Notes (NET Translation)
1 The LORD spoke to Moses:
2 “Speak to the Israelites, and receive from them a staff from each tribe, one from every tribal leader, twelve staffs; you must write each man’s name on his staff.
Each staff symbolizes the entire tribe and its authority. These may be staffs of office (Gen 49:10; Num 21:18) or walking sticks (Gen 38:15, 25; 1 Sam 14:43).
The double meaning of matteh is significant: The dead matteh (staff) springs to life and represents the living matteh (tribe) that God blesses. Furthermore, only the matteh (staff/tribe) of Levi is qualified to be in the Presence of God.1
3 You must write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi; for one staff is for the head of every tribe.
Aaron is God’s choice to be the leader of the Levites.
4 You must place them in the tent of meeting before the ark of the covenant where I meet with you.
The staffs are to be placed inside the Holy of Holies.
Only Moses or Aaron could enter without the consequence of immediate death. Moses would carry out the ritual test, to ensure no tampering by his brother.2
5 And the staff of the man whom I choose will blossom; so I will rid myself of the complaints of the Israelites, which they murmur against you.”
“Blossom” may refer to the whole growth process. The phrase “against you” may seem strange since the test is to vindicate Aaron, not Moses. But we must remember the previous incidents (16:3, 11) where Moses is blamed for appointing his brother to the High Priesthood.
6 So Moses spoke to the Israelites, and each of their leaders gave him a staff, one for each leader, according to their tribes – twelve staffs; the staff of Aaron was among their staffs.
Commentators appear to disagree on whether twelve or thirteen total staffs (tribes) were involved. If only twelve tribes were involved then presumably Manasseh and Ephraim were subsumed under Joseph. Milgrom notes that no tribal leader is ever given for Joseph, but one each for Manasseh and Ephraim. Ashley notes that the consistent practice of the book of Numbers is to count twelve secular tribes in addition to Levi. Levine writes:
The concluding words of v 21 [MT; v 6 in the English], ûmaṭṭēh ʾAharôn betôk maṭṭôtām, constitute an explanatory statement informing the reader that, in addition to the twelve rods representing the tribes of Israel, there was also a rod representing the Levites placed together with the others. It would be incorrect to translate “and the rod of Aaron was counted among them,” for the tribe of Levi was not one of the twelve tribes [counted in the census].3
7 Then Moses placed the staffs before the LORD in the tent of the testimony.
8 On the next day Moses went into the tent of the testimony – and the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted, and brought forth buds, and produced blossoms, and yielded almonds!
Aaron’s staff not only blossoms (v 5), it yields almonds. Were different parts of the cycle of growth still visible or had the entire cycle of growth been completed? The Hebrew text is ambiguous.
We are probably supposed to understand that some parts were in bud, others in bloom and others had fruited. Why it bore almonds is not stated, but it is probably significant. Almond blooms early with white blossom and its fruits were highly prized (Gen. 43:11). White in Scripture symbolizes purity, holiness and God himself (e.g. Isa. 1:18; Dan. 7:9; Rev. 20:11). Jeremiah associates the almond (šāqed) with watching (šāqed) (Jer. 1:11–12). All these qualities were personified by Aaron and the tribe of Levi. They were the holy tribe par excellence, who represented Israel before God and God to Israel, and they were responsible for watching over the people by instructing them in the statutes of the LORD (Lev. 10:11).4
The almond branch in Israelite art and literature was a symbol of life that derived from their Maker. For Jeremiah it was a symbol of God’s guarding his word so as to bring it to pass and accomplish his purpose (Jer 1:11–12). The bud and flower were shaped so elegantly that the three golden bowls on each side of the tabernacle lampstand were patterned after them (Exod 25:31–40).5
9 So Moses brought out all the staffs from before the LORD to all the Israelites. They looked at them, and each man took his staff.
The term translated “looked” often means “look with discernment, understanding.”
10 The LORD said to Moses, “Bring Aaron’s staff back before the testimony to be preserved for a sign to the rebels, so that you may bring their murmurings to an end before me, that they will not die.”
Like the manna in Ex 16:32-35, Aaron’s staff will serve as a sign.
11 So Moses did as the LORD commanded him – this is what he did.
12 The Israelites said to Moses, “We are bound to die! We perish, we all perish! 13 Anyone who even comes close to the tabernacle of the LORD will die! Are we all to die?”
The Hebrew verb karev has the meaning of “encroach”. Here, however, the doubling of the term tells us that the Israelite now fears to enter the Tabernacle even in order to offer his sacrifices lest he, like the chieftains who offered incense, be guilty of encroachment and struck down. The consoling answer is forthcoming (18:1–7): Responsibility for angering God by encroaching upon His sancta will henceforth reside with the priestly and Levitical guards who failed to prevent its occurrence.6
Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.
Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.
Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.
Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.
Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.
Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.