Aaron’s Almond Staff & Herodotus’ Willow Wands
Numbers 16 and 17
We have a couple of bits regarding the story of Aaron’s budding rod, which our Bibles narrate in Numbers 16 & 17.
The first bit is that Jewish-based Tanakh and Bible publications break the chapters and verse numbers at different locations than do Christian Bibles. We show below chapters 16 and 17 from the Book of Numbers in the New International Version and the Complete Jewish Bible side-by-side. The NIV represents the “Christian-way” of numbering things while the CJB represents the “Jewish-way.” (And, by the way, the “Jewish” CJB is very much a Christian Bible produced by a Christian publisher, David Stern. Rabbi Stern is also Jewish, and a Messianic Jewish Christian. His commentary on the New Testament is a must-have.)
There are other places where Jewish-based and Christian-based verse numberings differ. This occurs often in the Book of Psalms at verses numbered one and two.
Our second bit concerns the use of rods/staffs for divination by the ancients. We simply want to point out a quote by the earliest of early Greek historians, Herodotus, where this sorta thing takes place.
But first, our Bible passage from Numbers 17:16-28, per the Complete Jewish Bible:
Chapter 17 17:16 (1) Adonai said to Moshe, 17 (2) “Speak to the people of Isra’el, and take from them staffs, one for each ancestral tribe from each leader of a tribe, twelve staffs. Write each man’s name on his staff; 18 (3) and write Aharon’s name on the staff of Levi, for each tribe’s leader is to have one staff. 19 (4) Put them in the tent of meeting in front of the testimony, where I meet with you. 20 (5) The staff of the man I am going to choose will sprout buds — in this way I will put a stop to the complaints the people of Isra’el keep making against you.”
21 (6) Moshe spoke to the people of Isra’el, and all their leaders gave him staffs, one for each leader, according to their ancestral tribes, twelve staffs. Aharon’s staff was among their staffs. 22 (7) Moshe put the staffs before Adonai in the tent of the testimony. 23 (8) The next day Moshe went into the tent of the testimony, and there he saw that Aharon’s staff for the house of Levi had budded — it had sprouted not only buds but flowers and ripe almonds as well. 24 (9) Moshe brought out all the staffs from before Adonai to all the people of Isra’el, and they looked, and each man took back his staff.
(vi) 25 (10) Adonai said to Moshe, “Return Aharon’s staff to its place in front of the testimony. It is to be kept there as a sign to the rebels, so that they will stop grumbling against me and thus not die.” 26 (11) Moshe did this; he did as Adonai had ordered him.
27 (12) But the people of Isra’el said to Moshe, “Oh no! We’re dead men! Lost! We’re all lost! 28 (13) Whenever anyone approaches the tabernacle of Adonai, he dies! Will we all perish?” (Numbers 17:16-28, Complete Jewish Bible)
It is in the first year or two after the flight from Egypt (or maybe later?), and representatives from the twelve tribes of Israelites are challenging the idea that Moses and his brother / chief-of-staff Aaron form THE one and only ruling executive and decision-making body for the entirety of the Hebrew nation. Moses is fed up with the latest complaints and, more seriously, this defacto coup d’état, so he and God come up with a supernatural test — a trial really — this one involving twelves staffs provided from the twelve tribal chief representatives of the twelve founding houses of Israel. For the tribe of Levi (from which both Moses and Aaron descend) the staff was labelled with the name of eventual first priest and Moses’ brother Aaron. The eleven others were labelled similarly with current heads-of-house tribal leaders.
Aaron’s rod sprouted flowers and almonds overnight. None of the others produced so much as a bud, and so all staff-owners and tribes were convinced (at least for another day or two) that God sided with Moses and Aaron, and that Moses was the boss in charge.
Here again is how it happened, this time per the New International Version, at Numbers 17:1-13:
The Lord said to Moses, 2 “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. 3 On the staff of Levi write Aaron’s name, for there must be one staff for the head of each ancestral tribe. 4 Place them in the tent of meeting in front of the ark of the covenant law, where I meet with you. 5 The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites.”
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.
10 The Lord said to Moses, “Put back Aaron’s staff in front of the ark of the covenant law, 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.” 11 Moses did just as the Lord commanded him.
12 The Israelites said to Moses, “We will die! We are lost, we are all lost! 13 Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the Lord will die. Are we all going to die?”
(Numbers chapter 17, New International Version)
Greek Historian Herodotus reports on what seems to be a similar (kinda sorta) use of sticks to divine something or other. In the Herodotus Histories case, a bundled and unbundled group of branches, along with the braiding and unbraiding of these pieces, is practiced to produce an account of some future outcome, and, therefore, policy advice. Herodotus writes in 430 BC, which is either 1000 or 800 years later (depending on your choice of scholarly Exodus datings) than Moses’ and Aaron’s use of a divining rod. To be sure, the exact form of magical arts changes over the centuries, but one gets the idea.
Here’s the original Greek historian, Herodotus:
There are many diviners among the Scythians, who divine by means of many willow wands as I will show. They bring great bundles of wands, which they lay on the ground and unfasten, and utter their divinations as they lay the rods down one by one; and while still speaking, they gather up the rods once more and place them together again; this manner of divination is hereditary among them. The Enarees, who are hermaphrodites, say that Aphrodite gave them the art of divination, which they practice by means of lime-tree bark. They cut this bark into three portions, and prophesy while they braid and unbraid these in their fingers. (Herodotus, The Histories. 430 BC. Translation Godley (1920). Pulled from Perseus/Tufts.)
This reminds us of earlier in our Old Testament, in Genesis 30, where Jacob uses branches not merely to divine or discern some outcome, but to effect an outcome:
Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. 38 Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, 39 they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. 40 Jacob set apart the young of the flock by themselves, but made the rest face the streaked and dark-colored animals that belonged to Laban. Thus he made separate flocks for himself and did not put them with Laban’s animals. 41 Whenever the stronger females were in heat, Jacob would place the branches in the troughs in front of the animals so they would mate near the branches, 42 but if the animals were weak, he would not place them there. So the weak animals went to Laban and the strong ones to Jacob. 43 In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and female and male servants, and camels and donkeys. (Genesis 30:37-43, NIV)
Much later, writing circa AD 380, Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus captures some sort of similar branches-of-tree divination, this time however, using branches plus a hanging ring to spell-out, Ouiji board style, the name of a guilty party:
Then a man clad in linen garments, shod also in linen sandals and having a fillet wound about his head, carrying twigs from a tree of good omen, after propitiating in a set formula the divine power from whom predictions come, having full knowledge of the ceremonial, stood over the tripod as priest and set swinging a hanging ring fitted to a very fine linen thread and consecrated with mystic arts. This ring, passing over the designated intervals in a series of jumps, and falling upon this and that letter which detained it, made hexameters corresponding with the questions and completely finished in feet and rhythm, like the Pythian verses which we read, or those given out from the oracles of the Branchidae.” Ammianus Marcellinus. Rerum Gestarum aka Roman Histories. Translation John C. Rolfe, 1935-40. XXIX.1.31. Pulled from Perseus/Tufts.)
The modern use of divining rods to detect water sources is, we suspect, a sort-of continuation of Moses’ divination-by-stick exercise. And of course, practitioners of so-called magic continue to use branches and twigs and sticks and leaves and other objects from nature in their alleged magic arts.
And so, enough of this. It makes Bible Bits feel rather creepy. We simply point out Moses’ selection-by-Aaron’s-stick exercise and with it God’s ability to do what magicians wish they could do. And we note that portions of the Biblical narrative of God’s work with the patriarchs and Moses, et al., in ancient times, reflect the customs and practices of the human eras in which these narratives take place.
God’s blessings to you!
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