There is a tendency to treat the words “rod” and “staff” as being basically the same thing in the English language. A quick reference to an English language dictionary will reveal some ambiguity in that the word “rod” is used to explain “staff,” and the word “staff” is used to explain “rod.” All in all, there exists a considerable overlap in meaning.
It turns out that in Hebrew the distinctions are not as crisp as we would like for them to be either. Editorial groups disagree in translations. However, all seem to agree that a rod, or a staff for that matter, is a large, straight stick of some sort. For our purposes, I’ll go out on a limb here and try to make a distinction that will work for this discussion.
As has been said “rod” and “staff” are largely interchangeable. However, “rod” seems to be more closely related to a weapon or even an implement of discipline (e.g. Proverbs 13:24). The “staff” seems to be more related to an implement of support. As I implied, these are general guides only and there is a high degree of interchangeable use.
Another aspect of distinction is that “rod” is closer in meaning to “scepter” than is “staff.” Of course, we are aware that the word “scepter” refers to a visual symbol of authority. Again, though, the imprecision and inconsistency of usage is a bit frustrating.
One thing we can say is that “staff” is generally not used in association with discipline, while “rod” is. Because the use of a rod in discipline is so common, we will use that association. Furthermore, we will extend the use to symbols of rule or authority.
In this discussion, let’s focus on the word “rod” as the proper translation of the entity of our interest. Unfortunately, the translational difficulties I spoke of above yield inconsistency and I will make these comments around that problem.
People who hike a lot, particularly in areas of rough terrain, often adopt what we might commonly call “walking sticks” for their needs for proper balance and physical leveraging in difficult spots. In some primitive societies today, people still often use a strong stick as an aid in ordinary activities. It turns out that the strong sticks that can be used as walking aids are often also used to deal with other situations. They can even be used in situations that involve self-defense. In agrarian societies, these sticks might also be used in the management of domestic animals. The stick is quite flexible in terms of its uses.
This kind of stick is so useful that it usually gets a name of its own. We will sometimes call it a walking stick of course, but older usages often label such a device as a staff – or even as a rod. These sticks would be adapted from fairly straight limbs of fairly strong and durable wood. The sticks would be selected, in fact, on the basis of those properties. It would be of reasonably light weight and reasonable diameter for fitting the hand. It would need to be strong enough to act as a lever in some situations and to be used in moderate self-defense scenarios. It can even be adapted for military use by the addition of a lethal “head” or “point.” Actually, in contrast with modern societies, this stick would be fairly important for the variety of purposes to which it would be put.
The use of a rod or staff in biblical times is pretty well accepted as normal. It is essentially a background phenomenon. The rod or staff is just accepted as being present to the extent that we can assume most people maintained such a device on an ongoing basis. It is probably true that both men and women used these devices commonly.
There is a particular rod or staff to which I wish to turn our attention. That is the rod (or staff) of Aaron, Moses’ brother. This particular rod (staff) was to figure in the history of the Israelites in some significant ways. It is not likely that Aaron had in mind the national importance of his rod when he selected the limb or sapling that he would use as a walking stick. Almost for sure that was the purpose for which he chose that particular stick. On the other hand, having chosen the stick, he would probably expect to use it on an ongoing basis – perhaps for the rest of his life. That would be the common expectation.
While I want us to focus attention on Aaron’s rod, let’s start back at an event that occurred earlier in time than the coming into focus of this particular piece of wood. Moses had left Egypt as a refugee. After about forty years living in the wilderness with his new family, God confronted him at a now famous bush out in the middle of nowhere. At the time of that confrontation (Exodus 3:1 – 4:17, with emphasis on 4:3-5) one of the things God required of Moses was that he put his rod (staff) on the ground for a display of the power He was committing to Moses. You may ask, why did Moses have a staff (rod) that day? Almost for sure, he always had it with him when he was away from his tent. If you will remember, God caused Moses’s walking stick to turn into a snake and back into a stick (requiring a step of faith from Moses). Moses argued with God concerning the charge being given to him. In a sense, God relented and told Moses that He would send Aaron to aid Moses in his charge (Exodus 4:14-16). Otherwise, things would have gone differently in Egypt a few weeks later.
The Lord sent Aaron into the desert to meet up with Moses when the latter was on his way to Egypt. God left nothing to chance. In some sense, when Moses and Aaron met on the desert trail to Egypt, certain components of Moses’ commission were transferred to Aaron for the tests to come. Surely Aaron had his rod in his hand when he met Moses.
Probably because of Moses’ recalcitrance in the desert, it was not to be his staff (rod) that produced the snake-proof at Pharaoh’s court. It was the rod (staff) of Aaron that was used. That is seen in Exodus 7:10-13, where it was Aaron’s rod that swallowed the snakes produced by Pharaoh’s officials. Perhaps, had Moses not been so reluctant as to argue with God in the desert, it would have been Moses’ rod that was used. There are some interesting implications here for the nature of the Levitical priesthood, but that is not our subject at this point.
After the initial conference in Pharaoh’s court, there were three other instances where Aaron’s rod was used in judgment of Egypt: the curse of blood (7:19-20), the curse of frogs (8:5-6), and the curse of gnats (8:16-17). Pharaoh’s officials were able to keep up with the blood and frog curses, but they failed on the gnats. After that it was not necessary for Aaron’s rod to be used again (as far as the text reveals). We may infer that Aaron’s rod was the instrument of God’s judgment until the Egyptian officials failed. From that point on, the Lord differentiated His people from the Egyptians by means of exempting the Israelites from the judgments. Let’s be clear. As long as the Egyptian magicians could replicate a curse, the rod of Aaron was the evidence of God’s action. After the Egyptian magicians could not replicate a curse, the proof was the immunity of the Israelite community from the curse. Perhaps Aaron’s rod was the first evidence of God’s judgment. From the fourth plague onward, the action was in the hands of Moses and Aarons’ rod was not mentioned again during the plague narrative.
It seems that Aaron’s rod, as an implement of God’s judgment, wasn’t seen again in Egypt. It probably reverted to being the “simple” mode of walking support for Aaron when the delivery mode of the plagues shifted from it. No doubt, when the Israelites left Egypt not many days later, Aaron took up his rod, as before the plagues, as a walking stick. It seems that he and the Israelites would be a bit in awe of the use to which the rod had been put, but that had passed now.
About a year later, the time was coming for the Israelites to move from Mt. Sinai in their wanderings. The failure to heed the council of the two righteous spies had brought the people up to the time for the wanderings. One of the last scenes before the setting out took place was when the people challenged the authority of Moses. After an outbreak against the people in which quite a few died from a virulent plague (Exodus 16:42-50), God required that the issue of authority be resolved by the bringing of the rods. The twelve tribal leaders were required to bring a rod from each tribe for a test. The rod was to be the one used by the tribal leader. In order to preserve the integrity, each leader’s rod was to have his name carved on it. In addition, Aaron’s rod was to be brought after receiving the inscription of his name. God instructed Moses to tell the people that He would cause the authoritative rod to sprout. Now, these were dead sticks that were no longer attached to a life source. So, if one of them sprouted, that would be a pretty authentic proof of God’s selection in the matter (Exodus 17:1-13). Well, not only did Aaron’s rod spout, under controlled conditions, it also budded, blossomed and produced almonds. That was fairly definitive.
Now the Lord required that Aaron’s rod that had one been a walking stick, to be kept in the tabernacle along with the ark of the covenant. What a rod! Snake, bringer of blood, bringer of frogs, bringer of gnats, bearer of almonds in its “dead” state, and companion to the ark of the covenant. I guess Aaron had to find another stick to use for walking for the rest of his life. The original one had been appropriated by God as a sign for an entire nation.
It turns out that such a device could also serve the function of measurement. One could use it to determine distances between objects. For example, two tents in the desert might be arranged a certain number of rod-lengths (rods hereafter) apart. If this was done on a large scale, the camp could be kept in fairly regular order, thereby facilitating all manner of activities to include moving the camp. The “rod” is not used in the Old Testament text as a measurement. However, most other linear measures are of similar kind. For example, a cubit was the length of a forearm. Of course, such things would only work if the length of the forearm of every adult male was exactly the same as that of every other adult male. That is not logical. So even though a cubit was the length of a forearm (elbow to finger-tip of middle finger), almost for sure there was a “standard cubit” that could be used to settle matters of measurement. The keeping of such a “standard cubit” would be performed by some authority and that authority could be relied on only if the “standard cubit” was always the same length. So, they might get a piece of wood and cut it to size that the authority determined to be a “standard cubit.” Thereafter, that would be a “standard cubit” and could be relied on to help regularize measuring processes.
What if Aaron’s rod became a standard measurement? After all, a rod would typically be a proportion of a person’s height to be comfortably useful. If there were a “standard” length of a rod, we could say a person’s walking stick (e.g. Aaron’s) was a rod long. If the length of a rod was used to measure some things, then Aaron’s rod would standardize that measurement. Imagine that, Aaron’s rod as the standard of authority and as the standard of how far apart tents or latrines were. Perhaps when Aaron’s rod became the symbol of authority for the Israelites, it would also be used by the various elders to test the length of their rods. Food for thought.