It’s not every staff that sprouts, puts forth buds, produces blossoms and bears ripe almonds. That’s a miraculous staff. The account in Numbers 17 – of how the staff of Levi with Aaron’s name written upon it does just this – certainly gets our attention.
Perhaps we are incredulous, or perhaps we wonder whether, if we begin to grumble just as the Israelites did in the aftermath of Korah’s rebellion (Num. 16), we too might receive some miraculous sign to assuage whatever uncertainties we may have about how this world ought to be ordered. But if we let thoughts like these dominate our reflection on this passage and the chapters that follow, we risk missing much of what they have to teach us.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews we learn that the priesthood described here in Numbers is “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain’” (Heb. 8:5). What then is there to see?
First off, we note that the staffs are signs of authority, returned to each man who was over each tribe. Well, each man except one: Aaron the priest, the one whose staff proclaims a special authority, a charism elaborated on in chapters 18 and 19. Aaron is given his priesthood as a gift (Num. 18:7), that he and his sons – indeed his whole house – might serve God in the temple and might receive the consecrated things from all the people of Israel. Those things, a tenth of all their possessions, are not whatever is left over but the best of their crops (Num. 18:12).
The priests are to receive the very best, to eat what others must give. Indeed, if we recall the first chapters of this book, the Levites are the only Israelites who are not included in the census of all who are able to go to war (Num. 1:47-54). Their camp is to be in the midst of all the others (Num. 2:17), where they can benefit from everyone else’s protection. (You may at first think this all sounds like a bit of a racket!)
Yet as easy as it may be to develop such an impression, it is a false one. The Levites are to have no inheritance in the land; God only is to be their portion (Num. 18:20). They are dependent. Moreover, serving God in the tabernacle is hardly without its dangers. Two of Aaron’s four sons, “Nadab and Abihu[,] died before the Lord when they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai” (Num. 3:4, cf. Lev. 10:1-3).
And remember that symbol of authority, Aaron’s staff? It is not to be displayed just anywhere, but to be kept in the tent of testimony, which no outsiders may enter. In essence, what declares the authority of Aaron and his house will only be beheld by the initiated.
This is the crux of the matter: priesthood is not about privileges or worldly recognition. It is about weakness (cf. Heb. 7:28). When Hebrews declares that Jesus is our great high priest, the author underscores that Jesus is a priest as Melchizedek was, who blessed the great patriarch Abraham, lest we fail to recognize his superiority to the Levite priesthood.
Jesus is the high priest of a new covenant, a better covenant than the one under which Aaron’s house served. He is the greatest of priests, because the sacrifice he offered, as he hung weakly on the cross and expired, was his own self. It will suffice for all time.
Even so we are distrustful of weakness; the suffering by which Christ won abundant life for us is a stumbling block to the world. Almond wood staff or crown of thorns may leave us incredulous, but Jesus rose and visited among his disciples that we might behold the truth even now. Take heart, our great high priest is interceding for us in this very moment and he will be returning to save all who await his coming again.