God is rather spooked by all the recent rebellions, so he decides to settle the matter once and for all (again). He could have opted to improve worker conditions, raise minimum wage, or institute universal health care, but instead he goes for the single most “I haven’t put any thought into this at all” gesture a deity can make – he gets his people flowers.

But first, a word on all these rebellions. David Plotz identifies two possible explanations for the seemingly bottomless lack of faith of the Hebrews. Either they:

  1. are a faithless, cynical skeptic
  2. didn’t actually witness the events that you are supposed to have witnessed.

I agree with him that these are the only two explanations if the narrative is being read as… well… a narrative. But there’s a third option that I think is far more likely.

Throughout my reading of the Moses cycle, I get the impression that there must have been some proto-folk tale about the faithless people rebelling against Moses/God. In myth-talk, we might say that all of these stories are getting at the same myth-truth – that it is in human nature to be rebellious against divine authority (that’s my best guess, anyway. The great thing about myth-truth is that it’s so open to interpretation!).

My assumption would be that each individual shrine/community would be putting their own spin on the story, and on how Moses/God/Aaron gotcha’d the people and showed them all what’s what. Next, some poor schmuck of a scribe is handed all of these stories and told: “All of these happened. Figure out how and in what order.” So this guy tries to arrange them sequentially, adds a few bits about God getting really frustrated that the people just don’t seem to be getting the message, et voila! A somewhat tedious listing of a bunch of people behaving in grossly improbably ways!

But if we go back to a more literal reading, the constant state of discontent is actually rather concerning. As the author of A Skeptic’s Journey points out, we’ve come a long way from the songs of celebration as Israel first came out of Egypt. Since then, “there has been no happiness recorded from the people of Israel.”

Back to the flowers

The people have seen a lot of miracles so far – everything from the first born of every single Egyptian dying overnight to the ground opening up and swallowing hole the enemies of Moses – but none of that has left a lasting impression. So God really pulls out all the stops and gets ready for the miracle that will convince everyone that he truly is a God worthy of worship.

Aaron's rod in bloom, by a master of the Marienkirche Stained-glass Panels, Germany, late 14th century

Aaron’s rod in bloom, by a master of the Marienkirche Stained-glass Panels, Germany, late 14th century

He instructs Moses to collect a staff from the heads of each of the 12 tribes, with Aaron standing in as leader for the Levites (and, I would assume, with Ephraim and Manasseh amalgamated for the purposes of this exercise). He then places these staffs before the ark of the covenant and leaves them to marinate overnight.

When the leaders return the next day, Aaron’s staff has blossomed and sprouted almonds. This is apparently God’s way of saying “I choo-choo-choose you!”

(To the men in my audience: If your rod suddenly starts blossoming and growing almonds, please do not just assume that it makes you God’s favoured one. Instead, you should a) wash more frequently, and b) consult your doctor as soon as possible.)

The blooming rod is henceforth to be displayed before the ark of the covenant – “to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their murmurings against me, lest they die” (v.10). Because it just wouldn’t be God talking without a threat to kill people.

My Study Bible tells me that “folk traditions of other peoples contain stories of blossoming rods, clubs, or spears” (p.187), though the only ones I was able to think of off hand or to find in a quick Google search are clearly inspired by the biblical story:

  • The Glastonbury Thorn refers to a story about how Joseph of Arimathea thrust his staff into the ground when he reached Glastonbury and it sprouted, growing into a hawthorn tree.
  • A poet by the name of Tannhäuser went to Rome to receive absolution from Pope Urban IV. The pope refused, saying that forgiveness was as unlikely as his staff blooming. Of course, three days later, Urban’s staff really does, in fact, bloom, but Tannhäuser is nowhere to be found.

And that’s all I was able to come up with. Does anyone else know of a story that involves a staff blooming?

In the meantime, it’s in my Study Bible so I’ll just have to take it on faith that it’s true. After all, if the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.

Are we going to die?

Then comes the straggler, a little portion of the story that makes very little sense in the context. The people are suddenly terrified that they are going to die because “every one who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord, shall die” (v.13).

In the context of the blooming rod, the only sense I could make of this story is if the tribal leaders came and laid their own rods before the ark, thereby being too close to the tabernacle. Now that they are convinced of God’s power, they are suddenly afraid of what will happen to them.

But I peaked ahead to Numbers 18 and I think that this may just be an issue with where the chapter divides were inserted. You’ll see what I mean.