of the incense recalls the pleasing aroma of the prayers that would rise before the high priest. Yeshua is our High Priest who intercedes with Yahweh on our behalf.
The gift of frankincense to Yeshua also symbolizes his willingness to become a sacrifice, comparable to a burnt offering. It symbolizes Yeshua’s willingness to give himself up wholly to Yahweh’s will and purposes.
Exodus 30:23-31 – “Take also for yourself the finest of spices: of flowing myrrh five hundred shekels . . .”
Myrrh, like frankincense, also symbolizes Yeshua’s priestly office. It was one of the primary ingredients in the spice that was used to anoint the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and all of the utensils, lampstands, and altars used inside the Tabernacle, as well as Aaron and his sons.
Matthew 26:7 – “A woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment.”
Matthew 26:12 – “For in pouring this ointment on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.”
But just as importantly myrrh was used as a burial spice and symbolizes Yeshua’s death and burial. Yeshua recognized this and commended the woman for preparing his body for burial. The word translated “ointment” in the two verses above is the Greek word myron [μύρον G3464], i.e. the English word Myrrh. It was also used in potions given to those who were being crucified, sometimes referred to as gall (Mark 15:23, Matthew 27:34).
Myrrh also symbolizes bitterness, suffering, and affliction. Yeshua would suffer greatly during the trials and crucifixion as he paid the ultimate price of forgiveness for all who would believe in him.
Pagans hold their own birthday parties and hand out gifts, many of which are not great gifts. Yeshua did not hold his own birthday party, nor did he give out gifts to those present. Just the opposite – others came to him and presented the gifts. Gold – the symbol of kingship. Frankincense – the symbol of priesthood. Myrrh – the symbol of priesthood, death, burial, suffering, and affliction. Fitting gifts for Yeshua as a baby child that pointed towards the roles he would perform as an adult.