The Flowering Staff: Proof of Aaron’s or the Levites’ Election?
Supporting Aaron’s Authority: A Story in Four Parts
Numbers 16 recounts the complaints of Korah, his Levite followers, the 250 chieftains, against the appointment of Aaron and his sons as the sole priestly representatives of Israel (Num 16:7b-11). The first part of the story concludes with Aaron, Moses, and the 250 chieftains offering incense to YHWH in a competition which ends with YHWH sending fire and burning up the 250 chieftains, and killing Korah as well.
Following this story, Numbers 17 presents a series of sequels that highlight the central theme of Aaronide legitimacy.
A. Plating with Bronze Fire Pans—Moses is told to instruct Elazar the priest to gather the bronze fire pans of the 250-chieftains and use them as plating for the altar. This plating will then function as a sign that no one who is not of the seed of Aaron may offer incense before YHWH (Num 17:1–5).
B. Plague and Aaron’s Incense—Next, after the people accuse Moses and Aaron of causing the deaths of the previous day, a deadly divine plague breaks out. Aaron, through the use of his incense fire pan, puts an end to the divine killing, thereby demonstrating the efficacy of priestly ritual when performed by the proper personnel (Num 17:6-15).
C. The Flowering Staff Test—Finally, YHWH provides one last confirmation of the special priestly status of Aaron. God instructs Moses to gather the staffs of the twelve chieftains of Israel, including the staff of Aaron, and to place them in the Tent of Meeting (Ohel Moed) before the edut (testimony). The next morning, Moses shows the people that Aaron’s staff has flowered and produced almonds. He then returns the other staffs to the chieftains but puts Aaron’s staff before the edut, where it is to be preserved as a sign against future rebellion (Num 17:16-26).
An Anticlimactic Test
A closer look at the flowering staff story reveals some discontinuities with its context. The Israelites just witnessed 250-chieftains burn to death by a divine fire, after which they complain and are consequently, struck by a plague. Then, they are saved from this plague by none other than Aaron and his incense pan. The relatively mild miracle of Aaron’s staff flowering overnight (while no one was looking) is anticlimactic after Israel had just witnessed these much more dramatic proofs.
Moreover, this proof has limited success, since immediately after the flowering staff is presented to them, the Israelites go on to complain that they are in danger of dying:
במדבר יז:כז וַיֹּאמְרוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵאמֹר הֵן גָּוַעְנוּ אָבַדְנוּ כֻּלָּנוּ אָבָדְנוּ. יז:כח כֹּל הַקָּרֵב הַקָּרֵב אֶל מִשְׁכַּן יְ־הוָה יָמוּת הַאִם תַּמְנוּ לִגְוֹעַ.
Num 17:27 But the Israelites said to Moses, “Lo, we perish! We are lost, all of us lost! 17:28 Everyone who so much as ventures near YHWH’s Tabernacle must die. Alas, we are doomed to perish!”
This fear makes sense as a reaction to the plague, but why would they say this after seeing a flowering staff?
An Originally Independent Story
These discontinuities suggest that the flowering staff account was an originally independent text, unrelated to the Korah rebellion. This can be seen most clearly in the way YHWH ends his explanation of the test:
במדבר יז:כa וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אֶבְחַר בּוֹ מַטֵּהוּ יִפְרָח.
Num 17:20a And it will be that the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout.
This first half of the verse constitutes a perfect conclusion to the divine instruction to Moses in regard to the “staff test,” the purpose of which is to affirm the identity of the single, chosen staff/tribe. The word for staff, מטה, also means tribe, indicating that the selection of the staff represents the selection of the tribe (and not an individual).
Indeed, I suggest that, originally, the purpose of the text about the staffs was to present YHWH’s first election of his chosen tribe. This is the basic implication of the phrase: It is not that God will cause the staff of the one that he chose (in the past) to flower, but of the one that (in the future) he will choose.
The text thus presents us with an account of how YHWH elected his chosen tribe, the tribe of Levi (see below), from amongst the legitimate—not rebellious or sinful—contenders to the title, representing the other tribes of Israel. For the purposes of such an initial selection, no dramatically terrifying or awe-inspiring miracle was needed. A relatively modest wonder pointing to the identity of the divinely selected individual/tribe was all that was required.
In fact, nothing in the test suggests that it is a response to a challenge at all. It is only in the second half of the verse that the text is presented as a way of putting a final end to the complaints of the Israelites “against you” (עליכם)—Moses and Aaron:
במדבר יז:כb וַהֲשִׁכֹּתִי מֵעָלַי אֶת תְּלֻנּוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֵם מַלִּינִם עֲלֵיכֶם.
Num 17:20b And I will rid Myself of the incessant mutterings of the Israelites against you.
This presentation of the staff test as a response to the numerous rebellions is the work of a later editor.
A New Ending
The scribe who added this story into the Korah complex and redacted it also added a new conclusion to it:
במדבר יז:כה וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה הָשֵׁב אֶת מַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן לִפְנֵי הָעֵדוּת לְמִשְׁמֶרֶת לְאוֹת לִבְנֵי מֶרִי וּתְכַל תְּלוּנֹּתָם מֵעָלַי וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ. יז:כו וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הוָה אֹתוֹ כֵּן עָשָׂה.
Num 17:25 YHWH said to Moses, “Put Aaron’s staff back before the edut (testimony), to be kept as a lesson to rebels, so that their mutterings against Me may cease, lest they die.” 17:26 This Moses did; just as YHWH had commanded him, so he did.
Moses is here told to return Aaron’s staff to before the edut for safekeeping as a sign against Israelite complaining. These verses give the impression of an etiology for the presence of an almond staff in the sanctuary, though it is difficult to know if this reflects any reality.
Either way, these verses serve the same editorial function as verse 20b, and are in some tension with what seems to have been the original ending immediately before them:
במדבר יז:כד וַיֹּצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת כָּל הַמַּטֹּת מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֶל כָּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּרְאוּ וַיִּקְחוּ אִישׁ מַטֵּהוּ.
Num 17:24 Moses then brought out all the staffs from before YHWH to all the Israelites; each identified and recovered his staff.
Verse 24 states that each of the participants in the test took back his staff and resumed carrying it around with him, ostensibly including Aaron’s. Thus, God’s command to Moses to return Aaron’s staff to the sanctuary is surprising, for if Aaron’s staff was going to be preserved in the sanctuary (vv. 25-26), what was the point of having Aaron take it from Moses in the first place (v. 24)?
Staffs as Leadership Symbols
A leader’s staff represented their authority and would have had a distinct appearance, as indicated by the story in Genesis 38, where Tamar sends Judah’s personal items, including his staff, as proof that she was pregnant from him:
בראשית לח:כה לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אֵלֶּה לּוֹ אָנֹכִי הָרָה וַתֹּאמֶר הַכֶּר נָא לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה הָאֵלֶּה.
Gen 38:25 “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?”
This is likely the conception behind the original story, according to which, each tribal chieftain was thought of as having his own, distinctive, tribal staff that was easily distinguishable from the others.
If so, there would seem little reason to inscribe names on the staffs, and this entire theme appears to derive from the hand of the redactor, who wished to introduce this element into the story to emphasize the position of Aaron as the representative of Levi.
I would thus suggest the following reconstruction (the indented, bold material is secondary):
במדבר יז:יז דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְקַח מֵאִתָּם מַטֶּה מַטֶּה לְבֵית אָב מֵאֵת כָּל נְשִׂיאֵהֶם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר מַטּוֹת
Num 17:17 Speak to the Israelite people and take from them—from the chieftains of their ancestral houses—one staff for each chieftain of an ancestral house: twelve staffs in all.
אִישׁ אֶת שְׁמוֹ תִּכְתֹּב עַל מַטֵּהוּ. יז:יח וְאֵת שֵׁם אַהֲרֹן תִּכְתֹּב עַל מַטֵּה לֵוִי
Inscribe each man’s name on his staff, 17:18 also inscribe Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi,
כִּי מַטֶּה אֶחָד לְרֹאשׁ בֵּית אֲבוֹתָם.
For there must be one staff for each head of an ancestral house.
This analysis is supported by two further considerations.
- The final phrase of verse 18, “for there must be one staff for each head of an ancestral house” follows poorly after verse 18a, “inscribe Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi.” It follows better after verse 17a, “Speak to the Israelites and get twelve staffs from them, one from the leader of each of their ancestral tribes.”
- There is no indication in the report of Moses’ fulfillment of the command in verses 21-22 that any names were inscribed on the staffs. In fact, verses 21-22 closely correspond to verses 17-19 as reconstructed above.
Thus, we should assume that in the original story, each chieftain has a distinct staff which is returned to him at the end of the test, including to the winner, who received the special flowering staff.
Aaron as Secondary
Verse 18 is not the only place into which the redactor added Aaron and his connection with the Levites. Other references to Aaron are also problematic since they all give the impression that Aaron’s vindication is equivalent with the vindication of the entire tribe of Levi, in contrast to the other Israelite tribes. For example, Aaron’s staff is referred to as מַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן לְבֵית לֵוִי, “the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi” (v. 23), as if Aaron is the tribal chief of the Levites, and YHWH’s support of Aaron means his support of the house of Levi.
This contradicts the opening account in which the non-Aaronide Levite, Korah, together with other non-Aaronide Levites, challenge Aaron’s special status. In other words, the opening story is about the competition between Levites and Aaronides, while in the flowering staff story, it is between Levites (including Aaronides) and all other Israelites.
This is such a serious problem with the narrative that it cannot be original; instead, all references to Aaron as the representative of the tribe of Levi in this story are redactional. They were added by the scribe who decided to include this independent tradition about the authority of Levites to highlight the divine authority of the Aaronides.
In its original form, the text had nothing to do with the figure of Aaron or the status of the Aaronide priesthood. Rather, it presented the divine selection of the tribe of Levi from all the tribes of Israel to serve as his priestly caste. It is this fact that produced the contextually awkward presentation of Aaron as apparent vindicator of the Levites.
How Many Staffs?
This hypothesis helps solve yet another problem with the text. Twice, the text is ambiguous or even confusing regarding the number of staffs that are gathered, inscribed, and placed in the sanctuary. Are there thirteen staffs (one for each of the twelve tribes plus a thirteenth for Levi) or just twelve:
במדבר יז:יז דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְקַח מֵאִתָּם מַטֶּה מַטֶּה לְבֵית אָב מֵאֵת כָּל נְשִׂיאֵהֶם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר מַטּוֹת אִישׁ אֶת שְׁמוֹ תִּכְתֹּב עַל מַטֵּהוּ. יז:יח וְאֵת שֵׁם אַהֲרֹן תִּכְתֹּב עַל מַטֵּה לֵוִי כִּי מַטֶּה אֶחָד לְרֹאשׁ בֵּית אֲבוֹתָם.
Num 17:17 Speak to the Israelite people and take from them—from the chieftains of their ancestral houses—one staff for each chieftain of an ancestral house: twelve staffs in all. Inscribe each man’s name on his staff, 17:18 also inscribe Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi, there being one staff for each head of an ancestral house.
במדבר יז:כא וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּתְּנוּ אֵלָיו כָּל נְשִׂיאֵיהֶם מַטֶּה לְנָשִׂיא אֶחָד מַטֶּה לְנָשִׂיא אֶחָד לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר מַטּוֹת וּמַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן בְּתוֹךְ מַטּוֹתָם.
Num 17:21 Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. Their chieftains gave him a staff for each chieftain of an ancestral house, twelve staffs in all; among these staffs was that of Aaron.
While the statement “write the name of each man on his staff” (v. 17) indicates fairly clearly that Moses is to inscribe twelve names, the names of the tribal chieftains, on twelve staffs, v. 18 is not completely clear if the “staff of Levi” is presented as an additional staff, beyond the twelve, or as one of them. Similarly verse 21 is unclear: is Aaron’s staff one of those given to Moses by the leaders or was it added to them? This ambiguity is the key to understanding the growth of this text.
The number of tribes in this original text was unambiguously twelve. The tribe of Levi was one of the twelve secular tribes until it became a sacred tribe. Only when the editor added Aaron into the text did this clear presentation become obscured.
The redactor, in accordance with the approach of the Priestly stratum of Numbers, considered the Levites to constitute a thirteenth tribe (cf. Num. 1–3; 8). He thus attempted to present the Levite staff of Aaron as a thirteenth staff. At the same time, the text that he was working with emphasized that there were twelve staffs. The ambiguity in the text is a result of this basic tension.
The idea that Aaron belongs to a secondary reworking of the text coincides with my previous observations concerning the editorial character of the two verses (20b and 25–26) in which Aaron figures prominently. It is also quite apparent in verse 21:
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּתְּנוּ אֵלָיו כָּל נְשִׂיאֵיהֶם מַטֶּה לְנָשִׂיא אֶחָד מַטֶּה לְנָשִׂיא אֶחָד לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר מַטּוֹת
Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. Their chieftains gave him a staff for each chieftain of an ancestral house, twelve staffs in all;
וּמַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן בְּתוֹךְ מַטּוֹתָם.
among these staffs was that of Aaron.
The secondary character of the last phrase is indicated not only by its belated and loosely connected appearance at the end of the sentence but also by the fact that Aaron is nowhere else in the entire Bible referred to as a tribal chieftain.
If Aaron’s staff was not one of the staffs that Moses gathered, then the initial command concerning it in verse 18 must also be secondary. This fits with what I noted earlier about the secondary nature of the inscribing names theme, which was added to emphasize Aaron’s position as the leader of the Levites. But this is not the theme of the original story.
The point of the original flowering staff story was to present the divine election of a tribe though the selection of the staff that represented that tribe. As noted, the fact that the election focuses on the tribe as a whole is indicated by the play on the words implicit in the term מטה. The personal name of the particular chieftain that brought that staff to Moses does not appear to have been the issue of concern here.
Finally, Aaron’s name was added in verse 23:
וַיְהִי מִמָּחֳרָת וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל אֹהֶל הָעֵדוּת וְהִנֵּה פָּרַח מַטֵּה [אַהֲרֹן] לְבֵית לֵוִי וַיֹּצֵא פֶרַח וַיָּצֵץ צִיץ וַיִּגְמֹל שְׁקֵדִים.
The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the staff [of Aaron] of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds.
The term “staff of Aaron of the house of Levi” (מטה אהרן לבית לוי) is overly bulky and does not appear elsewhere in the text. When the editor expresses himself freely, he suffices with the simple term מטה אהרן (v. 25).
An Early Pro-Levite Text Revised by P
In the original text, the chieftains of each of the twelve tribes presented their staffs to be deposited in the sanctuary. YHWH will make one of these staffs bud overnight, and all agreed that the tribe represented by that staff would be divinely chosen tribe to serve as priests.
The next day, the staff of the tribe of Levi not only budded, but produced almonds! Moses displayed this to the Israelites, and all understood that the tribe of Levi was selected for his service.
The outlook of this text is the same as the book of Deuteronomy.
דברים י:ח בָּעֵת הַהִוא הִבְדִּיל יְהוָה אֶת שֵׁבֶט הַלֵּוִי לָשֵׂאת אֶת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְהוָה לַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי יְהוָה לְשָׁרְתוֹ וּלְבָרֵךְ בִּשְׁמוֹ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
Deut 10:8 At that time YHWH set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the Ark of YHWH’s Covenant, to stand in attendance upon YHWH, and to bless in His name, as is still the case.
According to this verse (see also Deut 18:1-8; 33:8-10), YHWH chose the entire tribe of Levi from all the other tribes to serve as priests before him.
This is very different from the Priestly view of Numbers 1–4, 8, which presents the Aaronides as the chosen priests, and the Levites serve the Aaronides on behalf of Israel. In essence, the struggle of Korah and the Levites for cultic parity with the Aaronides (Num 16:7b-11) is in complete conformity with the position of Deuteronomy! By presenting God killing Korah and the Levites, the Priestly narrator expresses his opposition to the Deuteronomic stance. Ironically, it is this same Deuteronomic stance that stands at the heart of the original tradition of the staffs in Numbers 17.
This means that the original tradition of Numbers 17 did not belong to P, in spite of the Priestly language with which it is now suffused. Is it possible to identify it with some other stream of tradition?
A Non-Priestly Text
I suggest that the original tradition of Numbers 17 may belong to a group of non-Priestly texts that feature the Ohel Moed as a tent that Moses set up for communication with God outside the camp (Exod 33:7-11; Num 11:16-17, 24-30; 12; Deut 31:14-15, 23). Though there is no clear indication in Num 17 that the tent is located outside the camp this may have simply been taken for granted.
The fact that Deuteronomy incorporated one of these traditions in its work suggests a certain affiliation. The affinity with Deuteronomy is also suggested in the presentation of Aaron in the story of Num 12—which comes from this same tradition—as sinful. This coincides well with the original story of the rods in Num 17, which presented the Levites, not the Aaronides, as the chosen priests.
Reconstructed Original Story
The original form of the text can be presented approximately as follows:
במדבר יז:טז וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. יז:יז דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְקַח מֵאִתָּם מַטֶּה מַטֶּה לְבֵית אָב מֵאֵת כָּל נְשִׂיאֵהֶם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר מַטּוֹת // יז:יח כִּי מַטֶּה אֶחָד לְרֹאשׁ בֵּית אֲבוֹתָם. יז:יט וְהִנַּחְתָּם בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדוּת אֲשֶׁר אִוָּעֵד לָכֶם שָׁמָּה. יז:כ וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אֶבְחַר בּוֹ מַטֵּהוּ יִפְרָח . // יז:כא וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּתְּנוּ אֵלָיו כָּל נְשִׂיאֵיהֶם מַטֶּה לְנָשִׂיא אֶחָד מַטֶּה לְנָשִׂיא אֶחָד לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר מַטּוֹת. // יז:כב וַיַּנַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַמַּטֹּת לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה בְּאֹהֶל הָעֵדֻת. יז:כג וַיְהִי מִמָּחֳרָת וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל אֹהֶל הָעֵדוּת וְהִנֵּה פָּרַח מַטֵּה // לְבֵית לֵוִי וַיֹּצֵא פֶרַח וַיָּצֵץ צִיץ וַיִּגְמֹל שְׁקֵדִים. יז:כד וַיֹּצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת כָּל הַמַּטֹּת מִלִּפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֶל כָּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּרְאוּ וַיִּקְחוּ אִישׁ מַטֵּהוּ.
Num 17:16 YHWH said to Moses, 17:17 “Speak to the Israelites and get twelve staffs from them, one from the leader of each of their ancestral tribes. // 17:18 for there must be one staff for the head of each ancestral tribe. 17:19 Place them in the tent of meeting in front of the testimony, where I meet with you. 17:20 The staff belonging to the one I choose will sprout. // 17:21 So Moses spoke to the Israelites, and their leaders gave him twelve staffs, one for the leader of each of their ancestral tribes. // 17:22 Moses placed the staffs before YHWH in the tent of the testimony. 17:23 The next day Moses entered the tent of the testimony and saw that the staff of // the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds. 17:24 Then Moses brought out all the staffs from YHWH’s presence to all the Israelites. They looked at them, and each of the leaders took his own staff.
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Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).
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