'Behold - the Staff of Aaron'

Michael Hardt

T&T 2013 Q3

‘When on the morrow Moses went into the tent of the testimony, behold, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and ripened almonds’ (Num. 17:8).

This remarkable event, the budding of the staff of Aaron, contains a wealth of practical teaching, illustrating the nature and importance of the priesthood of Christ for us. As a matter of fact, it is central to this whole section of the book of Numbers. To see this, consider the main events reported in Numbers 16–20:

  • chapter 16: Korah rebels and desires the priesthood;
  • chapter 17: Aaron’s staff buds;
  • chapter 18: Aaron’s priesthood is upheld and confirmed;
  • chapter 19: provision is made for defilement;
  • chapter 20: the two staves and the rock.

The book of Numbers is the book of practical wilderness experience. Chapters 16 to 20 give us the flavour of the difficulties the people of God encounter on the way today, and of the wonderful way in which the priesthood of Christ sustains them in their wilderness journey.

The starting point of this section is a sad one: the rebellion of Korah. His audacious language was: ‘Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy’ (16:3). They were Levites, but desired the priesthood for themselves (v. 10). This was a terrible mistake, and one that has been repeated in Christendom where those who should have been carrying out Levite service have interfered with the rights of Christ by setting themselves up as a special class of ‘priests’, as mediators between believers and God.

This problem is answered in a beautiful way in chapter 17. God commanded that 12 staves, including Aaron’s, be put into the tabernacle, ‘before the testimony, where I meet with you’ (v. 4). Each staff had an inscription: the name of the prince of one of the 12 tribes. Miraculously, overnight, Aaron’s staff sprouted: it put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds. This interesting episode teaches us a great deal about Christ, our high priest:

  • It is not up to man to take it upon himself to be priest. The choice is entirely God’s (see Heb. 5:4).
  • The office of the high priest is based on resurrection power (the buds and blossoms of Aaron’s staff speak of life out of death). Christ was ‘constituted ... according to power of indissoluble life’ (Heb. 7:16).
  • It was a matter of God’s grace working where man could not work, bringing life and fruit where there was only death.
  • It was also a demonstration of God’s power to work in the face of impossibility.

This, and nothing less, was what was needed. As C H Mackintosh put it: ‘The grace that could bring almonds out of a dead stick, could bring Israel through the wilderness.’[1]

Before considering Aaron’s staff and seeing how it was to respond to the needs of the people in the wilderness (ch. 20), let us briefly examine chapters 18 and 19.

In chapter 18 God gives instructions as to Aaron’s service and the service of the Levites. In this way He confirms Aaron in his priestly service and, at the same time, provides a clear demarcation between priesthood and Levite service, making it clear that Levite service (contrary to Korah’s idea) was subordinate to the priesthood: ‘And thy brethren also, the tribe of Levi, the tribe of thy father, bring near with thee, that they may unite with thee, and minister unto thee; but thou and thy sons with thee shall serve before the tent of the testimony’ (v. 2). True Christian service is in view of, and for, Christ the high priest.

In chapter 19 another difficulty is met: defilement by the way. Any contact with death brought defilement, and death was all around: in the tent and in the field, through bones and through graves (vs. 14–16). But God made provision for this in a way that was gracious, yet without compromising His holiness: the water of cleansing made purification possible, but on a righteous basis, the accomplished work of Christ being symbolised in the ashes of the red heifer. Interestingly, Aaron is mentioned in this chapter (v. 1) but he is not the one who slays the heifer, nor is his son Eleazar, soon to be his successor. Rather, another person does so (vs. 3–4). This is in line with the fact that, while the priesthood of Christ is founded upon His accomplished sacrifice, the sacrifice itself is not part of His activity while in the office of the high priest.

This takes us to chapter 20, a true wilderness chapter: it starts and finishes with death (first Miriam’s, then Aaron’s) and in between you have a thirsty and murmuring people. In such wilderness circumstances, what is the means, if any, by which the people can be sustained? The answer is: the staff of Aaron, priestly grace, in connection with the rock — which was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4). Hence God’s instruction to Moses: ‘Take the staff, and gather the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes, and it shall give its water’ (20:8). When God says ‘take the staff’, He means Aaron’s staff, not Moses’s. This is very clear from the next verse: ‘And Moses took the staff from before Jehovah, as he had commanded him’. Not Moses’s but Aaron’s staff was in the tabernacle — it was the staff of which God had said: ‘Bring Aaron’s staff again before the testimony, to be kept as a token for the sons of rebellion, that thou mayest put an end to their murmurings before me, that they may not die’ (17:10). The priestly staff was the only one that could now help, not the staff of judgment. It was so clear that God does not consider it necessary to specify which staff was meant: ‘take the staff’.

What happens next is a solemn thing. Moses is provoked. The meekest man that had ever lived now fails in meekness. Instead of overcoming evil with good he is overcome by evil. ‘Hear now, ye rebels’, he says, ‘shall we bring forth to you water out of this rock?’ And it says: ‘And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his staff smote the rock twice’ (v. 11). This was a double mistake: now it was his staff, not Aaron’s;[2] and instead of speaking to the rock he smote the rock. What happened was also a double misrepresentation of God:

1)  Only priestly grace (not judgment) could bring the people through the wilderness and into the land.

2)  The judgment had fallen on Christ once, as illustrated in Exodus 17. The smiting of the rock was never to be repeated. The wilderness modus operandi was not ‘smite the rock’ but ‘speak ye unto the rock’ (v.8).

The staff of Moses had been instrumental in the deliverance of the people out of Egypt. It had turned water into blood. It had brought the judgment, and only through judgment could the people be delivered — but it is a judgment that fell upon Christ. Moses’s staff had made the waters of the Red Sea bury the Egyptian army; the judgment of Christ — and our death with Him — is our deliverance from the world and the enemy. But this staff could not sustain the people. This only Aaron’s staff could do. We quote again: ‘Bring Aaron’s staff ... that thou mayest put an end to their murmurings before me, that they may not die’ (Num. 17:10). The staff of judgment could only make an end to the murmurers. Making an end to the murmurings was something only Aaron’s staff could do.

‘Well’, you may say, ‘but water did come!’ Yes, it did indeed (v. 11). The rock was still the rock, and the servant’s failure did not abolish the grace of God. However, the staff of Moses brought death, both for himself and for Aaron: ‘ye shall not bring this congregation into the land that I have given them’, God had to say (v. 12), and in the end of this very chapter we have to witness the solemn scene of Aaron being stripped of his high priestly garments, ‘and Aaron died there’ (v. 28). Here, again, we learn by way of contrast. Our high priest will never be called upon to give up His office. He became priest in a manner that prohibits abolition (by an oath), and this very oath confirms that it is not for a time but ‘for ever’: ‘Thou art a priest for ever’ (Heb. 5:6); and this was confirmed by an oath, showing that it is irrevocable and unchangeable (Heb. 6:17).

Are you feeling the heat of the desert, a lack of refreshment, an inclination to murmur? How good to remember these words: ‘behold, the staff of Aaron’ and ‘take the staff ... and speak ye unto the rock’ (Num. 17:8; 20:8). Priestly grace (Aaron’s staff) and access to Christ (‘speak to the rock’) are the resources of faith while we are on our journey.

Michael Hardt


[1] Notes on the Book of Numbers.

[2] Some might argue that this was quite understandable as using the staff of Aaron to smite the rock would have destroyed the blossoms and almonds. While that might be true, Moses should not have smitten the rock at all on this occasion.