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Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 6: Harmony of the Law, Part IV, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at

Numbers 17

Numbers 17:1-13

1. And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying,

1. Et loquutus est Jehova ad Mosen, dicendo,

2. Speak unto the children of Israel, and take of every one of them a rod, according to the house of’ their fathers, of all their princes, according to the house of’ their fathers, twelve rods: write thou every man’s name upon his rod.

2. Alloquere filios Israel, et cape ab eis singulas virgas per domos patrum, a cunctis scilicet principibus eorum, juxta domos patrum suorum, duodecim virgas: et uniuscujusque nomen scribes super virgam ejus.

3. And thou shalt write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi: for one rod shall be for the head of the house of their fathers.

3. Nomen autem Aharon scribes super virgam Levi: quia virga una erit capiti domus patrum suorum.

4. And thou shalt lay them up in the tabernacle of the congregation before the testimony, where I will meet with you.

4. Reponesque illas in tabernaculo conventionis coram testimonio ubi conveniam vobiscum.

5. And it shall come to pass, that the man’s rod, whom I shall choose, shall blossom; and I will make to cease from me the murmurings of the children of Israel, whereby they murmur against you.

5. Et erit, vir ille quem elegero, illius virga florebit; et ita quiescere faciam a me murmurationes filiorum Israel quibus murmurant adversum vos.

6. And Moses spoke unto the children of Israel, and every one of their princes gave him a rod apiece, for each prince one, according to their fathers’ houses, even twelve rods; and the rod of Aaron was among their rods.

6. Loquutus est ergo Moses ad filios Israel, et dederunt illi onmes principes eorum virgam; singuli principes virgam per domos patrum suorum, duodecim scilicet virgas; virga autem Aharon erat in medio virgarum eorum.

7. And Moses laid up the rods before the Lord in the tabernacle of witness.

7. Et posuit Moses virgas coram Jehova in tabernaculo testimonii.

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, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds.

8. Et fuit, postridie venit Moses ad tabernaculum testimonii, et ecce germinaverat virga Aharon e domo Levi, ac produxerat germinationem, protuleratque flores, ad maturitatemque perduxerat amygdala.

9. And Moses brought out all the rods from before the Lord unto all the children of Israel: and they looked, and took every man his rod.

9. Et protulit Moses omnes virgas illas a facie Jehovae ad onmes filios Israel: qui viderunt, et acceperunt singuli virgam suam.

10. And the Lord said unto Moses, Bring Aaron’s rod again before the testimony, to be kept for a token against the rebels; and thou shalt quite take away their murmurings from me, that they die not.

10. Dixit autem Jehova ad Mosen, Refer virgam Aharon coram testimonio in custodiam, in signum filiis rebellibus; et cessare facies murmurationes eorum apud me, ut non moriantur.

11. And Moses did so: as the Lord commanded him, so did he.

11. Et fecit Moses quemadmodum praeceperat Jehova, sic fecit.

12. And the children of Israel spoke unto Moses, saying, Behold, we die, we perish, we all perish.

12. Et dixerunt filii Israel ad Mosen, dicendo, Ecce mortui sumus, periimus, omnes nos periimus.

13. Whosoever cometh any thing near unto the tabernacle of the Lord shall die: shall we be consumed with dying?

13. Quicunque accesserit, qui accesserit, inquam, ad tabernaculum Jehovae, morietur; nunquid consumendi sumus moriendo?


1. And the Lord spoke unto Moses. Howsoever stubborn the Israelites might be, yet their hardness of heart being now subdued, and their pride broken down, they ought to have acknowledged the authority of the priesthood, and to have perpetually held it in pious reverence. But it is plain from the confirmation of it, which is now added, that they were not yet thoroughly overcome. For God never appoints anything in vain; the remedy, therefore, was necessary, that He now applied to that disease of obstinacy which He perceived still to maintain its secret hold upon their hearts. Herein we also behold His inestimable goodness, when He not only had regard to the relief of their infirmity, but even struggled with their depravity and perverseness, in order to restore them to their senses. In the same way also He now deals with us, for he not only strengthens the weakness of our faith by many aids, but He puts constraint upon our light and inconstant minds, and retains us in the path of duty though we strive against Him. He likewise anticipates our willfulness, so as to keep us from growing presumptuous, or rouses us up when we are disposed to be slothful. In fact, his our business so to apply to our use whatever helps to faith and piety He sets before us, as to be assured that they are so many pieces of evidence to convict us of unbelief Although, therefore, the majesty of the priesthood had been already sufficiently, and more than sufficiently established, still God saw float in the extreme perversity of the people there would be no end to their murmurs and rebellions, unless the final ratification were added, and that, too, in a season of repose, inasmuch as, whilst the sedition was in progress, they were not so disposed and ready to learn. By this confirmation, then, He set aside whatever doubts could at any time arise, when Aaron’s rod, severed as it was from the tree, was the only one of the twelve which blossomed. For it was no natural circumstance that a branch which derived no sap from the root, and which at that season of the year would have been dry upon the tree, should produce flowers and fruit, when it was east before the Ark of the Covenant, whilst the others, although altogether similar, remained dry and dead.

2. Speak unto the children of Israel. They are mistaken who suppose that to the twelve rods there was another added for the tribe of Levi;  103 for, since there was no question here as to the possession of the land, there was no occasion at all for the division of the tribe of Joseph into two parts. We know, too, that it was endowed with a double portion, because the Levites had no inheritance; and in this case the circumstances were different, because all the other tribes were contending for the priesthood with the tribe of Levi alone. Hence it was, then, that rods were given to each of them, in accordance with the origin of their race. But, when Aaron’s rod is said to have been “in the midst of them,”  104 it is in the usual phrase of the Hebrew language, because it was mixed with them as one of their number. And this is expressly stated, to show us that all ground for caviling might be taken from the ungodly, since all the rods were east promiscuously into the same bundle, so that none should be distinguished above the others, and thus nothing could be ascribed to the collusion of men. If any should object that by these means the rivalry was not extinguished which the other Levites had with the house of Aaron, since his own name alone was inscribed upon the rod, so that there would be no comparison between the families; I reply, that since the power of God manifested itself distinctly in the name of Aaron, the rejection of the others was sufficiently shown forth by his election; for, if this honor had been common to the others, God would have defrauded them by giving distinction to him alone. Besides, no other plan could have been adopted for putting an end to this quarrel; for if there had been several rods for one tribe, the whole people would have complained of the inequality. It was necessary, then, that all should be brought to the contest on equal terms, so that the difference between them might be seen to depend upon God’s good pleasure. But if the name of Levi had been inscribed, all its families would have claimed the right of succession, as if common to them all. There was, therefore, no other course open but that God should prefer to the whole people one individual chosen from amongst the members of his own kindred and tribe.

4. And thou shalt lay them up in the tabernacle. The place itself had not a little to do with the effectual decision of the matter; because it was clearly manifested that God was the author of the miracle, and consequently that the priesthood proceeded from Him. For we have elsewhere said that the whole government of the Church so entirely depends upon His decree, that men are not permitted to interfere with it. Wherefore He set the ark of the covenant in opposition to the voices of the whole people, in order to testify that no further dispute was to be raised respecting the priest, whom He had appointed by His own declaration and authority. At the same time, it had the effect of consoling the people, and silencing their complaints that the rods of all the tribes were brought in common into the sanctuary before God; for, although a peculiar dignity was accorded to that of Aaron alone, still the people ceased not to be a priestly kingdom. Hence it follows, that the honorable privilege conferred on one family contributed to the public welfare of all; so far was it from being the case that their inferiority ought to have caused them pain or envy.

5. And it shall come to pass, that the man’s rod. Aaron, indeed, had been previously chosen; but the expression here refers to his manifestation;  105 because God is said again to choose those, whom He has chosen by His secret counsel, when He brings them forth into the sight of men with their peculiar marks of distinction; and this not once only, but as often as he confirms their election by new indications. And this seems to be spoken of by way of concession, as if God would pass over all His former decrees, and invite the people afresh to take cognizance of the matter. With this view tie states that He will put an end to all the malevolent and noisy detractions of the people, so that Aaron may henceforth exercise his office without controversy; for, although not even thus was their perverseness altogether cured, still their insolence was restrained.

8. And it came to pass, that on the morrow. It is not without cause that, the time is notified, for by no skill could it be brought about that a rod should blossom in the lapse of a single night. Again, all suspicion of fraud was removed by the fact that Moses departed when he had placed the rods in the sanctuary, and, returning on the next day, brought out the bundle of rods before them all. But in this respect was the power of God principally shown forth, that in so short a space of time not only flowers, but fruits also, were formed upon a dry bough, which could not have occurred but by the reversal of the order of nature. And further, the time of year is to be taken into account, which was by no means in accordance with such maturity, Now, by this miracle the dignity of the typical priesthood was undoubtedly ratified to the ancient people under the Law; but, in so much as the truth itself is more excellent than its figure or image, the intention of God unquestionably was to assert the priesthood of His only-begotten Son rather than that of Aaron. Hence the profit to be derived from this miracle most especially pertains to us,(“Nous appartient plus qu’aux Juifs;” pertains to us more than to the Jews. — Fr.) in order that we may embrace the Priest presented to us by God with the veneration He deserves. I pass by the frivolous allegories  106 in which others take delight. And in fact it ought to be abundantly sufficient for us, that the power of God which might direct the people to the Mediator, appeared of old under a visible symbol; but when the Son of God came, whatever He then represented to their sight was spiritually revealed in Him: for not only was He a sprout (surculus) from the stem of Jesse, as He is called by Isaiah (Isa 11:1); and a stone hewn without the art or labor of man, under which form he was shown to Daniel (Da 2:34); but by His resurrection tie was separated from the whole human race. For this, too, we must diligently observe, that it is not enough that He should obtain with us the prerogative and title of Priest, unless He is so only and indivisibly. Hence it is plain that His honor is in the Papacy torn in pieces by foul and intolerable sacrilege, when they invent innumerable mediators.

10. And the Lord said unto Moses. What God had prescribed concerning the censers, He now commands as to the rod, i.e., that it should be preserved as a monument for future ages; because men are forgetful and slow to consider His works, and not only so, but because they bury their memory as if of deliberate malice, he bids, therefore, and not without reproach, that this sign should be laid up in safety, saying, that this is done on account of their perverseness. At the same time, however, He commends His paternal love and pity, in that, whilst tie chastises their pride, He provides for their welfare. For, as they were given to rebellion, they would still have provoked His wrath by new murmurings. He says, then, that He anticipates them, and restrains their impetuous fury, lest they should die. Thus in humbling us, tie not only punishes our transgressions, but tie has regard to what is profitable for us, and proves that He cares for us.

12. And the children of Israel spoke unto Moses. It was indeed somewhat better to be alarmed by admiration of God’s power than as if they had despised it in brutal stupidity; but there is a medium between torpor or obstinacy, and consternation. It is true that believers tremble at the judgments of God, and, in proportion as each of us has advanced in piety, so we are the more affected by a sense of His anger. But this fear humbles believers in such a manner that they nevertheless seek after God; whilst the reprobate so tremble as fretfully to desire to drive God far away from them. Hence it arose that the Israelites, stunned as it were by God’s severity, which they deemed excessive, deplored their wretched lot; for, inasmuch as they had no sense of God’s goodness, the chastisement to them was like a gibbet rather than a medicine. They exclaim, therefore, that they are destroyed, because God so severely avenges His polluted worship; as if all such instances of rigor were not profitable for the purpose of rendering them more heedful and cautious. No doubt this servile fear sometimes prepares men for repentance; but nothing is more perilous than to rest in it, because it first engenders bitterness and indignation, and at length drives them to despair, Howsoever formidable, then, may be God’s severity, let us learn at the same time to apprehend His mercy, so that we may be prepared to endure willingly with meek and quiet minds the punishments which we have deserved. In short, this passage shows how little progress the Israelites had made, since the rods of God so greatly exasperated them, that they cut themselves off from all hope of salvation. For this is the meaning of the words, “Shall we be consumed with dying?” as if it were not the case that God, on the contrary, was preserving them from death, when in His paternal solicitude He warned them of their danger.



So, amongst others, Corn. a Lapide. C’s view is that of the Jewish Commentators.


A. V., “Among them,” Nu 17:6.


Fr., “A la seconde declaration.”


Corn. a Lapide reports many of these, —

“Symbolice et tropologice, (he says,) this rod signifies what sort of person a pontifex and pastor ought to be, viz., watchful, active, laborious, and austere, such as were St. Nicholas of Myra, St. Andrew the Carmelite, Pius II., and Cardinal Julian Cesarinus.

Allegorice, it is Christ; or the Virgin Mary, whose flower is Christ.

Anagogice, it is a symbol of’ the resurrection.”

Next: Numbers 20:1-13