The symbolic phrase "rod and staff" appear six times in the King James Version of the Bible and a seventh time in various others versions. In each instance, except for the introductory verse, the phrase is used to denote anger or a means of punishment. Only in Psalms 23:4 does the opposite occur. The two items are spoken of as a comfort.
In ancient times, the rod and the staff were both the literal tools of an occupation and the symbolic emblems of an office.
Literal Tools: Shepherds used wooden staffs and rods to guide, discipline and protect the sheep.
Generally speaking, a staff was a long pole similar to the rod but with one end that was knobbed, crooked or forked. The type of staff a shepherd used depended on the geographic location or the environment in which he grazed his sheep. A crooked staff could pull a sheep back from an abrupt edge or rescue it from a fall between rocks. In a desert area , he could use a forked staff to catch up a poisonous snake and hold it securely while the beat it to death with his rod or dashed it against rocks.
Symbolic Emblems: The rod (or scepter) and staff were a potentate's tangible representation of their right to rule and the extent of their authority.
When performing official duties, the ruler carried -- or had a servant carry- the instruments of his (or her) position. The rod symbolized the ruler's authority to decree laws and pronounce judgment (punishments, pardons or rewards) and to declare war and make peace. The staff symbolized the care and concern he was to have over his subjects; that he would insure their protection from enemies, insure their continued welfare, and guide them into prosperity.
Together, the rod and staff were the emblems that represented supreme power.
The rod and staff pre-date Abraham. In nearly every Middle Eastern culture there can be found an example of an ancient king or ruler holding a rod and a staff.
From Lewis Bayles Pation: "There is a famous fresco showing a caravan of Syrian merchants. In it, Neferhotep, the scribe, precedes the party, bearing in his hand an inscription stating that these are thirty-seven 'Amu (Asiatics) who bring stibium, the modern kohl or " eye-paint."
He (Neferhotep) is followed by Khiti, the chief huntsman, who presents the foreigners to Prince Khumhotep (or Khnumhotep the servant of the Pharaoh – 2400 BC). Then comes the head man of the caravan, leading an ibex by a cord, and holding in his hand a boomerang or a staff of office. In front of him is written " Abishua, a chief of the desert." (The Early History Of Syria and Palestine, p.62. Published 1901.)
In Psalms 23:4, David is expressing to God that he acknowledges God's right to rule and that God has full authority to rule and that God alone is the supreme power over all creation. This knowledge of God's supreme power is what gives David finds comfort.
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