In the Old Testament tabernacle, a copy of the temple in heaven, the sanctuary was covered with curtains. To the left of the sanctuary entrance was a piece of equipment used to illuminate it, the gold lampstand. According to the pattern God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai, the shaft, branches, bowls, ornamental knobs and flowers of this lampstand were hammered from one gold piece. The center shaft was flanked by three branches decorated with almond blossoms on either side, all seven branches topped by little bowl-lamps containing olive oil. Inside the holy place (the sanctuary) but outside the curtain veiling the ark of testimony, the priests were to maintain the lamps from evening to morning throughout their perpetual generations. They kept the wicks trimmed, the oil topped, and the lamps burning before the Lord continuously (Leviticus 24:3-4). The lampstand, however, was not simply light-giving; the almond branches commanded as part of its design held special significance.
Throughout their wilderness journey, as the people learned how to follow and worship God properly, they murmured notoriously against Him. They repeatedly rebelled against the leaders God had selected: Moses, God’s prophet, and Aaron, the first priest. The people claimed equal authority, disagreed with the direction they were being led, grumbled over lack of spice in their provisions, and took offense to personal decisions the leaders made or their unique relationship they had with God (Numbers 11-17). In each instance God regarded the murmuring of the people and their offenses to be against Himself, personally, and His own authority and leadership. Many died or were stricken with disease and other catastrophes; the consequence of the cycle of dissention and correction was more division, so that a level of uncertainty existed among the people concerning whether Moses and Aaron had, in fact, been divinely appointed. The Lord was happy to clear up the controversy. To satisfy the issue of legitimate authority, the Lord, through Moses, points to His priesthood, and in a remarkable way.
The incident is reported in Numbers 17. God commanded the leaders of each tribe to write their names on their shepherds’ staffs and leave them in the Holy of Holies where God’s presence rested in the cloud. These staffs were practical for walking and guiding, but also a sign of tribal authority so that the staff of a tribe leader was the emblem of his tribe. God would cause the dead stick of the man whom He had selected as the progenitor of the priesthood to bloom. Only Aaron’s rod regenerated to bud, and it was a fruited almond blossom that turned his ordinary shepherd’s staff into an instrument and sign of selection. It was a selection that finally unified the people, because after it was made, the Lord commanded the tribe leaders to take back their dead staffs from the Holy of Holies as tangible submission to God’s selection, while Aaron’s rod, budded and fruited with almonds, was to remain within the ark as a perpetual confirmation to the rebellious that Aaron was indeed the progenitor of a perpetual priesthood that would keep “watch” over God’s people; the word almond in Hebrew meaning “to watch.”
The lampstand in the sanctuary, then, of beaten gold rather than molded to denote the sacrificial nature and unity of divine light, was ornamented with almond flowers, a distinct reminder of the authority and progeny that watched over God’s people through the priesthood. Seven being the number of divine completeness, its seven branches emitted perfect life-light through the continual supply of oil, a potent Scriptural symbol of the Holy Spirit. The tabernacle lampstand is the forerunner of Jesus, the Light of the world, but the Old Testament priesthood continues, perpetually ratified and signified by God through the almond branches of the lampstand and Aaron’s rod, in the New Testament too.
The Jewish priesthood was based on the physical descendents of Aaron and conferred through rituals involving oil and laying of hands. This Old Testament priesthood was brought to complete fruit in Jesus our High Priest’s incarnate interpretation, the Eucharist and the Cross. He inaugurated the New Testament, conferring the authority to forgive sin, adjudicate, feed, teach, oversee, perpetuate, and lead the Church through the apostles, the new priesthood, which continues today in rituals involving oil and laying of hands.
It was the apostles’ practice to lay hands on those who were to succeed them, and it is the same practice used today. Our bishops are, traceably, the successors of the apostles by the laying of hands; they carry their staff of authority. Like the almond branch that signifies it, it is a creative authority, giving spiritual life and light to all those they lead, and it unifies the Church, through Christ, in sacrificial love.
In these democratic days we have been lured into the belief that we have the inalienable right to say whatever we want about whomever want, and to revolt, either by word or deed against leadership tenets that we disagree with, whether in politics, religion, family, or career. The Scriptures, as we have seen, paint a different picture. The Book of Revelation calls this attitude, “Laodicea,” meaning “people rule,” and discloses Jesus’ disgust with it. The lampstand of almonds reminds us to trust the selection of God. Jesus actively cares for us through our priests and bishops (Revelation 3:14-16), as they are the ruling spirit of our parishes and dioceses (Revelation 1:12-13, 20). Through Christ, they give us light and life; they are chosen of God for that divine purpose, and God is “watching” them as they “watch” over us. Therefore, “obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account” (Hebrews 13:17). They shoulder a grave responsibility for our care, and they are accountable to God; we must submit to God and pray for them.