And the LORD said to Moses, "Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die."
The Lord created this little object lesson for Israel to prevent any further uprisings against the household of Aaron in the priesthood. The test was a simple one. A staff was collected from the elders of each of the twelve tribes. One staff for each tribe, with Aaron’s standing for Levi. These staffs were placed before in front of the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle for an overnight stay in God’s presence. The next morning Aaron’s staff had miraculously budded, bloomed, and produced almonds. That got the attention of Israel as a confirming sign. This was exactly what God wanted.
The response of the people in Numbers 17:12-13 is fearful, respectful and contrite in repentance. They are so overcome by this sign (coming right on the heels of God’s swift judgment at Korah’s rebellion) that they are afraid to even come near the tabernacle to worship. Continued revelation from God in the next chapter will help reassure and lesson this anxiety. For now, it is healthy. God’s goal was to quash rebellion in the worship of Him and the display of His power. And that has happened with this simple yet powerful symbol.
The rod of Aaron’s that budded was kept inside the ark of covenant as a reminder of this moment in Israel’s journey. It served to confirm both the power of God and the perpetuity of the priests who would serve Him and the nation at the altar. God will confirm His right to receive our full worship, not because His is bound to do so, but out of His mercy to His people. This brought His people back from the brink of destruction. God knew this. And they said as much themselves. It is right for God to use His power (the staff of Aaron that budded) and His justice (instantaneous destruction of Korah and those who took part in his rebellion) to call His people back to the proper worship that is due to God alone.