Aaron’s rod and its prophetic interpreters

Numbers 17:1-11 relates how the LORD causes a “rod” with Aaron’s name on it to blossom and bring forth flowers and almonds, while the rods belonging the princes of the twelve tribes remain barren. This sign demonstrates the LORD’s election of Aaron’s lineage to the priesthood, and quells the tribes’ rebellious murmurings. This passage is alluded to in a number of places in the Prophets, allusions that are markedly strengthened in its successive translations in the Old Greek and Vulgate.

We’ll start with this network of allusions in the MT:

[Num 17:8 KJV] 8 And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded [פָּרַ֥ח מַטֵּֽה־אַהֲרֹ֖ן], and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds [שְׁקֵדִֽים].

[Jer 1:11 KJV] 11 Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said, I see a rod of an almond tree [מַקֵּ֥ל שָׁקֵ֖ד].

[Eze 7:10 KJV] 10 Behold the day, behold, it is come: the morning is gone forth; the rod hath blossomed, pride hath budded [צָ֚ץ הַמַּטֶּ֔ה פָּרַ֖ח הַזָּדֹֽון].

[Isa 11:1 KJV] 1 And there shall come forth a rod [חֹ֖טֶר] out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out [יִפְרֶֽה] of his roots:

Even in the Hebrew, the similarities among these passages are evocative. While Jeremiah doesn’t use the same word for “rod” (maqal vs. mateh), the presence of “almond” seems like a clear allusion to the Aaronic rod, and it illuminates the choice of fruit in the earlier passage as well: the LORD explains that Jeremiah sees an almond tree (shaqed) because he is hastening (shaqad) his word. Aaron’s rod flowers and sprouts fruit overnight — surely it’s appropriate that the fruit it bears is hasty! Ezekiel’s passage is the closest to Numbers (both share mateh and parach, though in different clauses), and it is a striking use of the earlier image as well. Here, Israel itself has become a parody of Aaron — the high priest’s rod budded with fruit to prove God’s favor, while the priestly kingdom’s rod has budded with pride to bring down God’s wrath. The allusion is weakest in Isaiah, who describes a rod/branch (choter/natser) that grows (parah, cf. the verbal similarity to parach in Numbers 17) from the roots of Jesse. And yet still, reading Isaiah in light of Numbers is suggestive: is the Davidic Branch also a priestly figure? (Cf. Zech 6:11-12)

But now, notice how this intertextual web is strengthened in the LXX/Old Greek:

[Num 17:8 LXX] 8 καὶ ἐγένετο τῇ ἐπαύριον καὶ εἰσῆλθεν Μωυσῆς καὶ Ααρων εἰς τὴν σκηνὴν τοῦ μαρτυρίου καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐβλάστησεν ἡ ῥάβδος Ααρων εἰς οἶκον Λευι καὶ ἐξήνεγκεν βλαστὸν καὶ ἐξήνθησεν ἄνθη καὶ ἐβλάστησεν κάρυα

[Jer 1:11 LXX] 11 καὶ ἐγένετο λόγος κυρίου πρός με λέγων τί σὺ ὁρᾷς Ιερεμια καὶ εἶπα βακτηρίαν καρυνην

[Eze 7:10 LXX] 10 ἰδοὺ τὸ πέρας ἥκει ἰδοὺ ἡμέρα κυρίου εἰ καὶ ἡ ῥάβδος ἤνθηκεν ἡ ὕβρις ἐξανέστηκεν

[Isa 11:1 LXX] 1 καὶ ἐξελεύσεται ῥάβδος ἐκ τῆς ῥίζης Ιεσσαι καὶ ἄνθος ἐκ τῆς ῥίζης ἀναβήσεται

Now, Isaiah has joined Numbers and Ezekiel in sharing a common word (ῥάβδος) for “rod” (Jeremiah is the odd one out, with “βακτηρίαν”). And Isaiah also now has the root raising up an “ἄνθος” or flower, which evokes the rod in Numbers which “ἐξήνθησεν ἄνθη.”

Finally, the parallels are strengthened still more in the Vulgate:

[Num 17:8 VUL] 8 sequenti die regressus invenit germinasse virgam Aaron in domo Levi et turgentibus gemmis eruperant flores qui foliis dilatatis in amigdalas deformati sunt

[Jer 1:11 VUL] 11 et factum est verbum Domini ad me dicens quid tu vides Hieremia et dixi virgam vigilantem ego video

[Eze 7:10 VUL] 10 ecce dies ecce venit egressa est contractio floruit virga germinavit superbia

[Isa 11:1 VUL] 1 et egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet

Finally, all four verses now share a common term (“virga”) for “rod.” As in the LXX, Numbers, Ezekiel, and Isaiah all refer to “flowers” (flos, flores, floro). All of the allusions made by the MT are retained and augmented in the LXX, and all those made in the LXX are retained and augmented by the Vulgate — while some of this might be explicable simply in terms of the exigencies of translation (i.e., perhaps Latin and Greek have a smaller range of terms than Hebrew that roughly mean “rod” or “branch”), the overall impression I get is one of an attentive translator (in Jerome’s case) or set of translators noticing and strengthening a set of intertextual links: translation is interpretation.


This entry was posted in Ezekiel, Intertextuality, Isaiah, Jeremiah, LXX / Old Greek, Numbers, Translation, Vulgate, Zechariah and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Aaron’s rod and its prophetic interpreters

  1. Pingback: Aaronic David | A Commonplace Book

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