The Comforting Rod and Staff

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Psalm23:4).

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and get twelve staffs from them, one from the leader of each of their ancestral tribes. Write the name of each man on his staff. On the staff of Levi write Aaron’s name, for there must be one staff for the head of each ancestral tribe. Place them in the Tent of Meeting in front of the Testimony, where I meet with you. The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites” (Numbers 17:1-5).

This is a reprint of an earlier post that has for some reason “gone viral” in a small way on the Internet.

Early spring is the ideal time for finding hiking sticks in the Michigan woods.  And as the photo indicates, I’ve done that many times!  I think there are about 60 of them resting on our garage rafters where I put them to dry.  There are probably about 40 or so more in my shop and standing in various corners of the garage.  I used to carve or dress them with leather grips and thongs and sell them in craft stores.  April is ideal because the snow has laid everything flat in the woods, and there are still no big leaves on trees and bushes.  So spotting good straight sticks is easy. [Photo: A few of my sticks drying in the garage rafters -DO]

Once when I was on RBC’s Day of Discovery crew doing TV video shoots in Israel, I brought back a couple sticks as reminders of my time in the Holy Land, one of them of olive wood and the other cypress.  Getting them out of Israel was no problem, but when I got to customs in the US, I was told I had to take them to the agricultural check station for clearance.  The agricultural agent looked them over and then asked me what I was going to do with them.  “They are my rod and staff and they comfort me,” I spontaneously replied.  He chuckled, handed them back to me, and said, “Go ahead”!

On another trip I brought back a two-foot rod that our guide found when we were doing a shoot in the “Shepherds’ Fields” outside Bethlehem where it’s believed the angels announced to the shepherds the birth of Jesus.  These same fields were likely trod by David, Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth.  I’ve seen young Palestinians riding donkeys and using rods like that one to keep the beasts moving—much like Balaam tried to do (Numbers 22).  It’s actually made from the center spine of a date palm frond.  I treasure it.

Because collecting and making hiking sticks is a hobby, I’ve often thought about the frequent mention of rods and staffs in the Bible.  There are different words in the Hebrew Old Testament for the two kinds of shaft, but they are used interchangeably; so it’s difficult to determine what the difference is.  Eight times they are both used in the same passage—so there must have been a distinction between them that escapes us today.  As with the agricultural agent at the customs station, the biblical mention of both staves together that we’re most familiar with is the one in the 23rd Psalm, where David speaks of them as giving him comfort.

Another significant account about the rod is that of Moses conversing with Jehovah, who was speaking from the burning bush (Exodus 4).  At the beginning of the narrative, Moses’ shepherding rod is merely a stick for human use, but after God does miracles with it and instructs Moses to use it to make clear to the Egyptian pharaoh holding the children of Israel in captivity that he must let them go free, it’s called “the rod of God.”  Pharaoh certainly came to know also that is was the rod of God! It was the delivering rod for Israel and a rod of blessing throughout the Exodus, but it was a punishing rod for Egypt.

Sadly, it was also the rod of judgment on Moses because in striking the rock with it and saying, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” God did not permit him to enter the Promised Land. There is a lot of speculation on why this was such an egregious sin that it would result in such a seemingly harsh consequence.  My viewpoint on it comes from the statement made by Moses, not necessarily by his act either of disobedience or a failed attempt to follow God’s directions.  He said, “must we bring you water.”  Well, Moses and Aaron were not the ones who brought them water: it was God. The result is that the people could come to think that Moses and Aaron had the power, not God and the rod God made miraculous.  That sort of presumptive power pattern has been rampant in the church through the centuries.  Leaders with a large human following often forget that their power is from God, not from themselves.  You and I could probably name a number of leaders like that whom God had to bench permanently for such arrogance.

Then there’s Aaron’s rod that budded miraculously to show that Aaron’s descendants were the legitimate priests of God for Israel. It was to be a reminder stick kept as a testimony in the Ark of the Covenant (Numbers 17 and Hebrews 9:4).  Hence a rod must be the shorter of the two.

When all the biblical references are considered, the following meaning comes from the rod and staff: as with a shepherd (figurative of Jesus) they are used to protect against enemies, to discipline, to guide, and to rescue.  It’s also fitting that a royal scepter is called a rod.  And a rod is frequently mentioned as a weapon. A staff is indicated as a ruler’s symbol of authority that stands between his feet—indicating that a staff is likely the longer of the two. The many references to leaning on one’s staff would be further indication that it was likely at least shoulder high.

What does not seem to appear in Scripture is the shepherd’s staff with a crook—the one we see in most Christmas pageants. Because a stick with a crook could be used to pull lambs and sheep out of dangerous places, it eventually did become a common shepherd’s tool in many parts of the world.  (The kind that has a reverse curve on the end is called a leg cleek.  It’s purpose is to grab the leg of a sheep below the knee where it is narrow, but not allow the hoof to slip through. )  (Source of photo here.)

What a beautiful representation these instruments are of our Shepherd and Savior.  He cares for us, protects us, and guides us as with His staff.  He disciplines us with His rod.  Not only that, He is our Lord, the King of kings and has the sole right to carry the ruling scepter as the monarch of the coming Kingdom.  Jesus is our loving Shepherd who will become our eternal ruling Lord.

So why not go out this coming month and cut yourself a good walking stick, and keep it by your door to remind yourself to get outdoors and enjoy His creation, and to remind you of Creator Jesus’ loving care and His redemption of all the earth over which He will reign—perhaps soon! [Photo: Some of my finished sticks: L to R—sassafras, oak, hickory, yucca, and date palm frond spine —DO.  Click on photos to see larger size.]