Monday, April 04, 2022

Anonymous Asks (191)

“What is the significance of the staff that produced buds?”

My boss has always been a little sensitive to criticism of people he has appointed to positions of responsibility in our organization. There is good reason for this: after all, he appointed them. Complaints about the suitability of a man or woman he has chosen to serve in one capacity or another may be legitimately construed as personal attacks on his judgment, and they carry with them the implication that maybe someone else would have been better off doing the choosing.

You can imagine how well that sort of comment goes over with him. It doesn’t.

Too Many Coups Boil the Wrath

A similar situation occurred repeatedly in Israel, and it is not difficult to understand why God took criticism of his leadership choices very personally. Today’s question is a reference to Numbers 17, which is a sort of postscript to Korah’s rebellion. In the previous chapter, a Levite named Korah and over 250 men from Israel’s congregation had staged a coup attempting to strip Moses and Aaron of the leadership responsibilities assigned to them by God himself.

Their complaint may even have seemed reasonable to some listeners. It was certainly robustly egalitarian: “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?”

Their attitude was not a surprising development. Five chapters previously, Aaron himself had argued much the same point. That episode had not ended well.

During that earlier incident, the writer of Numbers remarks that “Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth”. It was not in his nature to stridently come to his own defense. After all, he was doing a job that he had never truly wanted in the first place. On top of that, he was well over eighty years old at this point, and probably more than a little exhausted with the gig. From a purely human perspective, Korah’s desire to usurp his position (and Aaron’s) may have sounded to Moses like a grand idea. The problem is that it was not God’s idea. God had called Moses and Aaron to positions Korah coveted, it was not up to anyone else to unilaterally replace God’s choices. Moses did not need to defend his position. God would validate his choice in his own inimitable and most memorable way.

So then, Korah’s coup ended with his 250 followers incinerated by fire from the Lord, two families of rebels swallowed up by a miraculous earthquake, and almost 15,000 grumbling Israelites who had supported them dead of a plague, which was only stopped because Moses himself intervened on their behalf.

What has all this to do with the staff that budded? So glad you asked.

The Staff That Budded

The fate of Korah’s followers left no doubt that God was displeased with their grumbling and fully prepared to defend his leadership choices. The worst of the agitators had met their fates and would foment no further rebellion. Moreover, before long Moses would go the way of all flesh, and never again (until Christ, of course) would Israel have a leader who occupied precisely the same role as Moses: a prophet and judge with a freedom of access into the immediate presence of God that exceeded even that of the High Priest. Men like Joshua would lead them into battle with their enemies; judges and kings would be raised up to shepherd, instruct and protect them as required; but the unique position Moses occupied before God would never again be replicated in the nation’s history. It did not need further defending.

But the nation of Israel were a forgetful people, and God wanted to leave them with a permanent witness to the fact that the ongoing role of High Priest was always intended to be occupied by members of Aaron’s immediate family. It was not a role that just anyone, no matter how spiritually qualified, might choose for himself. So the tabernacle of the testimony received one further testimony to God’s sovereignty and right to rule.

God instructed Moses to have each tribe of Israelites produce a staff with the name of their tribal chief written on it. As serving High Priest, Aaron would have his name written on the staff for Levi, and the twelve other staves would bear the names of the candidates the various tribes wished to put forward. All the staves would be placed overnight in front of the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy Place, and God promised Moses that the staff belonging to the man of his choice would shortly sprout new growth.

Life from the Dead

Now, anybody who has done a bit of gardening knows that it is certainly possible for a cutting from a bush or tree to sprout new growth afterward. Many times a cutting withers and dies off when disconnected from its source, but sometimes, when put in water or quickly replanted, a chance exists that new growth may eventually be produced. But it is only because the connection to earth or water is maintained that this happens. Take a branch, trim off the bark, smooth it down and turn it into a walking stick or a shepherd’s crook, and that is quite a different thing. Moreover, though new growth may happen when the connection to earth or water is maintained, it does not happen luxuriously in a single night.

However, this is exactly what happened with Aaron’s staff. The writer of Numbers records that on the very next day, unlike all the other staves, “the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds”. That never happens in nature, not least because of all the various things that might grow from a replanted cutting, the almond nut is delicate and takes seven to eight months to mature. Almond trees also need a particular type of soil to grow in, and they certainly don’t flourish in the dark inside a tent. On top of that, even if the staves had been placed somewhere that was unusually conducive to new growth, all of them had exactly the same opportunity to bloom. Only Aaron’s did.

This lavish demonstration of God-given life out of something which was dead was an incontestible miracle, and unlike the miracles associated with Korah’s rebellion, nobody got killed.

An Important Lesson

What lessons can Christians draw out of this incident for ourselves? Several, I think:

  1. God is not a socialist. That should go without saying, but we live in a day of entitlement, in which many people are of the opinion that the only “fair” way to do anything is to give everybody not just equal opportunity, but to manipulate the outcomes such that all human beings receive an identical lot in life and function in exactly the same way. That is not at all how God does business. He is sovereign, and he assigns to each of us a role to which he has suited us by disposition, maturity, circumstances and spiritual gifting. If you don’t like the lot in life (or in the church) that God has given you, that may be the evidence you need it very badly indeed. The politics of envy are in conflict with the will of God. Christians who envy others do so to their own detriment.
  2. Miracles don’t convince the unconvincible. The story of the staff that sprouted is remarkable in that certain segments of the Israelite congregation repeatedly make the same mistake despite the evidence of their eyes that God is displeased with their rebellion. Having just witnessed death by earthquake followed by death by fire on a grand scale, thousands of Israelites inexplicably thought it might be a bright idea to get together and publicly grumble against Moses and Aaron. A plague followed, and still Israel had not learned its lesson. If we find the lack of signs and wonders in today’s church era unusual or disturbing, we shouldn’t: obedient people don’t need them and obdurate people don’t heed them.
  3. People don’t learn much from history either. To learn from either secular or Bible history, you need to first read it. That is a major problem today. Many of us are acting in ignorance of the fact that the situations we confront have all been lived out before over and over again, and that God’s answer to them has often been clearly given. We need to get into our Bibles, and it wouldn’t hurt to read a bit of ancient history either. I have found it remarkably affirming and clarifying of my beliefs. Aaron’s staff budded, but its lessons were lost on first century Corinthians, many of whom were in danger of despising the ministry of the apostle Paul because he, like Moses, presented as meek, hard-working, sacrificial and service-oriented rather than ambitious, demanding and forceful. The whole of 2 Corinthians was given as an antidote to this awful but very natural attitude toward the men God raises up to serve him. But, like Moses, God was prepared to defend his servant against his detractors. Paul sought to spare the Corinthians such a hard lesson.
  4. God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong. Moses was old, unpopular and meek, while Korah was charismatic, persuasive, acclaimed by the people and able to attract plenty of followers to his cause. But Moses was God’s man and Korah’s only long-term distinction was to serve as an object lesson to the wise. The obvious choices are rarely God’s choices. Again, a little Bible history would help us adjust our metrics. In Christ’s upside-down kingdom, God’s strength is perfected in weakness.

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