Moses’s staff is the stuff of legend. It was one of ten miraculous objects created at twilight at the beginning of the first Sabbath. Made of sapphire, given to Adam and handed down throughout the generations, the staff will one day be wielded by the Messiah itself. That in a nutshell is the rabbinic tradition. None of it is in the Torah.
Instead, the biblical account tells us of two staffs, one belonging to Aaron, one to Moses. It tells us nothing about either of them. We picture them as ordinary pieces of wood; walking sticks or shepherds’ crooks.
We first encounter Moses’s staff at the Burning Bush. God tells him to throw it onto the ground, where it instantly turns into a snake, terrifying him. This, he is told, will prove to the Israelites that he has been commanded by God to rescue them from slavery. But when he and Aaron meet Pharaoh, not only is it Aaron rather than Moses who turns his staff into a snake, but Pharaoh’s magicians do the very same thing with their sticks. Aaron’s snake then swallows those of the magicians. It looks very much as if Aaron’s staff is nothing more than a conjurer’s wand, used to perform Egyptian magic. Of Moses staff, we are none the wiser.
Aaron’s staff appears to have magical powers in the account of the Ten Plagues. He wields it in the first plague to turn the Nile to blood. He uses it a second time bringing about the invasion of frogs. Both times the Egyptian magicians do the same. Again, the staff appears to be nothing more than a magic wand. But when Aaron strikes the dust of the earth, turning it into lice, the Egyptian magicians are unable to match him. Was this now a miracle? Or was Aaron merely a superior magician?
Neither staff features in the fourth or fifth plagues, which God brings about himself. Moses performs the sixth plague by throwing dust in to the air but in the seventh plague he stretches his rod to heaven – the first time he has used it since the Burning Bush- and brings down an onslaught of destructive hail. He uses his staff again in the eight plague, to bring swarms of locusts. By this time the Egyptian magicians are nowhere to be seen. If this is magic, it is far beyond anything they could perform. It appears that, whatever the nature of Aaron’s staff, Moses staff does indeed possess miraculous powers.
The miraculous nature of Moses’s staff is reinforced when he uses it to split the Red Sea, the greatest of all his miracles. But shortly after that, when Amalek attacks Israel, his staff is nothing more than a symbol of divine protection. When Moses raises the staff in his hand, the Israelites, gazing heavenward, prevail in the battle. When he lowers it, the advantage shifts to Amalek.
The last we hear of Moses’s staff is when he disobeys God by striking the rock with it, instead of speaking. The fact that water gushes out anyway does not seem to have anything to do with the staff; his stick was just a thing that happened to be in his hand when he needed to express his frustration.
The evidence from the Torah that Moses’s staff was a miraculous object seems pretty thin. Yes, he used it to perform miracles, but of course the miracles did not require his staff. God performed the miracles, the staff was just pageantry, a symbol and a signifier, to astound, inspire and encourage the people.
Every successful leader needs a symbol to encapsulate their authority. It can be a crown, a sceptre or even a chain of office. Clothes can symbolise leadership; priests of nearly all religions wear distinctive garments. Today the symbol is often a building, a dwelling that comes with the job of leadership. These things are more than props or privileges; they assert the authority of the person who possesses them. In this analysis, Moses’s staff is the symbol of his leadership.
But symbolising leadership was not the main purpose of Moses’s staff. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the staff is not what it was used for, but the word that refers to it. Moses’s staff is called a matteh. It is not the only word used for staff in the Bible, but is deliberately chosen to reference Moses and Aaron’s staffs. Matteh also means a tribe, as in the twelve tribes of Israel.
By calling Moses’s rod a matteh, the Torah is defining the quality of his leadership. Moses was the man who wielded authority; metaphorically he wielded the tribes whose destinies he was responsible for. Any wonder working potencies that the staff appeared to possess were neither miracle nor magic, they issued from the sanctity and divine protection suffusing the tribes of Israel. When Moses or Aaron stretched out their staffs, it was as if they were summoning the entire Israelite nation to partake in the wonder they were about to perform. No wonder the Egyptian magicians couldn’t compete.