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Who was Aaron?

Aaron was the older brother of Moses. His story has been preserved in the Book of Exodus, in events closely linked with the story of his more famous brother Moses. 

It should be easy to put the events into sequence. But several different people or groups of people seem to have written different sections of his life story, and so the Bible reader has to be a detective and ask

  • who wrote this section of his life? and

  • why did they offer us this particular piece of information?

For example, in Exodus 4:14-15 Aaron is called “the Levite”, which if it was said later on in the Bible would mean that he was an active priest. Here, however, it simply means that he is a member of the tribe of Levi, not necessarily a priest. The idea of Levites being priests came later.

What is known about him?

  • Aaron was the brother of Moses and acted as Moses’ spokesman before the people (4:30-31) and before Pharaoh to demand the Hebrews’ release. Scholars have suggested this meant either that Moses was not a gifted speaker (and Aaron was) or that Moses may have stuttered.

  • Aaron took part in the miracles or “signs” which demonstrated the superiority of the Israelite god over those of the Egyptians (7:8-12). When God sent the ten plagues against Egypt it was Aaron who stretched out his rod to turn the Nile water to blood (7:19-20, see below) and stir up the plagues of frogs (8:5-6) and gnats (8:16-17). He was also summoned each time to avert the plagues (8:8 etc). 

The Nile turns to blood: one of the ten plagues of Egypt

The waters of the Nile seemed to turn into blood

Aaron took part in a contest with the magicians of Pharaoh, and turned his staff into a snake

Aaron took part in a contest with the magicians of Pharaoh, and turned his staff into a snake

  • At the battle of Rephidim he stood at Moses’ side and helped to support his uplifted hands to ensure victory over the Amalekites (Exodus 17_8-13). 

  • At the meeting with Jethro (Exodus 18:12) and again at Sinai (Ex. 19:24; 24:1, 9) Aaron was Moses’ companion and aide. Two of the early sources for the story (called the E and J strands) present Aaron as having a prominent role as the leading elder of Israel.

  • Not once, however, do these earlier traditions present him as a priest or an ancestor of priests. On the contrary, Aaron opposes Moses on religious questions, leading a revolt with his sister Miriam (Numbers 12) and even making the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). 

The nomadic Hebrew tribesmen with Aaron and Moses may have looked like these, from a mural at a tomb at Beni-Hassan

The nomadic Hebrew tribesmen with Aaron and Moses may have looked like these people, 
from a mural at a tomb at Beni-Hassan in Egypt (for more, see Beni Hasan murals)

There is very little definite information about Aaron’s and Moses’ ancestry. Indeed, the names of his family that are mentioned have a distinctly Egyptian sound: Phinehas, Putiel, and Hofni. However, Aaron was the first to meet Moses when he returned from his exile and his divine encounter at Mount Horeb. 

Aaron was the first of the Levites to adopt the new faith and his claim to leadership alongside Moses appears to have been fully accepted by all the Israelites. The point is, though, that it was secular leadership. The oldest traditions of the Exodus story say nothing about a division of authority between the two brothers, nothing about Aaron being a specifically religious leader. 

These stones, excavated at the ancient city of Megiddo, were probably part of an ancient sanctuary

These stones, excavated at the ancient city of Megiddo, were probably part of an ancient sanctuary

Who's telling the story?

You have to keep in mind that these ancient  stories were composed during the early period of Israel’s history before Jerusalem and its Temple became the focus of the Israelites. At that time there were dozens, maybe hundreds of sanctuaries at different places in the country. There were no official priests attached to a religious centre in Jerusalem, and in fact ordinary people as well as religious officials could preside over religious ceremonies and sacrifices at the altars (Exodus 23:19). 

As a whole, the J and E strands of Exodus accurately reflect historical facts and conditions. To this extent they differ fundamentally from the idealistic, almost Utopian accounts of the P (Priestly) strand. 

The priestly writers assumed that a tabernacle of the dimensions and magnificence of a full-scale Temple was erected very soon after the events on Mount Sinai (see a reconstruction of Solomon's Temple below; this was built many hundreds of years after the time of Aaron). 

They also assumed that the functions and duties of the priests were laid down at the same time. In fact however, the organization of the priesthood, as defined in the Priestly sources, belong to a very much later period when a physical House of the Lord in Jerusalem was familiar to everyone. 

Although the early sources refer to Aaron as an officiating priest and as the foremost of the priests, quite obviously he could hardly have fulfilled such a function during the bondage in Egypt, or in the wilderness when the Israelites had no real sanctuaries. Even the description of him as “the Levite” in Exodus 4:14 probably reflects no more than the general feeling that his office was more appropriate to a member of the Levi clan. Later on, the terms “Levite” and “priest” were to become practically synonymous and this is a case of the meaning being imposed on the older tradition at a later date. 

The Golden Calf

One of the early traditions of Exodus 32 records that because Moses “delayed to come down from” Mount Sinai, the people gave up hope that he would ever return, and demanded that Aaron make them gods to worship. Under pressure, Aaron acquiesced. He had the men collect their womenfolk’s gold jewellery and from it made them a molten calf “fashioning it with a graving tool” (Exodus 32:1-4). An altar was built before it and burnt sacrifices offered, Aaron presumably officiating. You can read about this on 'The Golden Calf' page

Bronze bull excavated in northern Israel.

Bronze bull excavated in northern Israel. The bull, cow and calf were symbols of fertility, in crops, flocks & people. Worship of the forces of Nature continued for hundreds of years after settlement in Israel.

Aaron Revolts Against Moses

In Numbers 12, there is a story in which Aaron challenges Moses’ authority. Perhaps he feels he has more ability to lead than Moses has, and that the weary Hebrew tribespeople will follow him more more gladly. 

In any event, he and his sister Miriam complain about Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman. But the real reason for their protest seems to have been their resentment of Moses’ unique position as the mouthpiece of God. They too, they argued, had received divine revelation, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Numbers 12:2). 

Woman suffering from leprosy Their insolence was answered by God in the form of a pillar of cloud proclaiming his complete confidence in Moses who “is entrusted with all my house.” (12:7). Punishment for their lčse majesté was rather unfairly limited to Miriam. She was tormented by a skin ailment that the Hebrews believed was leprosy, and excluded from the camp for seven days. But her brother Aaron stood by her, interceding with Moses, and she recovered. He himself had not suffered, it was said, because he had priestly status.

The fact that the Israelites halted their march for the time that Miriam was in disgrace suggests that her “sin” may possibly have involved others beside herself and Aaron. 

Aaron as High Priest and Priestly Ancestor

In contrast to the secular leader of the earliest traditions, the Aaron of the P (Priestly) source is quite a different character. A picture is built up of Aaron “the Levite”, i.e. an officiating priest, Moses’ religious vice-regent and the first High Priest of Israel. From him all lawful priests must be descended, other members of the tribe of Levi acting as their servants (Exodus 28, 29 and 39; Leviticus 8-l5; Numbers 17-18). Throughout the “priestly” regulations for the tabernacle and religious organization, the phrase “Aaron and his sons“ is used to mean the priesthood in general. Incense burners

This new picture marked the triumph of the trend towards centralization within the priesthood. There was no room in the single central sanctuary for more than one Levite family to officiate as priests, and the line that won out was the “house of Aaron”.

They cannot have reached this position without encountering opposition, which is probably echoed in the unfavourable stories of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32) and the rebellion of Aaron and Miriam (Numbers 12). Many scholars consider that the story of the Calf  provides the basis for the consecration of Levites to the service of the Lord (Exodus 32:29) for on this occasion they proved their unquestioning loyalty to God. 

In post-Exilic times (Ezr. 2:61-63) the claim of the house of Aaron to undisputed tenure of the priestly office was fully recognized. Levites and priests who could not claim a proper genealogy were excluded from service at the altar and limited to subsidiary duties.

Aaron and the story of the priesthood

The way Aaron and his role are presented can best be understood in terms of the long story of the priesthood, first of all in the sanctuaries throughout Israel, then in Jerusalem. 

The contradictory accounts of Aaron’s role in the Exodus reflect the struggle between different groups of priests. The most moderate and widely accepted theory is that the priests who returned from Babylon at the time of Ezra and who were probably descendants of Zadok (King David’s High Priest, apparently a Levite with no special pedigree), had somehow to amalgamate with a non-Zadokite group claiming descent from Aaron, who had stayed on in Palestine during the Exile. These priests were from the family of Abiathar and they claimed to be descendents of the house of Eli which, they maintained, had been selected as priests while the Israelites were still in Egypt (I Samuel 2:27-28). 

In the course of time, as Aaron became acknowledged the first High Priest of Israel, they also claimed descent from him. During the long period of sanctuaries, before the building of the Jerusalem Temple, there was no great urgency in the disputes between the rival priestly families. But when all worship and priestly privileges were centred in the Jerusalem Temple, particularly after Josiah’s reform,  the struggle for recognition became much more acute. 

Eventually, after the Exile, an agreement was reached by which the two leading families shared the priesthood on an equal footing as “Sons of Aaron”. The post-Exilic Chronicler provided them with the necessary titles to this office in his genealogies of Levi and Aaron (I Chronicles 6:3-15) and the priestly organization which was ascribed to David (I Chronicles 24:1-6), in which it is clearly stated that all Aaron’s sons were priests. 

Aaron died in the 39th year of the Israelites‘ wanderings, on the eve of the Conquest. Numbers 20:23-29 records his death on the top of Mount Hor, on the borders of Edom.

23 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom, 24 "Aaron shall be gathered to his people; for he shall not enter the land which I have given to the people of Israel, because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Mer'ibah. 25 Take Aaron and Elea'zar his son, and bring them up to Mount Hor (the location of this mountain is unknown; 26 and strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Elea'zar his son; and Aaron shall be gathered to his people, and shall die there." 27 Moses did as the LORD commanded; and they went up Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. 28 And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Elea'zar his son; and Aaron died there on the top of the mountain. Then Moses and Elea'zar came down from the mountain. 29 And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days (the usual mourning period was seven days).

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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology: Aaron, elder brother of Moses and Miriam, spokesman for the Hebrew tribes to Pharaoh

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher