Word for Today - Shebet
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Sheber (Corn, victuals)
Shebet ( Sceptre, rod, staff)
Shebi (Captivity, prisioners)
The sceptre has been an emblem of those in authority, such as kings, judges and military leaders as well as priests, down through the centuries. Sceptres have varied in size from full length staffs to hand-held batons and have also been identified as the shepherd’s crook in Ancient Egypt. Interestingly, in Leviticus chapter 27 verse 32, it is the shebet of the shepherd that determines the tithe paid to the Lord from Israel’s herds and flocks.
Initially, however, the dominant idea behind the Hebrew noun shebet was that of a staff or a rod for disciplinary purposes. The noun shebet referred to a tree from which the rod was made, but unlike its Hebrew synonym (matteh), shebet always refers to someone in authority. In Exodus chapter 21 verse 20, a slave owner uses a rod to corporally punish a slave, and in the often misquoted verse in Proverbs chapter 13 verse 24, the rod is used by a parent to discipline a child. 1 Whilst one might think today that this is a harsh and unacceptable way of disciplining children, the overall thrust of the proverb teaches us that the motivation of the parent in any form of disciplinary action should always be love, not cruelty. As one Jewish commentator writes, ‘A lax parent is treating his son as if he hated him’. Contrast this with the use of the word in Psalm 23 verse 4.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament the word is used metaphorically of the sovereignty of God, as in Isaiah chapter 10 verse 5, where He uses nations such as Assyria as a rod to punish Israel. 2 Similarly, in Lamentations chapter 3 verse 1, the individual, which in this context may be a collective term for Israel, regards exile as the exercise of the rod of God’s wrath – again, the imagery is that of a shepherd’s rod or crook as the instrument of punishment, cp. 2 Sam. 7. 14.
Primarily, however, the sceptre became more and more a symbol of royal or imperial authority as predicted in its first use in Genesis chapter 49 verse 10. This messianic prophecy anticipates that David’s greater Son will one day reign as the true shepherd king of Israel, marked out by the symbols of the sceptre and staff of His dominion. This early prophecy is reinforced later in Balaam’s fourth oracle when he refers to a Star that would arise from Jacob, and a Sceptre (shebet) that would rise out of Israel, Num. 24. 17.
In the Septuagint (LXX) shebet is translated by a number of Greek words, but the word that is the dynamic equivalent of shebet is rhabdos, again meaning sceptre, rod or staff. It is used in Genesis chapter 47 verse 31 of Jacob bowing at the head of his bed – here the translators change the Masoretic Text (MT) rendering from ‘the bed’s head’ to explain to us that Jacob was, in fact, leaning on ‘the top of his staff’. In Nahum chapter 1 verse 13 the MT, which reads ‘I break his yoke from off thee’, is changed by the LXX translators to read, ‘I break his rod from off thee’. ‘His rod’ may be a reference to King Sennacherib of Assyria, cp. 2 Kgs. 18. 13 et seq. and would then highlight God’s sovereignty in destroying Sennacherib’s kingly authority over His people.
The incidences of the Greek word rhabdos in the New Testament are limited. Nonetheless, the word does provide us with some useful insights into its various meanings in specific contexts. For example, in Acts chapter 16 verses 35 and 38 its related form is used to describe someone who carried a rod or staff of office. Hence, the reference here to a Roman lictor. In Revelation chapter 11 verse 1, which has textual echoes of Ezekiel chapter 40 verses 3 et seq., the word is used of a surveyor’s measuring rod used to measure the temple of God. The word also refers to the special rod of Aaron, which, according to Numbers chapter 17 verse 3, not only sprouted but produced blossoms and yielded almonds, Heb. 9. 4, thus indicating God’s sovereign choice of Aaron as High Priest. But of all the occurrences in the New Testament perhaps the one text that sticks out more than any other in highlighting the meaning of rhabdos is Hebrews chapter 1 verse 8. Using a catena of Old Testament texts, the writer of Hebrews, in chapter 1 verse 4 onwards, emphasizes the superiority of the person of Christ over angelic ministry. 3 In verse 8, which is almost a direct quotation from Psalm 45 verse 6, the writer not only confirms the deity of Christ but also the legitimacy of His title to reign over an eternal kingdom by holding the powerful symbol of the royal sceptre. Knowing then that one day ‘He must reign’, 1 Cor. 15. 25, may the golden sceptre hold sway in our lives today.
For further reading/study
Sceptre in W. E. Vine Expository Dictionary of Old Testament Words, pp. 114, 115.
rhabdos in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged in one volume), pp. 982, 983.
1 The modern take on this proverb is, ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’, but the Hebrew word for ‘hate’ in the biblical text can also mean indifference to or relative disregard for something.
2 Motyer (The Prophecy of Isaiah, IVP, pp.113, 114) translates this as, ‘Club of my wrath’ and suggests that ‘the Lord’s anger empowers Assyria’.
3 Jews referred to this form of approach as stringing-pearls. Each text was regarded as a precious pearl that once strung together would enable the teacher to get across a major point in his argument.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.