AARON (Heb. ˒ahărōn)
A descendant of Levi and brother of Moses (Exod. 6:20; Num. 26:59; 1 Chr. 6:3 [MT 5:22]), a co-leader with Moses and their sister Miriam leading the Israelites out of Egypt through the wilderness (Mic. 6:4; Exod. 4:10–16; 7:1–25), and Israel’s first high priest and ancestor of the priestly family of Aaronite priests (Exod. 28:1–2; Num. 18:1–7).
High Priest (Exodus-Numbers and Chronicles)
Aaron and his descendants are repeatedly featured as central figures and the predominant priests of Israel’s cult in Exodus-Numbers and 1-2 Chronicles. Approximately 85 percent of the total number (346) of references to Aaron in the Bible are concentrated in the pentateuchal books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. There, particularly in the so-called Priestly portions of the Pentateuch, Aaron and his sons are the exalted high priests who oversee Israel’s sacrifices and cult centered in the ark and tabernacle (Exod. 27–30). The Aaronites are in charge of the Urim and Thummim, the sacred lots for determining Yahweh’s will (Exod. 28:30; Lev. 8:5–9; Num. 27:21). Aaron and his sons are the only priests authorized to preside at various rituals and offerings (Lev. 6–8). The actual ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons is narrated in Lev. 8–9. Lev. 21 lists a series of regulations designed to maintain the holiness of the Aaronite priesthood. Aaron is a descendant of the priestly tribe of Levi (Exod. 6:16–25), but Aaron and his sons represent a special clan among the Levites who alone are authorized to come near and officiate at rituals associated with the tent of meeting (Num. 3:5–10). Aaron and his sons are assigned the duty of blessing the Israelites in the form of the so-called Aaronic benediction in Num. 6:22–27. The priestly predominance of Aaron over other Levites is emphasized in the revolt of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in Num. 16, the budding of Aaron’s rod in Num. 17, and the classification of priestly responsibilities among the Aaronites and other Levites in Num. 18.
The postexilic book of 1-2 Chronicles reflects an exalted view of the Aaronite priesthood similar to that found in the Priestly tradition of the Pentateuch. Aaron and his descendants make offerings and atonement at “the most holy place” (1 Chr. 6:49 ). The Aaronite priests are “set apart” from other Levites for the most sacred duties of temple worship in burning incense, ministering, and blessing (1 Chr. 23–24; cf. 2 Chr. 26:16–21).
Elsewhere in the Old Testament
Allusions to Aaron or Aaronite priests are very rare or absent in other sections of the OT such as the Deuteronomistic history or the prophetic books. Even the exilic book of Ezekiel, which devotes significant attention to matters of priests and temple worship, never mentions Aaron or the Aaronites. Instead, Ezekiel designates another priestly group, the Zadokites, as the true high priests who receive assistance from the Levites (Ezek. 40:46; 44:15; 48:11). 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings likewise rarely mention the Aaronite priesthood and instead focus on the Levites and the Zadokites as priests during Israel’s monarchy (e.g., 1 Kgs. 2:27). Thus, the Aaronic priesthood apparently played little role in much of the preexilic and exilic literature (Deuteronomistic history, Ezekiel). However, the figure of Aaron and the Aaronite priesthood apparently emerged as the preeminent priestly group in the Second Temple or postexilic period in charge of worship and rituals in the Jerusalem temple.
Negative and Nonpriestly Portrayals
Sections of the Pentateuch that scholars often date as earlier than the exilic Priestly traditions tend to portray Aaron in a nonpriestly role as a co-leader with Moses (Exod. 4:27–31; 11:10; 12:31; 16:33–34). These earlier traditions in the Pentateuch also portray Aaron negatively in opposition or rebellion against Moses or Yahweh (Exod. 32, the idolatry of the golden calf; Num. 12, the rebellion of Aaron and Miriam against Moses; Num. 20, the unfaithfulness of Moses and Aaron in hitting the rock). The one prophetic reference to Aaron in Mic. 6:4 lists Aaron as simply a co-leader of the Israelites in the wilderness along with Moses and Miriam.
Aaron’s priesthood diminishes in importance in light of the atoning significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the NT. Acts 7:40 recalls Aaron’s idolatrous involvement with the golden calf. The book of Hebrews recognizes Aaron’s legitimate role as high priest (Heb. 5:4), and yet it affirms Christ as now the greater high priest who arose “according to the order of Melchizedek” (cf. Gen. 14:17–24) rather than “according to the order of Aaron” (Heb. 7:11).
Character: A Summary
The present form of the biblical text balances Aaron’s prominence as leader and priest with an awareness of the potential for disobedience among all leaders, even a high priest like Aaron (Exod. 32:1–6, 25; Lev. 10:1–3; Num. 12:1–16; 20:1–13). In the end, both the high priest Aaron and the incomparable prophet and leader Moses are condemned to die outside the Promised Land of Canaan (Num. 20:12, 22–29; Deut. 34:1–12). Aaron, like many leaders and prominent figures in the Bible, is humanly flawed, but he remained at the same time an effective agent for the blessing and saving work of God among God’s people.
Bibliography. A. Cody, A History of Old Testament Priesthood. AnBib 35 (Rome, 1969); W. Horbury, “The Aaronic Priesthood in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” JSNT 19 (1983): 43–71; R. D. Nelson, Raising Up a Faithful Priest: Community and Priesthood in Biblical Theology (Louisville, 1993); L. Sabourin, Priesthood: A Comparative Study. Studies in the History of Religions 25 (Leiden, 1973).
Dennis T. Olson