The Rabbis’ Riddles: Moses’ Staff
The level of God’s Torah (Bible) brilliance is astonishing. Even the Rabbis are lightyears ahead of us in their wisdom. But not only are they wise in their ideas, but in their abilities to script allegories and write riddles.
At the burning bush, God tells Moses the Jews will believe God designated Moses as His emissary. Moses disagrees, saying, “They will not believe me…(Exod. 4:1).” In response, God gives Moses three signs as proof. The first sign is the staff that turns into a snake. A few verses later God tells Moses, “And take this staff in your hand with which you will perform the miracles (Exod. 4:17).” On this verse the Rabbis scripted a medrash (allegory) containing profound but hidden meanings:
“The staff created in the twilight [of the first Friday] was handed down to Adam in Eden, and Adam handed it to Chanoch, and Chanoch handed it to Shame, and Shame handed it to Abraham, and Abraham handed it to Isaac, and Isaac handed it to Jacob, and Jacob brought it to Egypt, and [in] Egypt [he] handed it to Joseph. And when Joseph died, his entire household took it and placed it in Pharaoh’s palace.
And Jethro was one of Pharaoh’s astrologers and he saw the staff and coveted it in his heart. And he took it and brought it, and planted in his garden, but he could not approach it, until Moses came to the land of Midian and went into the garden of Jethro’s house, and saw the staff and read the letters which were on it, and he stretched out his hand and took it.
Jethro saw this and said, ‘This is the man who will redeem Israel from Egypt,’ therefore Zipporah his daughter he gave to him as a wife, as it is said, ‘And Moses was pleased…’
And it was with that staff that Moses shepherded and lead the sheep of Jethro for 40 years, and the beasts of the field did not consume them, and the flock proliferated a lot, as Scripture says, ‘like holy lambs’.”
There is much detail in this riddle; each detail offering additional insight.
What was the vital nature of this staff?
Why was it created at twilight?”
What is the idea of it being handed down; why not simply give it to Moses at the appropriate time?
Why were these men — and not others — the one’s who passed down the staff?
Why did Joseph’s household place it in Pharaoh’s palace, instead of keeping it?
Why did Jethro covet the staff?
What is the meaning of Jethro “placing it in his garden?”
If Jethro could take the staff out of Pharaoh’s palace, what is meant by “he could not approach it?” He already carried it from Egypt to Midian!
What is meant by Moses entering Jethro’s garden, reading the letters, and taking the staff?
How does this qualify Moses to emancipate the Jews?
Finally, what does the staff have to do with the flock going unharmed and proliferating?
What’s the key that unlocks this midrash (i.e., from which clue do we start)?
There’s is much talk about the men who passed down the staff, perhaps intentionally elaborated upon so as to focus us. Once in focus, the Rabbis scripted a contrasting point: Jethro could not approach the staff, but all these others could.
The Rabbis are directing us to a distinction between Jethro and the patriarchs. The patriarchs passed down “something” (the staff is a metaphor) but Jethro was alienated from it. Another clue to the staff’s meaning is that the Jews no longer possessed it after Joseph died. And this had something to do with Egypt’s leadership (Pharaoh’s palace).
Jethro coveted the staff, i.e., something pertaining to the Jews. But all Jethro knew at that point was the Jews were in bondage, and they proliferated. Typically, an oppressed people do not thrive, but the Torah teaches “as they were oppressed, so they proliferated (Exod. 1:12).” This was unnatural. Interestingly, the very staff was unnatural: it was an inanimate object that converted into a living animal. These are the keys…
The Medrash Deciphered
“The staff created in the twilight [of the first Friday] was handed down to Adam in Eden, and Adam handed it to Chanoch, and Chanoch handed it to Shame, and Shame handed it to Abraham, and Abraham handed it to Isaac, and Isaac handed it to Jacob, and Jacob brought it to Egypt, and [in] Egypt [he] handed it to Joseph.”
On Ethics 5:6, Maimonides teaches that during Creation, God embedded literally all miracles in the substances that would ultimately become miraculous, or “unnatural.” And God did this on the respective day of each substance’s creation. For example, God built into the Earth on its day of creation, the property to halt its rotation at Joshua’s word. When water was created, God built into its nature the property to pile up in heaps at the parting of the Reed Sea. This is reasonable. For God is above time (He created it) and He need not “wait” until man requires help, that He might only “then” respond a miracle for man. God knows the future, so the concept of responding is inapplicable. He planned the world at Creation including all future concessions (miracles) to save or help man at precise moments. God built all miracles into nature…except 10. 10 miracles were not programmed into creation on the day of the object’s creation, but only at the last moment of Creation, at sunset on the primordial Friday. Why?
The reason is because it was impossible. Maimonides teaches that God does not perform the impossible, as this is the meaning of “impossible.” God cannot create a square that is a circle. He cannot make my day of birth tomorrow. And this is not a flaw in God. It is His perfection, that He abides by what is true. Reality has a static and real nature.
Now, all miracles except 10 are not contradictions in their substances. Water possesses a property of surface cohesion, that is, a droplet of water seen up close, forms a pile. It is not flat. This property was miraculously exaggerated to “pile up” the Reed Sea waters (Exod. 15:8) making an escape route for the Jews. The Earth’s motion is separate from itself, so its cessation of motion so the sun appears to stop, is not a contradiction to its substance. But a staff is inanimate; it cannot also be created as animate. That is a contradiction. Thus, when God created sapphire (the staff was sapphire) He did so as an inanimate mineral. Subsequent to the formation of sapphire as a mineral, God could then embed in a small quantity of sapphire the law that it becomes a snake. But if God created sapphire as a snake in its very formative stage, then all sapphire would be living, and this was not God’s will. Again, Miriam’s well (the rock) was one of the 10 miracles created at sunset. God desired “rock” to be hard and arid. Had He created rock at its formation as containing water, the Earth would be unstable. Therefore, as God knew the Jews would require water in the desert for 40 years, He selected 1 rock, “after” rock was created as hard and arid”, and embedded in that single rock the property of generating moisture. But this could not have been embedded in the species of rock, since God desired the earth be suitable for man to walk upon it and build heavy structures.
We now appreciate that Moses’ staff embodied God’s control over nature. But this knowledge that nature can be overridden cannot possibly be seen “from nature.” Studying the world, we witness only natural laws. But certain perfected individuals obtained unique knowledge outside of nature..meaning through prophecy, God’s communication. Who were these people? They were Adam through Moses as stated in this list above.
Knowledge of Divine providence, is what the “staff” means in this allegory. There was no staff that literally “passed through the hands” of these prophets. This is the allegory; these men transmitted certain knowledge.
Now, without belonging to this chain of transmission, Jethro “could not approach” this area of knowledge. This explains why he was attracted to it…he saw a people thriving, unnaturally, but he could not explain it.
“And when Joseph died, his entire household took it and placed it in Pharaoh’s palace.”
Through the Jews’ sin of idolatry, Divine providence ceased to assist them, as if the staff was “placed in Pharaoh’s palace.” In other words, Divine providence was removed from the Jews due to what was in Pharaoh’s place: a culture of idolatry.
“And Jethro was one of Pharaoh’s astrologers and he saw the staff and coveted it in his heart. And he took it and brought it, and planted in his garden, but he could not approach it, until Moses came to the land of Midian and went into the garden of Jethro’s house, and saw the staff and read the letters which were on it, and he stretched out his hand and took it.”
Jethro carrying the staff home yet not able to “approach” it is an intended contradiction to alert the student of its metaphoric value. Jethro’s coveting the staff refers to Jethro’s intellectual intrigue: “Why do these beaten Jews thrive?” His mind told him matters should be otherwise, but he couldn’t “approach” the matter. “Placing the staff in his garden” means that he retained the matter in his mind. (Genesis’ account of the “Garden” of Eden parallels man’s psyche… “garden” represents the mind). Moses’ reading of the letters on the staff means Moses explained this concept of Divine providence to Jethro. Jethro then realized how the Jews thrived, and how they will be saved; God overrides natural law to relate to the Jews. It is also due to Divine providence over Moses that the natural order of flocks being eaten by predators was suspended by a miracle; as well, they proliferated like “holy lambs,” meaning outside of the natural order.
The staff represents knowledge of Divine providence. It was handed down, meaning, this knowledge required transmission from God to man, and then man-to-man, and could not be obtained through any other means.
We recognize Judaism’s unique character as a religion based on God’s brilliant wisdom and the intellectual caliber of the Rabbis and Sages. We possess a great inheritance, the Bible, which God desires we share with all peoples, so all mankind might come to a true and awesome love and appreciation for God, the source of all wisdom.
We find support for this theory in Abraham’s surprise (Gen. 17:17) that he would be granted a child in his old age. He was a very wise man and assumed nature would be consistent. Ancient philosophers too viewed the world with unchanging laws.
 See www.mesora.org/genesis2014.html