Meditations in Exodus: 87. A Sign for the Rebellious
Num 17:10 The LORD said to Moses, “Put back Aaron’s staff in front of the Testimony, to be kept as a sign to the rebellious. This will put an end to their grumbling against me, so that they will not die”
In the previous chapter we observed the plague that was coming as God’s judgment after the Lord had threatened to judge all the people for their grumbling, but as the priests interceded for them, the Lord had mercy on them and the plague was stopped. We marveled at why the Lord had not finished completely with this people. It might be helpful to itemize again the order of the things that had recently happened:
- They arrived at Kadesh on the border of the Promised Land (Num 13), spies had gone in and ten of the twelve brought back a bad report that swayed the nation who then refused to enter the Land (Num 14).
- Because of this the Lord decreed that the whole of the nation over the age of twenty would die in the wilderness in the coming years and the younger generation would only enter when the older generations had eventually died out. (Num 14:29-35)
- Subsequent to this, presumably still at Kadesh but it may be later, Korah and at least 250 community leaders had risen up against Moses and Aaron and had been destroyed when the earth swallowed them up (Num 16).
- Incredibly this was followed by the people grumbling against Moses (16:41) and when the Lord sent plague against them, it was only stopped by Moses getting Aaron as High Priest to make atonement. (16:46-50)
Thus we arrive at a point of time when Israel are consigned to a life in the desert, have been on the verge of being wiped out by the Lord for their ongoing rebellious attitude, and are teetering on the brink of existence. What will they do? What will the Lord do? How can they carry on?
Our verse above explains what follows as the Lord’s activity seeking to end their grumbling so that they will not yet be destroyed. The Lord proposes a strategy whereby His will and the sanctity of the priesthood will prevail. Observe:
“The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and get twelve staffs from them, one from the leader of each of their ancestral tribes. Write the name of each man on his staff. On the staff of Levi write Aaron’s name, for there must be one staff for the head of each ancestral tribe. Place them in the Tent of Meeting in front of the Testimony, where I meet with you. The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites.” (Num 17:1-5) It is very simple. Each tribal leader is to present their staff with their name on it – and Levi’s will have Aaron’s name on it. These staffs are to be put in the Tent of Meeting overnight and whoever’s staff buds by next morning will be the one chosen by the Lord. That will put an end to all the grumbling about who is a leader and who is not. This they do (v.6,7)
What follows is amazing: “The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Testimony and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the house of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds.” (v.8) It is undoubtedly a miracle because it not only budded, but leaves had formed AND blossom AND fruit appear on it.
Moses takes all the other staffs and gives them back to their owners – unchanged! – and the Lord tells him to put Aaron’s in the Tent as an ongoing reminder to everyone that Aaron, the high priest is His chosen on. (Num 17:9-11) The impact on the leaders and the people is instructive and obvious: “The Israelites said to Moses, “We will die! We are lost, we are all lost! Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the LORD will die. Are we all going to die?” (v.12,13)
Now, interestingly, they are not given an answer, or at least one is not recorded. What is recorded is Aaron, his sons and his future sons, and the Levites being appointed to serve in the Tabernacle for the centuries to come. The Lord is very specific: “You are to be responsible for the care of the sanctuary and the altar, so that wrath will not fall on the Israelites again.” (Num 18:5) The priesthood is to be the means of the salvation of the Israelites by providing atonement for them whenever they sin (stated elsewhere). The rest of the chapter is about how they are to be provided for, not ever having land of their own. Chapter 19 is all about killing and burning a red heifer, a cow, outside the camp and using its ashes as a cleaning agent in water whenever uncleanness occurs. It is simply a law about maintaining or regaining cleanliness. In other words the whole emphasis swings away for a couple of chapters away from the failures of Israel to the Lord’s provision for them of a priesthood which they have already seen can stand in for them and preserve them when, in reality, they deserve death.
The whole affair of the staffs, and the laws that follow establishing the priesthood, clearly speak of the Lord’s grace that is doing everything it can to preserve this foolish people. We may wonder about this because they are a people condemned to die in the wilderness – well the older generation at least – but what we have here are the Lord’s actions to head off further folly which could contaminate the younger generation. The Lord’s intent is for that younger generation to grow up in the wilderness, to learn from it all, and be ready to go in and take the Land when the older generation has died off. All we have been reading about has been the Lord’s activity, working to help bring that about. How amazing! This is the God of grace and mercy with whom we have to deal. Praise and worship Him!