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Bible Commentaries

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical

Numbers 17

Verses 1-13

FOURTH SECTION
The New Miraculous Confirmation of the Aaronic Priesthood

Numbers 17:1-13 (Heb. Text Numbers 17:16–28).

1And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 2Speak unto the children of Israel, and take 1of every one of them a rod according to the house of their fathers, of all their princes according to 2the house of their fathers, twelve rods: write thou every man’s name upon his rod. 3And thou shalt write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi: for one rod shall be for the head of bthe house of their fathers. 4And thou shalt lay them up in the 3tabernacle of the congregation before the testimony, where 4I will meet with you. 5And it shall come to pass, that the man’s rod, whom I shall choose, shall 5blossom: and I will make to cease from me the murmurings of the children of Israel, 6whereby they murmur against you.

6And Moses spake unto the children of Israel, and every one of their princes gave him 7a rod apiece, for each prince one, according to their fathers’ houses, even twelve rods: and the rod of Aaron was among their rods. 7And Moses laid up the rods before the Lord in the tabernacle of 8witness. 8And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of gwitness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded 9almonds. 9And Moses brought out all the rods from before the Lord unto all the children of Israel: and they looked, and took every man his rod.

10And the Lord said unto Moses, Bring Aaron’s rod again before the testimony, to be kept for a token against the 10rebels; 11and thou shalt quite take away their murmurings from me, that they die not. 11And Moses did so: as the Lord commanded him, so did he.

12And the children of Israel spake unto Moses, saying, Behold, we die, we perish, we all perish. 13Whosoever cometh anything near unto the tabernacle of the Lord shall die: shall we be consumed with dying?

EXEGETICAL AND CRITICAL

In reference to the connection of this section with the foregoing and following ones, Knobel remarks, that this outcry (12, 13) would come in very suitably after Numbers 16:44, Numbers 16:45, but certainly does not belong here a day after the plague had ceased, and when Jehovah was already reconciled (Numbers 17:10). This critic, who is usually able to discover an interpolation where there is none, passes by the present striking indications of one without further remark. Keil, on the other hand, finds no difficulty in believing that the story that Aaron’s rod brought forth in one night, not only buds, but also blossoms and fruit, is the simple and literal truth. Yet the question presents itself: Was not the confirmation of Aaron by the act of incense-offering, that abated the great pestilence, stronger than the confirmation by the miracle of the blossoming rod, in which Moses alone attended to depositing the rod in the Tabernacle, and which might so easily have occasioned fresh mistrust? If after Numbers 16:50 we read Numbers 17:12, there appears a complete connection. And this connection continues in 18. when it states of Aaron: “Thou and thy sons and thy father’s house with thee shall bear the iniquity of the Sanctuary,” etc. These words stand out like a commentary upon the act of atonement enjoined before. The phenomenon of Aaron’s rod blossoming calls to mind the joys and honors of the priesthood, rather than its sufferings and humiliations, and it could hardly call forth a cry of woe from the people, but would sooner evoke a festal celebration. However, if there seems to lie before us here an interpolation of a later date, still we hold fast that it belongs within the sphere of revelation, and refers to some mysterious fact connected with the Aaronic priesthood, to which has been given a symbolic form. The motive of the interpolation here was the desire to put together the various testimonies to the divine legitimacy of the Aaronic priesthood; just as a similar interest occasioned the interpolation of 1 John 5:7, and in like manner the incorporation of the Epistle of Jude in 2 Pet. (see my Gesch. des apostolischer Zeitalters, I., p. 156). According to the assumptions of canonical purity, we can understand the interpolations that occur very seldom, and have a motive, easier than we can understand a continuous revision of three chapters with interpolations such as is assumed by our worthy colleague in the work on Daniel in reference to Daniel 10-12. [see Dr. Zoeckler’s Introd. to Daniel, § 4, Rem. 1, On the Unity, and the Comm. at Daniel 10-12., “Prelim. Remarks on the Last Vision of Daniel,” and Dr. Lange’s hypothesis regarding Daniel in the volume on Gen., Introd., § 25.—Tr.]. The interruption of the connection is here, as in 2 Pet. and in 1 Jno., to be particularly noticed as a specially important indication. Thus also in the book of Joshua we cannot ignore the connection between Numbers 17:13 and 16 of chap. 10.

[The result of the foregoing, stated in plain terms, is that there never was such a miracle as the blossoming of Aaron’s rod. Nothing is saved by the indefinite notion of “some mysterious fact connected with the Aaronic priesthood, to which was given a symbolic form,” unless this very miracle was the mysterious fact, and the symbolism is that of the miracle itself as recorded. Something that was not this miracle, but is recorded as a startling miracle that is incredible, cannot, as regards the record, “belong to the sphere of revelation,” for the record is false, and it is the record that is the revelation for us. It reveals nothing if the facts were not so. Moreover the symbolism is nothing without the fact. But if such a miracle was wrought, then it fits into the present history. The abruptness of the account harmonizes with the event. How could such a miracle happen in any other way? Once accept the simple account, and the moral harmony of the events soon impresses the mind, and is expressed by many commentators. Thus Calvin says: “Although the majesty of the priesthood had been already sufficiently, and more than sufficiently established, still God saw that in the extreme perversity of the people there would be no end to their murmurs and rebellions, unless a final ratification were added, and that, too, in a season of repose, inasmuch as, whilst the sedition was in progress, they were not disposed and ready to learn.” And on the outcry of the people, Numbers 17:12-13, Bush remarks: “A miracle of mercy seems to have extorted from them the confession which previous miracles of judgment had failed to do.”—Tr.]

Numbers 17:2-3. The twelve rods are taken from the twelve princes of Israel’s tribes, according to the rule that the eldest son of a father’s house (patriarchate) within a tribe is the prince. Aaron was older than Moses. The rods that they took were not necessarily the staves that they used; they could be fresh rods, and it is an intruded notion of Keil’s to represent here, that the staves, as staves of the head of the house, would signify the man’s dignity as ruler, whence the staff of the prince becomes the sceptre. According to Keil, the explanation of Ewald, that fresh cuttings of the almond tree were taken, and the rod marked with Aaron’s name blossomed the best over night, goes flat in the face of the text. Of course this is true regarding absolute literalness. But it is allowable here, too, to look on the letter as anointed with the oil of symbolic-spiritual expression. Moreover, the antithesis: the priesthood did not have its root in natural dispositions and natural gifts, but flowed from the power of the Spirit, sets nature and grace in a false opposition. We know, for instance, that Aaron had the natural gift of eloquence; but the Lord made this the basis of the anointing with the priestly spirit. The almond tree is called the alert, the one early up in reference to blossoms and fruit, Jeremiah 1:11 [see Almond-Tree in Smith’s Bib. Dict.—Tr.]

Numbers 17:5. For the present, the mortal judgment of Jehovah and the subsequent atonement had subdued the murmuring of the people. But it might in the sequel be aroused again. This was to be counteracted by the budding and blossoming of Aaron’s rod. Does that mean: the permanent reminiscence of the miracle once performed, and the knowledge that there was a rod in the Holiest of all, laid beside the ark of the covenant, that the people did not see? [Dr. Lange seems to hint at an absurdity here. If so, we might reason in the same way about the pot of manna and of the tables of the Law.—Tr.] or does it not rather have the symbolical meaning: the staff of the priest must maintain itself in the full recognition of the people by its fresh, spiritual budding, blossoming and fruit-bearing? Any way, the rod in the Holiest of all fell now and then only under the eyes of Aaron, also in chap. 18. things appertaining thereto are laid on his heart.

Numbers 17:6. The rods were each designated by the name of the tribal prince that they represented; Aaron’s was among the rest

Very much as in drawing lots. [The rods were not marked with the names of the tribes, Levi excepted, for which Aaron’s name was substituted, as Keil states. “The Levites had taken part in the late outbreak. It was therefore necessary to vindicate the supremacy of the house of Aaron over them; and accordingly his name was written on the rod of Levi, although, being the son of Kohath, the second son of Levi (Exodus 6:16 sqq.), he would not be the natural head of the tribe.” Bib. Comm.—Tr.]

Numbers 17:9. As Moses went back and forth alone in caring for the rods, the decision effected by the blossoming rod brought out of the Holiest of all presupposes the most decided confidence, whereas the people saw the atoning cloud of incense. This consideration might also point away to the rich symbolical contents of the passage.

Numbers 17:12-13. These outbursts of mortal terror can hardly be referred to the priestly rod. Only the newly decked staff of the pontiff in the middle ages could occasion such an outcry from his associates and the popular masses that were subject to him. On the other hand, they fit perfectly to the story of the terrible judgment of death. [This fact does not conflict with the miracle having its influence also. The ruin that followed their presumption and the proof that Aaron was chosen to stand before God in holy things were fitted to bring them again to the mind they exhibited Exodus 20:19 : “Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” Only now the feeling is with reference to Aaron, and not Moses, and with reference, not to God’s approaching them, but their approaching God.—Tr.]

With regard to the almond trees in the peninsula of Sinai, and analogous stories outside of the sphere of the theocracy, and also other interpretations of our text, e.g. that Jehovah decided for Aaron’s rod by lot, and that then his rod was decked with blossoms and fruit in token of the decision, see Knobel, p. 99.

In regard to the number of the rods, it is assumed by Knobel and Keil that Aaron’s rod is counted in with the twelve rods, consequently that Ephraim and Manasseh are reckoned as one tribe of Joseph (“as Deuteronomy 27:12”). This view is more probable than that of Baumgarten, that Aaron’s rod was written on a thirteenth rod.

Baumgarten gives the strongest antithesis to the universal priesthood in the following words: “The rod of the chosen priest must become alive again by the miraculous power of Jehovah, before whose face the rods are laid down. That is, the priest, apart from his office, is a natural man (!), and as such subject to death, and set outside of the power and fulness of life, as a severed and dried staff (one put out of office?). But by the consecration of the holy oil and ornament there comes into him and over him, in the power of Jehovah, the new life of the Spirit, so that he can impart of its fulness to others.”

HOMILETICAL HINTS.

Chap. 17. The budding rod of Aaron with its blossoms and fruit a certificate of his priestly calling. The dry and dead priestly rods as witnesses against a dead priesthood. Against a dead conception of office.

Footnotes:

[1]of them rods, one for each father’s house.

[2]their fathers’ houses.

[3]Tent of Meeting.

[4][I meet with you, Stier, De Wette.—Tr.] Dr. Lange: where I show myself to you. [See on Numbers 1:1 above.—Tr.]

[5]bud.

[6]which.

[7]Heb. a rod for one prince, a rod for one prince.

[8]testimony.

[9]ripe almonds.

[10]Heb. children of rebellion.

[11]that thou mayest make an end of.

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Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 17". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/numbers-17.html. 1857-84.