6 So Moses spoke to the Israelites, and their leaders gave him twelve staffs, one for the leader of each of their ancestral tribes, and Aaron’s staff was among them. 7 Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the covenant law.
8 The next day Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds. 9 Then Moses brought out all the staffs from the Lord’s presence to all the Israelites. They looked at them, and each of the leaders took his own staff. (Numbers 17:6-9 NIV)
God (once again) intercedes to put an end to the Israelites grumbling about leadership and direction and destination. This time, each tribal head puts a staff along with Aaron before God and the one that buds is God’s chosen leader.
Reminiscent of God’s earlier acts of bringing water out of rock – life from lifeless, something from a thing that should not produce it. It also connects perhaps to the place that Moses’ rod has in the narrative of the Exodus journey – in Egypt, in the wilderness.
This act of discerning God’s will never happens again, at least not in this way. Other stories echo this one (Gideon’s fleece in Judges 6 for example) but are unique.
Apparently the word for “staff” in Hebrew is a pun on the word for “tribe.”
I love these stories where God makes clear what to do, where to travel. We love them too. We crave certainty. We long for clarity about what God wants.
The tone of this story is negative to me. God intervenes miraculously into a situation where, from God’s perspective, things were fairly clear already – who was to lead the people and where they were headed. God intervenes in the same way a parent might intervene in a squabble among siblings or a powerful country or coalition steps into the conflict between two smaller embattled states.
God’s sign to them is not a complement or a sign of God’s favor. Quite the opposite. When God has to do something wondrous to get our attention that means we aren’t listening. When God has to intervene in some unmistakable way then we have, perhaps, lost our way. In Matthew, Jesus says ““A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! ” Signs might be for those who have lost their way?
God has revealed what we need to know in the Scriptures and especially in Jesus. The church has over many generations – at its best – come to come consensus about many issues and questions. When we need a sign we might ask what we missed along the way. what lesson we didn’t learn. what truth we overlooked to need such an intervention?
God of Mosese and Aaron – you gave your people a sign that they were to lead your people. A sign that should not have been necessary. A sign of their disobedience as much as of your will. May we live out what we know so well and yet live so poorly. May we look not to signs but to Jesus, not to miracles but to the manna you have left in your word and in the best traditions and teachings of your Son’s church. When we need a sign. may we humbly accept it for what it is – a sign but also a censure. And may we not seek such things but rather you. In Jesus’ name… Amen.