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1 Aaron’s Rod 2

Aaron’s Rod bring fire pans for burning incense, in order to let
I. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament YHWH choose whom to support. Korah and his fol-
II. Judaism lowers, with all their households, were swallowed
III. Literature and Music up by the earth, but the congregation was still un-
IV. Visual Arts happy and suffered a plague (Num 17 : 6–15). At
this point, however, the heads of tribes were told
I. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament to bring their staffs – each a symbol of the individ-
The word “rod” or “staff” is matøtøeh in Hebrew, a ual tribe – and place them in the Tent of Meeting
word used frequently of a wooden staff employed (Num 17 : 16–26). Aaron’s staff was included, repre-
to assist in walking or standing. The “rod/staff” is senting the tribe of Levi. The next morning Aaron’s
also often a symbol for authority and power; the rod had sprouted, put out shoots, grown blossoms,
term is even translated “tribe” in many passages and produced almonds, signifying YHWH’s choice
because each tribe had its own identifying staff. of leader. Moses was instructed to place Aaron’s rod
These meanings all come out in any discussion of before the Ark of the Covenant as a sign for Israel
“Aaron’s rod.” The first passage in which Aaron’s for all time.
rod plays a prominent role is the plague narrative This tradition of Aaron’s rod resurfaces in later
(Exod 7–11). God had originally demonstrated to Judaism and in the New Testament. According to
Moses that his staff would turn into a serpent in Philo, for example, the almonds are, as nuts, sym-
Pharaoh’s presence (Exod 4 : 1–5). When the time bolic of “perfect virtue” and several aspects of the
came to present their demands before Pharaoh, almond tree are seen as also characteristic of the
however, both Moses and Aaron came into his pres- priestly tribe (Mos. 2.178–86). Hebrews 9 lists the
ence together. It was also Aaron’s rod that was cast items preserved, according to tradition, in the Holy
down and turned into a serpent (Exod 7 : 10–12). of Holies of the temple. In Heb 9 : 4 Aaron’s rod,
When Pharaoh’s magicians did the same, Aaron’s along with a pot of manna and the tablets of the
rod swallowed theirs up. Moses was then told to covenant, are all said to be in the Ark of the Cove-
take his rod, “that was turned into a snake,” and nant, a new concept contrary to Num 17 : 25 (Heb
strike the Nile which would turn into blood (Exod 9 also puts the incense table inside the Holy of Ho-
7 : 14–18). Yet when the deed was actually done, it lies, contrary to all other descriptions). Another in-
was Aaron who stretched out his rod and struck the terpretative tradition is found in Pseudo-Philo in
Nile (Exod 7 : 19–21). In the later plagues, it seems the passage mentioning the budding of Aaron’s rod
to be Aaron alone who extended his rod to bring (L.A.B. 17 : 1–4). A comparison is made with the in-
about the plague of frogs (Exod 8 : 1–2) and lice cident in Gen 30 : 37–39 in which Jacob places rods
(Exod 8 : 12–13). of almond (and other wood) with stripes and marks
The reason for this discrepancy between who before the flocks, which causes the offspring of the
did the deed – was it Moses or Aaron? – has long flocks to be streaked, speckled, and mottled. Just as
been explained from the Documentary Hypothesis. the flocks (who are like the people of Israel)
The passages with Aaron are ascribed to the Priestly brought forth a particular sort of offspring because
(P) Source. Although Aaron is prominent in the of the rods, so the people of Israel produced the
Pentateuch as the first priest and head of the priesthood tribe through Aaron’s rod.
priestly tribe, the passages in question are all Lester L. Grabbe
thought to be late, mainly a part of the P docu-
ment. The tradition of the Aaronic priesthood II. Judaism
seems to be a late development in Israel’s theology. From the biblical accounts in Exod 4 : 2–4 and
Thus, the narrative relating to Pharaoh originally Exod 7 : 8–12, it appears that Moses and Aaron
had only Moses as the representative of Israel, with turned separate rods into snakes. Most Jewish com-
Aaron introduced only later and secondarily. This mentators agree with this approach. Ibn Ezra (long
hypothesis gives a fairly simple explanation of the and short commentaries on Exod 7 : 9) expresses
discrepancies relating to Aaron’s rod (versus Moses’ the exceptional view that there was only one rod
rod) in the narrative. and sometimes it was called the “rod of God,”
Aaron’s rod appears also in a second context. while at other times it was referred to as “Moses’
This has to do with Korah’s rebellion, described in rod,” or “Aaron’s rod.” ShemR 26 : 3 seems to be a
Num 16–17. Korah was of the tribe of Levi to which precedent for Ibn Ezra’s view in rabbinic literature.
the priesthood had been assigned (Num 8 : 5–26). Rabbinic traditions expanded on the biblical ac-
In the present text, the Levites were to assist the count. bShab 97a and LeqT Shemot 7 assert that
Aaronic priests, but Korah, taking 250 chiefs of the Aaron’s rod turned back from a snake to a rod be-
congregation with him, attacked Moses’ position of fore swallowing the Egyptian magicians’ rods. This
pre-eminence over the people as a violation of the tradition reflects a careful reading of Exod 7 : 12,
principle that all the Israelites were holy (Num which states that “Aaron’s staff [and not his snake]
16 : 1–3). Moses had Korah and all those with him swallowed up theirs.” Rashi and other commenta-
3 Aaron’s Rod 4

tors quote this rabbinic tradition. According to lows up the other snakes, as in Exod 7 : 10–12, and
SekhT (Buber) 7, the magicians were unimpressed then becomes a budding bough, as in Num 17 : 8
when Aaron’s snake first swallowed their snakes, (=17 : 23 in BHS, Jewish Publication Society, et al.) –
which led him to perform the “miracle within a both of which feats the Egyptians dismiss, in
miracle” of first turning the snake back into a rod Hurston’s African-American idiom, as “hoodoo.” In
before having it swallow their rods. ch. 14 of Sholem Asch’s Yiddish novel Moyshe (Mo-
In another incident, following Korah’s rebellion ses, 1951), Aaron casts down what seems to be his
and punishment (Num 17 : 16–26), God com- own rod, but after it metamorphoses and performs
manded Moses to take rods from Aaron and the the swallowing feat we are told that this snake “was
princes of each tribe. The rods were placed along- the staff of Moses” – an ambiguity consistent with
side one another and Aaron’s rod blossomed and the haggadic equation of the two brothers’ rods
bore almonds overnight, signaling God’s approval (Yalqut Ps. 869; EJ2 1 [2007] 210).
of Aaron and the tribe of Levi. The rabbis related In musical settings, where Aaron likewise is in-
that a single rod was split into twelve pieces (LeqT evitably bound to Moses (Aaron. IX. Music), his rod
Korahø ) and that Aaron’s rod was placed in the mid- tends to be mentioned in the same breath as Moses.
dle of all the others (TanB Ahø arei Mot 11) to ensure Thus the recitative of the Shulammite (Sulamith)
the fairness of the sign. Medieval and modern com- in the German composer Karl Gottlieb Reissiger’s
mentators also stress the uniformity of the rods. oratorio David (composed 1851), embellishing upon
Most assume that Aaron did not use the same rod 2 Sam 6 : 12, describes God’s ark as containing not
from Exod 4 : 2–4; 7 : 8–12 for the sign in Num 17. only the tablets of the Law but also Aaron’s rod
The commentators also deliberate on the bibli- (Stab) and the desert manna (pt. 2, no. 14). Arnold
cal wording that Aaron’s rod “had sprouted. It put Schoenberg puts the rod/snake trick to its most in-
forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe al- novative use in his unfinished opera Moses und Aron
monds” (Num 17 : 23 [NRSV: 17 : 8]). Rashbam (composed 1930–1932). There, Aaron, favoring
(Samuel Ben Meir) and others understand that the miracle and image to his brother’s truth and ab-
rod budded overnight, and later, it sprouted fur- straction, defiantly snatches Moses’ rod and has it
ther in front of the people. According to Abarbanel, change into a snake in the presence not of Pharaoh,
multiple stages of blossoming coexisted on the but the Israelites, to demonstrate how a rigid law
rod together. can be made supple. Having thus awed them, he
God told Moses to preserve Aaron’s fruitful rod returns the rod to Moses, asserting: “You know the
before the ark to quell future murmurings (Num power that this rod bestows upon the leader [dem
17 : 25 [NRSV: 17 : 10]). According to rabbinic tradi- Führer]” (act 1, sc. 4). Here, as when Moses accuses
tion (bHor 12a; bYom 52b), Josiah hid the fruitful Aaron of making the rod a leader (“Da machtest du
rod and the jar of manna preserved in Exod 16 : 33– den Stab zum Führer”; act 3, sc. 1), it is hard not to
34, along with several other items, in anticipation think of another Führer who was beguiling crowds
of the Temple’s destruction. Rabbinic tradition while Schoenberg composed this opera.
(MekhY Beshalahø Wayisa 5) further notes that Elijah Despite its Moses linkage, the image of Aaron’s
will produce these items at the time of the final re- rod had sometimes assumed a literary life of its
demption. own by the Middle Ages. Congruent with the medi-
Naomi Grunhaus eval Christian exegetical wont of reading christo-
logical meanings into Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
III. Literature and Music texts, the opening stanza of the 12th-century Ger-
As Brian Britt observes (Aaron VII. Literature), man hymn Melker Marienlied attributes the flower-
Aaron’s linkage with Moses is as tight in literature ing of Aaron’s rod to the miraculous work of the
as in the Bible. Accordingly, literary evocations of Holy Mother. Although the next stanza evokes the
Aaron’s rod occur most often in literature primarily flame of the burning bush encountered by Moses
about Moses, which inevitably features the two to symbolize Mary’s virginal purity, the emancipa-
men’s contest against Pharaoh’s magicians: e.g., tion of Aaron’s rod from its Mosaic ties is attested,
Louis Untermeyer’s novel Moses (1928; bk. 3, ch. 1). during the Reformation era, in The Assault of the Sac-
Often there are innovations. For example, the two rament of the Altar (1554) by the Catholic poet and
most famous miracles wrought by Aaron’s rod in polemicist Miles Hogarde (Myles Huggarde). As
separate scriptural scenes are conflated into one Britt notes, Aaron’s rod, like Moses’, was used in
scene of Z. N. Hurston’s novel Moses, Man of the pre-modern literature to signify church govern-
Mountain (1939; ch. 21), although here the miracu- ance. Yet it occurs in lines 89–90 of this poem apart
lous rod is not Aaron’s. When Pharaoh’s priests’ from any allusion to Moses, but rather in typologi-
rods become snakes, Moses, declining “to be both- cal conjunction with Christ’s “worde.” Less than
ered with such children’s foolishness,” hands his two centuries later, independent of any Mosaic or
own rod to Aaron and orders him to cast it down. typological connections, the image was adapted by
When Aaron does so, the rod comes alive and swal- A. Pope as a simile warning against compulsive pre-
5 Aaron’s Rod 6

occupation: “And hence one master passion in the cident / over speakers in the bell tower / known
breast, / Like Aaron’s serpent, swallows up the rest” as Aaron’s Rod.” Evoking both a clichéd post-coital
(Essay on Man [1732–1734] 2.3.39–40). Equally au- smoke and Aaron’s flowering staff, the poem ends:
tonomous is the simile in James Payn’s novel Luck “Suddenly, everyone within earshot / needed a ciga-
of Darrells (1885; ch. 31) capturing the “immense rette, / and although it was February, / almond
distance” an adult character feels from her own trees circling the campanile / burst into bloom.”
girlhood: “Her later life, with its far more impor- Bibliography: ■ “Aaron,” in A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition
tant incidents, had swallowed it up like Aaron’s in English Literature (ed. D. L. Jeffrey; Grand Rapids, Mich.
rod.” 1996) 3. ■ S. Eisiminger, “The Flowering of Aaron’s Rod,”
Some 20th-century poets’ uses of Aaron’s rod Southern Humanities Review 33 (1999) 259. ■ H. Herbert,
recall symbolic and typological interpretations “Aronbrust” (, accessed
from the Middle Ages. Reminiscent of the above- July 28, 2008). ■ D. Jones, The Sleeping Lord (New York,
mentioned Marienlied, D. Jones’ fragment “The Tu- N.Y. 1974). ■ D. H. Lawrence, Aaron’s Rod (ed. M. Kalnins;
Cambridge 1988).
telar of the Place” (ca. 1960) associates Aaron’s
Eric Ziolkowski
“budding rod” with the worldwide guardianship of
“Sweet Mair,” Mary’s Welsh name (Jones: 64). In
stanza 11 of Howard Nemerov’s “Runes,” the im-
IV. Visual Arts
age becomes the pivotal nexus in a typological Aaron is often depicted in priestly garments (Exod
chain running from Adam’s fall, through the Da- 28) holding a staff, sometimes with white almond
vidic dynasty, to the crucifixion of Christ, the Sec- blossoms at its top. As a motif for divine selection,
ond Adam. The poet “dream[s]” of Aaron’s rod the image of the flowering staff was incorporated
“that crawled in front of Pharaoh,” which, having into Christian images of Joseph signifying his selec-
emerged from “the tree that stood between the riv- tion by God to be Mary’s earthly husband. Aaron’s
ers [i.e, in Eden],” yielded “the rod of Jesse flower- rod had not only flowered, but also produced ripe
ing / In all the generations of the Kings,” and later, almonds. For this reason, the motif of the “unferti-
…the holy three- lized fruitfulness,” together with the word associa-
Masted vessel whereon the Son of Man tions in Latin of virgo (virgin) and virga (rod), led to
Hung between thieves, and came the crown of the adoption of the almond as a symbol of the Vir-
thorns, gin’s purity in medieval times.
The lance and ladder, when was shed that blood Bibliography: ■ D. Apostolos-Cappadona, Dictionary of
Streamed in the grain of Adam’s tainted seed. Christian Art (New York 1998). ■ L. Ryken et al., Dictionary
of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, Ill. 1998). ■ J. Hall, Dic-
The title of D. H. Lawrence’s novel Aaron’s Rod
tionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (New York 1979).
(1922) refers to the musical instrument of the pro-
Daniel G. Callahan
tagonist, flutist Aaron Sisson, and is thought to
See also /Aaron; /Joseph (Husband of Mary)
bear a phallic implication. Commentator Mara Kal-
nins goes further: “As a keen botanist DHL would
also have been aware that the yellow mullein (Ver-
bascum thapsus), commonly called ‘Aaron’s Rod’,
was reputed to have strong healing properties and
to ward off evil. Possibly DHL recalled that Hermes
gave mullein to Ulysses to keep off the magic of
Circe, significant given the encounter between
Aaron and the Marchesa in the novel” (Lawrence:
313n.). Visually, the plant’s phallic likeness is ex-
ploited for erotic effect by photographer Hans Her-
bert, whose online gallery includes a photo that,
true to its title, “Aronbrust,” superimposes the im-
age of a woman’s breast as the leaf encasing – or
penetrated by – the plant’s vertical shoot.
The phallic suggestiveness of the biblical image
elsewhere makes for sexual parody. “The Flowering
of Aaron’s Rod,” a humorous poem filled with dou-
ble entendre by the American poet Skip Eisiminger,
tells of an engaged couple Peter and Regina, each
“an organ major / at Harmony Baptist College.”
When meeting alone “for organ practice,” “they’d
grease the action, / turn on the wind chest, / finger
the keyboard, / and let out all the stops.” Once, “a
four-hand fugue” they played was “broadcast by ac-