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B'Midbar/Numbers 17:23 ... and behold! the staff of Aharon - for the house of Levi - had blossomed; it had brought out a blossom, flowered a flower and ripened almonds.
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In the aftermath of the rebellion by Korah and his fellows, the people of Israel are unsettled. What Korah did was wrong,HaShem had made that quite clear, but was it really necessary to kill him and all the other conspirators? Was there any possibility that there was some merit in his argument? After all, no smoke without fire and all that. The people grumbled and HaShem sent a plague among them, halted by Aharon running to burn incense among the people, but over fourteen thousand of the people died. We can't go on like this, Moshe is thinking to himself, when HaShem intervenes and offers a positive sign to confirm His choice of Aharon and the Levites to serve as priests and support staff in the Tabernacle. Moshe is to have the tribal leaders each take a wooden staff and write their tribe's name on it, before he puts them in the Tent of Meeting overnight. Then, in the morning, everyone will be able to see - in a clearly supernatural yet at the same time rational and non-threatening way - whose staff and, therefore, which tribe has been selected by HaShem.
Our text describes the four-step process that impacted Aharon's staff: it sprouted, it budded, it blossomed and it produced almonds. In an overnight manifestation of HaShem's power over nature, resurrection takes place: "the dead stick has come to life as a sign of G-d's special choosing of Aharon and the Levites to care for and administer the sanctuary cult."1 This matches the fourfold instructions given to Moshe in setting up the process: "Speak ... take ... write ... deposit" (B'Midbar 16:17-19). Thomas Dozeman comments that "the budding staff is a sign of the divine choice of the Aharonide priesthood to represent the people before G-d."2
Rashi asks why Aharon's staff sprouted almonds rather than some other fruit? His idea is that "it is the fruit which is quickest to blossom of all fruits" and so was able to blossom quickly overnight. Another suggestion comes from Gordon Wenham, who observes that "the whiteness of the budding almond may symbolise purity and holiness, as it does in Isaiah 1.18, Daniel 7:9, Revelation 20:11."FootNote(3) Almond buds and flowers are shaped so elegantly that the three golden bowls on each side of the tabernacle lamp-stand were patterned after them (Shemot 25:31-40). Ya'akov included almonds as one of "the choice products of the land" (B'resheet 43:11, NJPS) in a gift he sent with his sons down to Egypt on their second trip to buy grain (unknowingly) from Yosef.
Jeremiah the prophet was shown a vision of part of an almond tree, like Aharon's staff: "The word of the L-RD came to me: What do you see, Jeremiah? I replied: I see a branch of an almond tree. The L-RD said to me: You have seen right, For I am watchful to bring My word to pass" (Jeremiah 1:11-12, NJPS). Here there is a word play between the noun , an almond tree, and the verb , to be watchful; for Jeremiah, the almond is a symbol of G-d's guarding His word so as to bring it to pass and accomplish His purpose. In our text too, the almond may signify watchfulness, connecting with one of the key functions of the priests: "you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean; and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the L-RD has imparted to them through Moshe" (Vayikra 10:10-11, NJPS). Immediately following this story, HaShem tells Aharon, "You and your sons and the ancestral house under your charge shall bear any guilt connected with the sanctuary; you and your sons alone shall bear any guilt connected with your priesthood" (B'Midbar 18:1, NJPS). That's a big responsibility and calls for great watchfulness!
The root , "to flower, shine, blossom", appears twice in our text in two adjacent words: first as the verb - the Hif'il 3ms prefix form with a vav-conversive - "and he/it flowered"; secondly, the noun , a flower. This is a typical biblical Hebrew technique, repeating the word as a verb-object pair, to give the meaning "it flowered a flower". More significant is that the same noun also appears in "a plate of pure gold" (Shemot 28:36, NASB) (also translated "a flower of pure gold" (NJB) and "a rosette of pure gold" (NRSV)), and "the gold plate, the holy diadem" (Vayikra 8:9), both describing the gold plate that the High Priest wears on his forehead, inscribed with the words "Holy to HaShem". The High Priest carries God's holiness as a crown This also connects with a similar word in Isaiah's prophecy about Jerusalem, that she would be "a royal diadem In the palm of your G-d" (Isaiah 62:3, NJPS). Jerusalem is to be a shining symbol of G-d's glory, a jewel in His hand. Lastly, the same word is also found in a different form - , tziytit - in the command for the well-known Jewish identity marker: "Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner" (B'Midbar 15:38, NJPS). The fringes or tassels are a visual cue, a sign to look at and remember the commandments of the Torah, that the Jewish people are holy and chosen by G-d.
What we can see here, as a thread running through all of these verses and phrases, is that G-d provides visual signs and cues for His people at critical moments in their walk with Him. These signs all have an element of holiness, whether the setting apart of the priests from all the other tribes and clans to be holy before G-d, a marker or demonstration of G-d's holiness, or an every day reminder: be holy today! Part of the miracle of Aharon's staff is that buds, blossoms and mature almonds all appeared simultaneously, contrary to nature where they would appear sequentially. Jerusalem, the city of David, destroyed many times, ignored and left as a back-water for centuries and now a highly contested religious site that is the focus of international concern, is the place where Yeshua will return when He comes to receive His bride and rule the whole earth in truth and righteousness. Even the humble tziytzit is a sign of holiness as well as a call to be holy, with one thread of azure blue amongst the plain white threads, the same blue as the colour of the High Priest's robe: an every day touch of holiness for every man.
Why - when we know that Yeshua told the leaders of His generation, "an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah" (Matthew 16:4, ESV) - does G-d do this? Why does He give so many signs, so many evidences that He exists, that He is involved with the lives of His people, such well-designed daily cues to help us meet and connect with Him? Easy, the prophet tells us, "so that you may know that it is I the L-RD, the G-d of Israel, who call you by name" (Isaiah 45:3, NJPS). It's all about the world knowing that He really is there, that He really is G-d and that nothing escapes Him. G-d communicates with us in these obvious ways because He doesn't want us to miss it. Just as He told the Egyptians that the plagues were imposed upon them "so that you may know that the earth is the L-RD's" (Shemot 9:29, ESV), so Yeshua tells the disciples about things that are going to happen so that "when you see these things taking place, you know that He is near, at the very gates" (Mark 13:29, ESV). Yeshua obeyed the Father in everything "so that the world may know that I love the Father" (John 14:31). We obey Yeshua so that the world may know that He exists, that He is coming back soon and that the day of judgement is approaching. We are - or should be - a sign to the people amongst whom G-d has placed us.
G-d always does more than enough to accomplish His purpose. Consider the angel who announced Yeshua's birth to a group of rather surprised shepherds. Did he go alone so as not to disturb them, in the way that the angel announced the births of John and Yeshua to Zechariah and Mary? Well, not exactly: "suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!'" (Luke 2:13-14, ESV). When Yeshua fed over five thousand men plus women and children, was it enough that "they all ate and were satisfied" (Matthew 14:20)? Apparently not; Matthew tells us that, "they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over" (ibid.).
Rav Sha'ul describes God as the One "who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us" (Ephesians 3:20, ESV). Think carefully about that. Certainly He can do anything and everything, whether we can think of it or not - "for nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37) - but the amazing thing is that the vehicle through which He operates is us. In our text, G-d spoke through a piece of wood. The Bible tells that He spoke to the fathers through the prophets - and we have many of those words - but "in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son" (Hebrew 1:2, ESV). Are you still looking for almonds or are you focusing on Yeshua, the only one who has "the words of eternal life" (John 6:68, ESV)?
1. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 111.
2. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 759.
3. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 157.
Further Study: Judges 6:36-40; John 15:1-4
Application: We have to move beyond pieces of wood and become the living signs that G-d has chosen us to be in these days. Are you still looking for an old miracle or are you blossoming and bearing fruit in Yeshua, the True Vine? Check in with the Head Gardener today and make sure you are plugged in aright!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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