Exodus 4:2, 7:15, 7:20, 9:23, and 10:13 all indicate that the staff or rod involved in producing Yahweh’s signs was Moses’ staff, perhaps even his personal shepherd’s staff. Indeed 4:2, which introduces the staff in the narrative, seems to imply that it was already on Moses’ person: “‘What’s this in your hand?’ ‘A staff.’”
However, Ex 7:10, 7:12, 7:19, 8:1, and 8:12 refer to the same staff now as “Aaron’s staff” and, more surprisingly, depict Aaron, not Moses, performing the famous rod-to-snake, err -serpent (see #92) sign. But if that weren’t enough then there is the reference in Ex 4:20 to the staff as—literally—“the god’s staff.” So whose staff was this: Yahweh’s, Moses’ or Aaron’s?
It is not unusual in biblical literature specifically, and in the mythology of the ancient Near East in general, to find gods depicted with magical or divine weaponry. Stelae preserved from the ancient Levant commonly portray Mesopotamian deities with maces, thunder bolts, swords, and clubs in their possession. Similarly, the Canaanite deity, and later rival to Yahweh, Baal, is depicted as wielding a staff or a spear, and even defeats the primordial chaotic Sea with a club (#2).
Furthermore, many of the Assyrian kings claimed to possess weapons belonging to the gods, specifically staffs—an idea which even finds parallels in ancient Greek culture where it is claimed that Agamemnon wields the staff of Zeus for example (Iliad). Thus, there is biblical precedent for divine weaponry or other paraphernalia imagery in both Canaanite religion and ancient Near Eastern mythologies of the gods and their monarchs. These ideas and imagery were adopted by the biblical writers.
Not surprisingly then that in the Bible we often find Yahweh depicted as possessing a staff or sword (Isa 10:24-26, 30:30-32; Ezek 20:37, 30:24-25), and he is even referred to as a staff-wielding shepherd (Mic 7:14). There are likewise references to angels bearing staffs, such as Gideon’s angel (Judg 6:21). Granted some of these references are to be understood metaphorically (e.g. Isa 30-32; Ezek 30:24-25), but others clearly are not, such as the reference in Ex 4:20 to “the god’s staff.” There is nothing metaphorical about this; apparently it is the rod that Moses holds in his hand (4:2-5). Likewise it is Yahweh’s staff that he holds in his hand when striking the Nile with the first plague in 7:17, or is it? (see #104).
Thus it is not inconceivable that Moses’ rod is some sort of divine staff, or perhaps an extension of Yahweh’s staff, or metaphorically his power. The Hebrew expression matteh ha’elohim could also be translated as “the divine staff” or even “the staff of the gods” and thus could simply denote a staff with supernatural powers.
The more significant textual variation is that between the claim that this was “Moses’ staff” on the one hand and “Aaron’s staff” on the other hand. Here we are on familiar ground. The difference is explained by acknowledging the two textual sources brought together here: E and P. This is one of several forthcoming examples of the Priestly writer altering the traditional story handed down to him and imposing his own agenda onto the narrative. This textual alteration not only presents Aaron in a superior light than Moses, but it also legitimates the Aaronid priesthood of a later generation over their Levite rivals.
Depicting Aaron in a superior light and the altering of Moses’ staff to Aaron’s staff reflects a centuries long rivalry over the priesthood between the Levites and the house of Aaron. This is how scribes denigrated the position and claims of their rival, by demoting and denigrating their forefather. In both the Golden Calf narrative, an E text (see #135), and Numbers 12 (E), Aaron comes in for heavy criticism and the Levites under Moses’ guidance are the heroes, as well as Yahweh’s high priests. In the Priestly literature, however, it is Moses who is depicted in derogatory terms (see his “uncircumcised lips” (#93)), and Aaron is displayed in a more superior role, and it is Aaron and his sons who are legitimated by Yahweh as high priests. In P, in other words, Yahweh is presented as legitimating the authority of Aaron and the Aaronids as his sole officiating priests.
The Priestly writer also makes Moses Aaron’s younger brother (#95). This and other literary techniques enabled the Priestly writer to discredit the claims of his rival by showing their forefather, Moses, in less than flattering terms while portraying Aaron in greater stature.
It is apparent what the Priestly writer is up to. Moses is relegated to the position of Yahweh’s mouthpiece. And this is the traditional view. It is Moses who communicates verbally with Yahweh and it is Moses who conveys verbally Yahweh’s commandments and wishes. Even in P’s plague narrative Yahweh commands Moses to tell Aaron to take up his staff and perform the sign. But this is the only position that Moses has in the Priestly literature. It is Aaron who performs God’s word and who officiates God’s cult. Stay tuned for more examples of P’s subversive re-interpretation of “history.”