Moses' elder brother (according to Exod 6:20; 7:7), his close associate in leading the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, and eponymous ancestor of the priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple. Unmentioned in nonbiblical historical sources, Aaron can only be characterized in terms of varied and perhaps conflicting traditions about him found in the Bible, as well as through a synthesis of those diverse textual images. Aaron first appears in the Pentateuch at Exodus 4:14 in God's final response to Moses' plea against going to Egypt to free the enslaved Israelites, where he is identified as “your brother the Levite” (lit.). Unlike Moses, who claims to be “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exod 4:10), Aaron “can speak fluently” (Exod 4:14), and God assures Moses that Aaron will be well able to function as his spokesman. Here, as God promises Moses “I will be with your mouth and with his mouth” (Exod 4:15), the team of Moses and Aaron is established, which will figure in the narratives of the confrontation with the Egyptian ruler and of the Israelite journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Aaron's Relationship to Moses: Full Brother or Levite Kinsman?

There is room for debate about the meaning of the designation of Aaron as Moses' “brother the Levite” in Exodus 4:14, which is a non-Priestly (non-P) text that has often been assigned to the Elohist (E) source. While other texts (Exod 6:20; 7:7), which come from P or a later Aaronide redactor, specify unambiguously that Aaron is Moses' full elder brother, “your brother the Levite” may simply designate Aaron as a fellow member of the Levite tribe (cf. Deut 18:7, where “his brothers, the Levites [Heb]” clearly means “his fellow Levites”[NRSV]). Furthermore, Exodus 15:20 (also non-P, probably E) designates Miriam as “Aaron's sister,” implying that she is not also Moses' sister. Thus, the biblical documents preserve a non-Aaronide tradition that Aaron was not Moses' full elder brother. However, the unambiguous textual notices that Aaron was Moses' elder brother have traditionally guided the interpretation of ambiguous texts such as Exodus 4:14 and 15:20.

Aaron's Roles.

Aaron has three main roles within biblical narratives: prophet; national leader; priest. As a prophet, Aaron functions as Moses' spokesman, secondarily as God's spokesman (Exod 4:16 [E]; 7:1–2 [P]), communicating God's word to Pharaoh (see, e.g., Exod 5:1 [possibly J, the Yahwist]) and to the Israelites (see, e.g., Lev 15:1–2 [P]). He is also an agent of God's power, performing wonders before Pharaoh at Moses' bidding (see, e.g., Exod 7:8–13, 19–20 [P]), and an intercessor, whose prayers are requested by Pharaoh (see, e.g., Exod 8:8, 28 [Heb, 8:4, 24] [E]).

As a national leader, Aaron serves as Moses' aid and representative. In the narrative of the Israelite battle with the Amalekites, Aaron and his enigmatic associate Hur hold up Moses' hands so that the Israelites can gain victory (Exod 17:10, 12 [E]). After the covenant has been made between God and Israel, when Moses is called to go up the mountain to remain with God forty days and nights, he designates Aaron and Hur to be in charge of the people (Exod 24:14 [E]). It is in this capacity that Aaron is confronted by the Israelite mob when they lose faith after Moses' long absence (Exod 32:1 [E]).

Aaron's status as a priest—the paradigm for all subsequent high priests, and the progenitor of the priestly group, the Aaronides (who claimed exclusive legitimacy as priests)—is emphasized in texts from the Priestly (P) source in the Pentateuch (more accurately termed the Aaronide source). Aaron and his sons are first designated in Exodus 28:1 as the ones God has chosen as priests “from among the Israelites,” and detailed instructions are given for Aaron's consecration to this office with his sons, with the execution of these instructions given in Lev 8. In these rites, and in the inaugural sacrificial rituals for the sanctuary (narrated in Lev 9), Aaron's preeminence over his sons is ritually marked in various ways, such as his application of sacrificial blood to the altar when his sons present it to him (Lev 9:9, 12, 18). Subsequent texts specify that all other Levites are subordinate to Aaron and his sons and are to support their service in the sanctuary (Num 1:48–53; 3:5–9, 32). Aaron's name appears frequently in the formulae, “the sons of Aaron” (see, e.g., Lev 3:13; 6:14; 7:10, 33; 21:1; Num 10: 8; see also, Tob 1:7; Sir 50:13, 16), and “house of Aaron” (Pss 115:10, 12; 135:19), emphasizing his identity as the progenitor of the priestly house, and that the legitimacy of the priesthood depends on its descent from Aaron.

Aaron is frequently the co-recipient with Moses of ritual and purity legislation (see, e.g., Exod 12:1, 28, 43, 50; Lev 11:1; 13:1; 14:33; 15:1). This highlights the fact that the Aaronide priests were not only ritual actors but also specialists, designated to teach and guide the people in matters of ritual and purity. This teaching role is emphasized in Lev 10, where God speaks directly to Aaron (v. 8) to instruct him in his priestly obligations (vv. 10–11). Indeed, in this context Aaron even teaches Moses, providing a ruling which Moses accepts (vv. 19–20).

Narrative Critiques of Aaron.

Aaronide insistence that only they were legitimate priests—in contradiction to traditions holding that all Levites were priests (see, e.g., Deut 10:8–9; 18:1)—may have provoked the negative portrayal of Aaron in two narratives in the Pentateuch. These narratives may be polemical responses to Aaronide claims, intended to undermine them by denigrating the one upon whom their authority rested. In the narrative of the Gold Calf apostasy (Exod 32, most of with is probably from E), Aaron submits easily to the people's demand that he make gods for them (see vv. 1–2). The text refers to Aaron's failure of leadership in unflattering terms: “Aaron had let [the Israelites] run wild, to the derision of their enemies” (Exod 32:25). When sharply confronted by Moses about his misdeed and the guilt he had brought on the people (v. 21), he lies about his culpability, declaring that he didn't form the people's gold into an image (as v. 4 clearly indicates); rather (v. 24), “I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” In its retelling of the Golden Calf story, Deuteronomy (9:20) asserts that God was angry enough to destroy Aaron, who was saved by Moses' intercession.

In Num 12 [E], Aaron and Miriam challenge Moses' authority, asserting that they have also been recipients of divine revelation (v.2). When God becomes manifest to vindicate Moses' unique identity as one who speaks to God “face to face” (v. 8), Miriam is struck with a skin disease as punishment for their presumption, Aaron quickly admits to Moses that they have “foolishly committed” a sin (v. 12), and he pleads to Moses on Miriam's behalf.

While these negative portrayals of Aaron may originally have been directed against the claims of Aaronide priests, in their present setting in the Pentateuch these narratives do not so much undermine Aaron's priestly status, as nuance the portrait of Aaron and advance important theological themes and motifs. First, the centrality and uniqueness of Moses is advanced: even Aaron fails to remain loyal to God, and even Aaron and Miriam suffer for opposing Moses. Second, in Aaron we see God working through a frail and fallible human being; despite his failures, Aaron is made a priest and the progenitor of the priestly family.

Narrative Defense of Aaron.

In contrast to the negative images of Aaron, we find narratives that emphasize Aaron's status and indicate the dire consequences befalling those who challenged it. Thus, we have the P story of Korah's Levite challenge against Moses and Aaron, which focuses on the unique ritual status of Aaron and his sons (Num 16); Levites who try to offer incense are destroyed (v. 35), making it clear that “no outsider, who is not of the descendants (lit., “seed”) of Aaron shall approach to offer incense before the LORD” (v. 40; cf. Heb 17:5). Subsequently, God causes a staff with Aaron's name on it to blossom and produce almonds, demonstrating his unique status (Num 17 [P]).

Aaron Outside of the Pentateuch: Elements of a Synthetic and Sympathetic Portrait

Several psalms (Pss 105:26–27; 77:20; 99:6) refer to Aaron with Moses as joint leaders of Israel. In Micah 6:4, the only reference to Aaron in a prophetic book, he is second in a leadership triad with Moses and Miriam. In the Apocryphal-Deuterocanonical book of Sirach, the hymn about “famous men” (44:1), devotes a lengthy section (45:6–22) to praising Aaron as the paradigmatic priest, “a holy man like Moses” (45:6). All of these passages reflect the positive Aaronide image of Aaron and avoid the critical non-Aaronide traditions.

Later Rabbinic texts follow this trajectory, emphasizing Aaron's virtues and explaining biblical texts so as to avoid negative judgments on Aaron's conduct. Pirkei Avot 1:12 famously quotes Hillel as saying, “Be one of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all beings and bringing them close to Torah.” Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (Pisha 1 on Exod 12:1) affirms Aaron's equality with Moses. Midrash Rabbah on Exodus maintains that Aaron made a variety of attempts to keep the Israelites from making and worshipping the golden calf (41:7), while Targum Pseudo-Jonathan's Aramaic rendering of Exod 32:24 asserts that Aaron was not lying to Moses about the calf's origins: through Satan's intervention it did indeed emerge fully formed from the fire into which Aaron had cast the people's jewelry!

Aaron's name appears five times in the New Testament (Lk 1:5; Acts 7:40; Heb 5:4; 7:11; 9:4). Of note is Hebrews 5:4, which states that an individual may not presume to take on the office of priest, “but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” This statement well sums up the dominant image of Aaron in the Hebrew Bible and later traditions: an individual chosen and designated by God for a specific status and function.

Bibliography

  • Cody, Aelred. A History of Old Testament Priesthood. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1969. Argues that there is no anti-Aaronide polemic in Exodus 32, except in v. 25b, which is a late addition to the text.
  • Cody, Aelred. “Aaron: A Figure with Many Facets.” The Bible Today 88 (1977): 1088–1094.
  • Gilders, William K. Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Discussion of how Aaron's special status is ritually marked.
  • Ginsberg, H. L. The Israelian Heritage of Judaism. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1982. See p. 85, n. 103 for information on the non-Aaronide tradition that Aaron was not Moses' full elder brother.
  • Loewenstamm, Samuel E. “The Making and Destruction of the Golden Calf.” Biblica 48 (1967): 481–490. Argues that Aaron is not lying in Exodus 32:24, but that the narrative really does indicate that the calf emerged fully-formed from the fire.
  • Nihan, Christophe. From Priestly Torah to Pentateuch: A Study in the Composition of the Book of Leviticus. Tübingen, Germ.: Mohr Siebeck, 2007. Provides useful insights on the Aaronide concerns of the Priestly and related authors, and discussion of Aaron's legal instruction of Moses in Lev 10:19–20.
  • White, Marsha. “The Elohistic Depiction of Aaron: A Study in the Levite-Zadokite Controversy.” In Studies in the Pentateuch, edited by J. A. Emerton, pp. 149–159. VTSup 41. Leiden, The Neth.: Brill, 1990. Makes a strong case for anti-Aaronide polemic in the negative portrayals of Aaron in Exod 32 and Num 12.

William K. Gilders