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Deeper Commentary


Num 17:1 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying-
God's efforts here were so that the leadership of Moses and Aaron would be accepted, so that others wouldn't be slain for pretending to the priesthood (:9). We marvel at His grace. The people had returned to Egypt in their hearts, and were looking to overthrow the leadership so they could appoint a captain who would lead them back there. It was only God's desire to finally save His resistant people that meant He went to this effort to preserve the spiritual leadership of Aaron. Truly God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather ever seeks to save.

Num 17:2 Speak to the children of Israel, and take of them rods, one for each father’s house, of all their princes according to their fathers’ families, twelve rods. Write every man’s name on his rod-
The names written were presumably the names of the heads of the tribes (:3). "Rods" can also mean "tribes", so a rod was an appropriate symbol for a tribe (Gen. 49:10). This incident is really a commentary on the rebellion of chapter 16. Just as Korah and the rebels had come "before Yahweh" to offer their incense, so the rods were placed before Yahweh. Aaron's rod was chosen, and was returned to permanent status "before Yahweh", just as Aaron and the Levites were confirmed as the priestly tribe. The process with the budding rod took took two days (Num. 17:33), just as the trial of Korah did (Num. 16:16).

We marvel that despite the dramatic judgements of Num. 16, people still doubted God's choice of Levi. Aaron had sinned badly at the time of the golden calf and in trying to grab power from Moses. In any human organization, Aaron would not have been used as a leader or High Priest. But Moses' intercession was so powerful and Divine forgiveness and restoration so total, that God now treats Aaron as High Priest and strongly justifies him as such. And yet the rod of Aaron pointed forward to the Lord Jesus, as if to teach that although indeed God had chosen Aaron, the ultimate High Priest was not him but the Lord Jesus Messiah. It is surely the choosing of Aaron in this chapter that is alluded to in Heb. 5:4: "One does
not take the honor upon himself, but he that is called by God, just as Aaron was".

Num 17:3 You shall write Aaron’s name on the rod of Levi; for there shall be one rod for each head of their fathers’ families-
The exercise was in order to declare the spiritual leader of the people, and so Aaron's name was placed on Levi's rod; for Aaron was, as it were, the candidate God was putting forward.

The rods likely had the names of the princes of the tribes written on them, just as Levi's rod had the name of Aaron on it. Aaron is here chosen as the head of his ancestor Levi's families. But Aaron was descended from Levi's second born Kohath, not his firstborn (Gershom). So clearly God is again showing that He prefers working through the second born, not through the firstborn, whom secular culture and wisdom would have made leader. We think of the Jacob-Esau drama.

Num 17:4 You shall lay them up in the Tent of Meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you-
God met with Israel over the ark in the most holy place (Ex. 25:22; 30:6; Num. 17:4). But they were never allowed there. And so He also "met" (s.w.) with Israel at the door of the tabernacle, and spoke with them there (Ex. 29:42,43; 30:36). But the word for "meet" is used in Am. 3:3, where God laments that Israel had not "met" with Him and therefore they could not walk further together. The idea of the "meeting" was that God's word might be revealed, so that the people could walk with Him in His ways. It was an awesome invitation, to be able to meet with the God who only otherwise met with His people in the glory of the most holy place, over the ark. He as it were came out of that most holy place and met with them at the door of the tabernacle. But they weren't interested. Just as so many today. 

Num 17:5 It shall happen, that the rod of the man whom I shall choose shall bud; and I will make to cease from Me the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against you-
See on Num. 26:9. Israel’s rejection of Moses was a rejection of the God who was working through Moses to redeem them. Thus Korah and his followers “strove against Moses... when they strove against Yahweh” (Num. 26:9 cp. 16:11). Moses understood that when Israel murmured against him, they murmured against Yahweh (Ex. 16:2,7; Num. 17:5; 21:5). They thrust Moses away from them (Acts 7:27,39) - yet the same word is used in Rom. 11:2 concerning how God still has not cast away Israel; He has not treated them as they treated Him through their rejection of Moses and Jesus, who manifested Him.

The Hebrew for "murmur" is the word for "stop", and is usually translated in that way. The idea is that they didn't want to go further on the journey; they wanted to return to Egypt. Despite the wonder of the Red Sea deliverance. Their hearts truly were in Egypt. This sense of not wanting to go onwards towards the Kingdom, to put a brake on God's saving process, is the same temptation which in essence afflicts all God's people who have started the journey with Him. Their murmuring against Moses was a murmuring against God; our attitude to our brethren is our attitude to God. See on :12,13. 

Num 17:6 Moses spoke to the children of Israel; and all their princes gave him rods, for each prince one, according to their fathers’ families, even twelve rods; and the rod of Aaron was among their rods-
Or, 'was a part of their rods'. Perhaps to achieve fairness, one long rod was cut up into twelve smaller sections. This meant that presumably the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh were counted as one tribe, as there were to be 12 rods. However, the fact the tribes were each invited to give a rod suggests that the rods were the existing symbols of eldership possessed by the princes of the tribes. Aaron's rod has featured previously (Ex. 7:8-10,19-21; 8:5,6). And it could be argued that in the Exodus record, Moses' rod is functionally the same as that of Aaron.

Num 17:7 Moses laid up the rods before Yahweh in the tent of the testimony-
All the rods were cut off and dry, unable to produce fruit. The fact Aaron's rod budded and bore fruit was therefore evidence of God's grace through the Spirit, giving life and fruit to that which was otherwise unable to bear fruit. The idea was that Aaron and his descendants were not intrinsically better than the other tribes; for this was the impression which the other tribes had. He was simply the chosen channel for the Spirit in the particular work of priesthood. And it is the same with any used by God in public ministry. The rod had previously been a serpent but had been transformed from that. That's the message of how completely God can cleanse and then use and then justify a sinful man like Aaron. A pattern for us.

Num 17:8 It happened on the next day that Moses went into the tent of the testimony, and behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and put forth buds, and produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds-
The language of budding, blossoming and bearing fruit is used in Is. 27:6 about all Israel. God's gracious restoration of Aaron is a pattern for all. That's why the language of Aaron's budding rod is used of all the righteous: "They are planted in Yahweh’s house [as the rod was left in the ark], they will blossom [s.w.] in our God’s courts" (Ps. 92:13); "the righteous shall blossom as a branch / rod" (Prov. 11:28). The initial hearers of Isaiah’s words would have thought back to how Aaron’s rod budded, blossomed and bore fruit as a sign that God had chosen that family and not all Israel. However, Is. 27:6 makes it clear that God’s ideal intention was that all Israel would be a nation of priests (Ex. 19:6). This came to fulfilment in essence with the end of the Levitical priesthood and the establishment of all those in Christ as a new priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5).  

The “almond is the first tree of spring in the Near East” and “the last to shed its leaves”. It was the watching tree ["almond" and "watching" are related words], and is used like that in Jeremiah 1:11. The almond tree therefore suggested speed of judgment. This is a commentary upon the speed of judgment in Num. 16 upon those who resisted the choice of the Levites. We think too of how Uzziah was struck down immediately for offering incense when not a Levite (2 Chron. 26:18). The large blossoms were the pattern for the bowls of the lamps on the candlestick (Ex. 25:33,34). It was perhaps seen as symbolic of the tree of life. The priesthood could be a tree of life to Israel, but only insofar as it pointed forward to the Lord Jesus, the ultimate priest.

The almond is the first tree in Palestine to bud, so it means literally the watching tree, as if it were alive and eager to come to life. The High Priests were to pronounce the blessing that Yahweh would bless and watch over His people (Num. 6:24). They were the channel for that blessing. The idea is that the fruit on the almond was a kind of firstfruit, with promise of further fruit amongst other trees. It had always been God's intention that all Israel should be a nation of priests. The fruit was a sign of what the work of the priests should achieve for all Israel; the essence was not the rod but the fruit. God wanted Israel as a whole to be fruitful; He wanted them all to blossom, bud and fill the earth with fruit (Is. 27:6). The priesthood were to be but a foretaste and firstfruit of a far greater blossoming of all Israel. And yet this remained God's intention only. The whole idea was reapplied and reinterpreted for fulfilment in the Lord Jesus and all in Him.  

The candlestick is described in similar terms, having bowls like almonds, flowers [s.w. "buds"] and blossoms (Ex. 25:31-34). The idea was that the priesthood should be like the candlestick, giving light in the darkness of the tabernacle where there was no natural light, and illuminating the way towards the most holy place and fellowship with Yahweh Himself. The people were bidden see Aaron's budded, blossoming rod as a kind of candlestick. For that was how the priesthood was to be through the teaching of God's word to Israel and bringing them towards fellowship with God. Hence the imagery of the candlestick is later applied to all believers (the church is the candlestick, Rev. 1:20), for it is God's intention now that all believers are priests (1 Pet. 2:5).

Num 17:9 Moses brought out all the rods from before Yahweh to all the children of Israel: and they looked, and took every man his rod-
God's interpretation of the almond rod in Jer. 1:11,12 was that "I watch over My word to perform it". The word translated 'hasten' or "watch over" is very similar to the word for 'almond'. Almonds are associated with God's eyes; the bowls of the lampstands were almonds (Ex. 25:33,34). Zech. 4:2 talks about these almond bowls on the candlestick, and Zech. 4:10 interprets them as the "eyes of Yahweh which run to and fro through the whole earth". 2 Chron. 16:9 talks about the Angels in the same way; "the eyes of Yahweh run to and fro throughout the whole earth to show Himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward Him". Similarly in Rev. 4:5 the lamps in the bowls of almond are equated with the "seven spirits (or Angels) of God". Rev. 5:6 equates the seven eyes with the seven spirits. Thus the almond rod which Jeremiah saw represented God's eyes or Angels who would watch over the word of God which Jeremiah was to speak to perform it. Jeremiah was a priest, and this was to have been true for all the priests. Their most important role was to teach God's word. They are called elohim just as are the priests. All Israel could have been priests, that was God's original intention; but they failed, and so He had chosen a specific family to do this work. But it was ever His intention to make all Israel blossom and bud (see on :8).

The triumph of Aaron's rods over the other rods is what had happened in Ex. 7:12, when Aaron's rod had swallowed up the other rods of Egypt's leaders. The situation is so similar that we are obviously led to understand that God saw an apostate Israel as no better than Egypt- to where anyway they wished to return, and had returned in their hearts. God's apostate people are often likened to the world, and in the last day will be judged with the world whom they have failed to separate from, even perhaps being sent back into the world to share their judgments.

Num 17:10 Yahweh said to Moses, Put back the rod of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept for a token against the children of rebellion; that you may make an end of their murmurings against me, that they not die-
GNB "It is to be kept as a warning to the rebel Israelites that they will die unless their complaining stops". LXX "a sign for the children of the disobedient; and let their murmuring cease from me". It seems that this is directed at the family members of those slain in Korah's rebellion and the plague which followed. Despite the dramatic deaths of around 15,000 people (Num. 16:32,49), it seems that their relatives were still murmuring and were likely to also be slain. Aaron had successfully interceded for the plague to be stopped and for all Israel not to be destroyed as God had intended. And yet despite such grace and all that empirical, visible evidence, they still wanted to overthrow Moses and have a captain to take them back to Egypt. For they had returned there in their hearts. It was only God's desire to ultimately save His people which meant that He persevered with His plan, and therefore went to the trouble of giving further evidence that Moses and Aaron were His chosen leaders.  And He did this "that they not die". He didn't want to slay anyone.  We note that the "they" whom God didn't want to die were at this point largely the condemned generation. They were condemned to die in the desert, but God had pardonned them according to Moses' word. He therefore planned to save them ultimately, as He did Moses who likewise was denied entry to the land. But they were set against that plan, and God is trying still to make it work.

The chosen rod was specifically that of Aaron, it had his name written on it, just as the other rods had the names of the tribal leaders and not the tribes written on them. The selected rod showed "the man I choose" (:5, not "the tribe"). The rod that blossomed was the chosen High Priest. Aaron had been the salvation of sinful Israel through his powerful intercession in the previous chapter. His rod represented that indeed he and his priesthood were the channel God had chosen rather than the rest of Israel. But Aaron was himself sinful. His rod had once become a serpent earlier (Ex. 7:8-10). But now it blossomed eternally [the blossoms apparently didn't wither, speaking of "fruit that remains" eternally] with the buds of new resurrection life coming from the dead wood. This all looked forward to the Lord Jesus, "the man I choose" (:5, not "the tribe") who was the ultimate high priest who would save. His fruit, like ours, will eternally abide. Unlike all fruit of secular life. Despite having once been human [cp. the rod once being a serpent]. There were buds, blossom and fruit on the rod. We see in this the way the Lord had His own fruit but also promise of future fruit through us. Although there is also the idea of judgment: "Behold, the day, behold, it comes: your doom is gone forth; the rod has blossomed, pride has budded... The rod of My son condemns every tree" (Ez. 7:10; 21:10). Aaron's rod had specifically been used to bring some of the plagues of judgment upon Egypt. So the rod was both a token of judgment to rebellious people, as :10 states, and also the guarantee of their salvation, "that they not perish". This is what we see in the Lord Jesus- the token of both judgment and salvation. It's why the cup of wine from the Lord's hand is a double symbol, of both judgment and salvation. For there shall only be one of two possible exits from the day of judgment. The Lord is called "the rod" from the stem of Jesse (Is. 11:1). The dry tree branch would blossom / flourish (s.w., Ez. 17:24), words applied by the Lord to His own death and resurrection. The menorah lampstand likewise had buds and blosoms (Ex. 25:31-36) looking ahead to the Lord Jesus as the light / lampstand of the world (Jn. 8:12). The wood of blessing clearly also speaks of the stake of wood upon which the Lord was crucified. A rod was a symbol of kingship, whereas here it is the symbol of priesthood. We can discern therefore that a future High Priest is being spoken of, who would be a king-priest- the Lord Jesus. Almond blossom is white but some argue that the almonds in the desert had red blossom, possibly hinting at the Lord's blood being the basis of the true High Priesthood.

Later in Num. 20:9 Moses is asked to take this rod from "before Yahweh" and speak to the rock, so that water would flow for them. The rod being "before Yahweh" refers back to how Aaron's rod that budded was placed before Yahweh (Num 17:22). So it was that rod which was used, and abused. The symbol of God's choice of Aaron was abused by Moses as if it had power of itself. We note that "his [Moses'] rod" in Num. 20:11 is lacking in the LXX and Vulgate, rendering simply "the rod". They used this symbolic piece of wood as if it had power in itself, just as some consider the physical wood of the Lord's cross to have some magic power. And they were condemned for doing so. The same error occured with the bronze serpent. Moses was asked to hold the rod because it was the symbol of warning to a rebellious people; in both passages the people are called "rebels".

Num 17:11 Moses did so. As Yahweh commanded him, so he did-
The obedience of Moses is stressed throughout the records, and is used to present him as a type of the Lord Jesus (Heb. 3:2,5). The point here may be that Moses as a non priest, a Levite and not the High Priest, had entered the most holy place before the "testimony" and the very presence of God, and then re-entered it a second time- and had not been slain. Because God is not a literalist nor legalist. It would not have been appropriate if Aaron had done this, as he was as it were one of the candidates. Constantly we see God overriding the letter of His own law in order to keep the Spirit of it.

Num 17:12 The children of Israel spoke to Moses, saying, Behold, we perish! We are undone! We are all undone!-
Their sense that they are condemned and liable to destruction comes right after the declaration of Aaron's family as the rightful priests. We wonder why they now feared so much. Presumably they had continued some plan to take over the tabernacle service and leadership; see on :5,13. Isaiah quotes these words when he feels he has come too close to God's presence (Is. 6:5). It would seem that despite the mass destruction of 15,000 such rebels in Num. 16, many still wanted to rebel, and had come too close to the tabernacle; hence :13 LXX laments that whoever touched the tabernacle would die. Perhaps there was yet another [unrecorded] outbreak of judgment after Aaron's rod was revealed, and now the rest of Israel are recoiling from it, fearing that they will "all perish" (:13). Their declaration of fear here and in :13 can be taken as a complete lack of faith in the work of Aaron and the intimated future Messiah to save them. They may allude to "It is to be kept as a warning to the rebel Israelites that they will die unless their complaining stops" (:10 GNB). Their comment is as if they were saying that they were going to continue complaining, and so they expected to die.

Num 17:13 Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of Yahweh, dies! Will we all perish?-
LXX "Who touches...". it would seem that they had touched the tabernacle or had attempted to "come near" to Yahweh as the priests alone were to "draw near" to Him. The subsequent warning in Num. 18:3 of death for doing this would imply that this was said by the Levites. Likewise Num. 18:22 "Henceforth the children of Israel shall not come near the Tent of Meeting, lest they bear sin, and die". This is clearly given in the context of the rebellions of Num. 16,17, where the Israelites had tried to do this. And indeed it seems they had come near the tent of meeting and touched the holy things, and it was of grace that more of them had not been slain for doing so.

It seems they still refused to accept they could not do the work of the priests, and therefore Num. 18 warns them yet again. Despite the fearful events of Num. 16, with the destruction of 15,000 people who had tried to revolt against Moses and Aaron, it seems that some were still "murmuring" against them and seeking to take over the tabernacle. Hence their deep fear when Aaron's family were confirmed as priests; see on :12,13. Tragically it seems that no matter how much God speaks and demonstrates His will, people will still rebel against Him. Empirical evidence seems to have no value, compared to the power of a heart which has returned to Egypt and away from God. The answer to "Will we all perish?" is left hanging- because the real answer is 'You should have done, but Moses and Aaron whom you so despised interceded for you, and you did not perish by grace alone'.  

The people feared they would perish after Aaron's rod was chosen because the whole congregation had backed Korah's attempt to share the priesthood amongst the whole people. But the comfort was that it was in fact through the mediation of a Levite, Aaron, that they were saved from this [repeated in Num. 18:1]. Although as with the Lord's sacrifice, they didn't appreciate this. They feared judgment rather than seeing salvation by grace. There was no need for this fear of perishing- if he believed.

Another take is that until this point, access to the tabernacle had been open. Hence Num. 18:22 "Henceforth the children of Israel shall not come near the Tent of Meeting, lest they bear sin, and die". Leviticus only stipulated that the Levites must offer sacrifices. But now there appeared to be some increasing barriers between the people and the sanctuary. Possibly they had not taken the commands about the Levites' role seriously [the change to Levites from firstborns as priests had only happened recently, after the golden calf]. Therefore the people had in practice enjoyed free access to the tabernacle; and now they realized that this was going to cease and the Levites' role was to be enforced. Just as God's initial plan in Ex. 19 had been that the entire nation be priests. Initially all the firstborn were priests. But after the golden calf, only the Levites were to be priests. And now they perceive a further distancing of the people from the sanctuary. This all mirrors Adam's exit from the intimacy of Eden.

"Will we all perish" is literally "shall we be consumed with dying?". Their allusion was to the recent statement that "In this wilderness they shall be consumed" (Num. 14:35). The reality of condemnation had not sunk in until now. Hence their lack of appreciation of how they had been saved from it ultimately by Moses' amazing intercession. Likewise it is only by appreciating that indeed we are condemned that we appreciate the Lord's work.