Is there any significance to the staffs of Moses and Aaron?


In casually reading passages dealing with the staff of Moses and the staff of Aaron, we might perhaps not think that any important significance should be attached to them. However, upon careful scrutiny, some amazing revelations may come to light.

The Hebrew word for the staffs of Moses and Aaron, is “mattheh.” It can mean staff or rod, and it can also mean “tribe,” showing the connection between the staff and the person and even the tribe which is represented by the person. Of course, both Aaron and Moses were of the tribe of Levi.

We are introduced to Moses’ staff in the early chapters of the book of Exodus. We read in the episode with the burning bush, that Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian (Exodus 3:1). (The Midianites were descendants of Abraham and his second wife, Keturah (Genesis 25:2).) Moses had a staff or a rod in his hand (Exodus 4:2), and God told Moses to throw it to the ground, and it became a serpent. When taking it by the tail, it became a rod in his hand (verses 3-4).  This was one of the signs which Moses was to perform in front of his people in Egypt, so that they would believe that God had sent him.

Commentaries are divided as to the exact nature of the staff. Some say that it was the baton or long stick commonly carried by Egyptians of good position and especially by persons in authority. But it is correctly pointed out that Moses had been in Midian for forty years, and it is therefore not likely that he possessed such an article; nor, if he had possessed it, that he would have taken it with him when shepherding. It is therefore to be concluded that it was a shepherd’s crook (compare Leviticus 27:32)—perhaps a long staff, with a curved head, varying from three to six feet in length.

We later read that his staff is called “the rod of God” (Exodus 4:20), and that he used it to perform the miracle in Egypt in front of the Israelites (verses 17, 30-31).

However, if we do not read the story carefully, we may conclude that Moses used his staff to perform all the miracles in front of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but this is not true. Moses was accompanied by Aaron, his elder brother, who would become Moses’ spokesman, while Moses would be to him “as God” (Exodus 4:15-16). Aaron had his own staff. And it was Aaron’s staff which became a “serpent” before Pharaoh and which swallowed up the “serpents” of the magicians (Exodus 7:9-12). We should note that the “serpent” in the episode with the burning bush is NOT the same kind of creature as the “serpent” in the episode with Aaron and Pharaoh.

As Friedman, Commentary on the Torah points out on page 11, the word used in the latter episode is “tannin” and describes “some giant serpentlike creatures that were formed at (re-)creation… Later, Aaron’s staff (and the Egyptian magicians’ staffs) turns into such a creature (not merely a snake!) at the Egyptian court.”

In fact, the meaning of the word “tannin” is “dragon.”  Friedman adds on page 192 that Aaron’s staff turned into a serpent. “Not a snake. This is different from the snake (Hebrew nahas or nachash) that Moses’ staff  became in Exodus 4:3. Moses performed the miracle for the Israelite elders (4:30). Now, in front of Pharaoh, Aaron’s staff becomes a ‘tannin.’ This is the term that is used for the big sea serpents that God makes on the fifth day of [re-]creation (Gen. 1:21). They are not merely snakes, as people have often pictured them. They are extraordinary creatures…”

As the story in Egypt unfolds, we see that sometimes Moses uses his staff (which had turned into a snake) in connection with the performance of a miracle (Exodus 7:15; note that here the word “nahas” is used, which should be translated as “snake”—not the word “tannin”, which describes a “serpent” or a “dragon”; compare also Exodus 9:23; 10:13). In addition, Aaron’s staff is also being used in the context of the performance of miracles in Egypt (Exodus 7:19; compare also Exodus 8:5-6, 16-17).

Subsequently, Moses is told to lift up HIS staff and divide the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16). It was indeed the Red Sea and not a “Sea of Reeds,” which the Israelites crossed. Friedman explains on page 214 that “there is no such body of water,” called the Sea of Reeds. He continues that the Tanak refers to the eastern arm of the sea—the body of water [in Hebrew “yam sup”] known as the Gulf of Eilat or the Gulf of Aqaba. He states on page 498, in discussing Numbers 21:4, which again refers to “yam sup” or the “Red Sea”: “… the reference to yam sup here, when the Israelites are no longer anywhere near Egypt, must refer to the eastern arm of the Red Sea, which is the only body of water that extends both up into Egypt and to a location far away in the Sinai.”

We also read that Moses was to strike the rock with his staff, with which he struck the river (Nile), and when he did, water came out from the rock in the desert (Exodus 17:5-6), Further, Moses stood on the top of the hill with the “rod of God” in his hand, while the Israelites fought against the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8-16; in regard to Amalek, a descendant of Esau, see Genesis 36:9-12).

However, Aaron’s rod would also continue to play a significant role as well. We read about Korah’s, Dathan’s and Abiram’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron in Numbers 16. While Korah, a descendant of Levi, wanted to receive the priesthood from Aaron (verses 8-11), Dathan and Abiram, descendants of Reuben, were after Moses’ function as Israel’s leader (compare Friedman, pages 481-482). But God intervened, and fire devoured those 250 men from Korah’s company who offered incense (a task strictly reserved for Aaron and his descendant (verses 35, 40)), and the earth “opened its mouth and swallowed” up those who participated in the rebellion, including Korah, Dathan, Abiram and their followers.

On the next day, the entire congregation of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of having killed “the people of the LORD” (Exodus 16:41). God commanded that the leaders of each tribe should provide a rod, and each name was to be written on his rod. Exodus 17:3-10 states that God said: “‘And you shall write Aaron’s name on the rod of Levi… And it shall be that the rod of the man whom I choose will blossom’… [E]ach of the leaders gave (Moses) a rod apiece, for each leader according to their fathers’ houses, twelve rods; and the rod of Aaron was among their rods… [O]n the next day… Moses went into the tabernacle of witness, and behold, the rod of Aaron, of the house of Levi, had sprouted and put forth buds, had produced blossoms and yielded ripe almonds… And the LORD spoke to Moses, ‘Bring Aaron’s rod back before the Testimony, to be kept as a sign  against the rebels, that you may put their murmurings away from Me, lest they die.’”

In Hebrews 9:2-5, we find a reference to Aaron’s rod that budded which was later “in” or “near” the tabernacle. (See Q&A in Update #574, dated 25/01/13, on Hebrews 9:4 and 1 Kings 8:9.)  As the story continues, the Israelites complained again when there was no water at Kadesh, where Miriam died. They gathered against Moses and Aaron, who went to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and God told Moses: “‘Take the rod… Speak to the rod before their eyes, and it will yield its water; thus you shall bring water for them out of the rock.’ So Moses took the rod from before the LORD…” (Exodus 20:8-9).

Which rod is God addressing? It appears that it is AARON’S ROD which had blossomed, which was “before” or “in front of” the Testimony (Numbers 17:10). It was placed there “as a sign against the rebels.” Moses took it “from before the LORD”—that is, from before the Tabernacle. God told Moses and Aaron to take the rod and SPEAK to the rod in front of the people (Exodus 20:8)—the word “speak” is in the plural, addressing both Moses and Aaron. But Moses struck the rock twice—apparently with Aaron’s consent. In doing so, they “rebelled” against God (Exodus 20:24) and did not hallow Him (verse 12). The staff of Aaron, which should have been a sign against the rebellious people, was misused by Moses and Aaron and became a sign of rebellion against them.

Friedman has these pointed comments:

“God tells them that they themselves did exactly what they were supposed to stop the people from doing. It is especially painful for Moses, who said, ‘Listen, rebels,’ to hear his God apply that word now to him. Leaders of a congregation cannot violate the very instruction that they uphold and teach to others.”

And so, neither Aaron nor Moses were allowed to enter the Promised Land, but because they repented, they will be in the Kingdom of God. At the same time, all the rebellious people of Israel were likewise prohibited from entering the Promised Land—only their children would be allowed to do so.

From a physical standpoint, Moses’ and Aaron’s staffs (in Hebrew mattheh) signified power (Psalm 110:2, same word)—but they also included a warning against pride (Ezekiel 7:10, same word). And we need to realize that a staff or rod can always be broken (Jeremiah 48:17, same word).

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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