Encyclopaedia Biblica – Aaron

detail of an illustration of Aaron's Rod Budding as described in Numbers 17:8-10; from the 1728 Figures de la Bible, illustrated by Gerard Hoet and others, published by P. de Hondt in The Hague in 1728; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

1. In P.

In the post-exilic parts of the OT (including Ezra, Neh., Ch., and for our present purpose some of the Psalms) Aaron is the ancestor of all lawful priests, [1] and himself the first and typical high-priest. This view is founded upon the priestly document in the Hexateuch, according to which Aaron, the elder brother of Moses, took a prominent part, as Moses’ prophet or interpreter, in the negotiations with Pharaoh, and was ultimately, together with his sons, consecrated by Moses to the priesthood. The rank and influence which are assigned to him are manifestly not equal to those of Moses, who stood to Pharaoh as a god (Ex. 7 1). He does, indeed, perform miracles before Pharaoh—he changes his rod into a serpent which swallows up the rods, similarly transformed, of the Egyptian sorcerers; and with the same rod he changes the waters of Egypt into blood, and brings the plagues of frogs and lice—but the order to execute the marvel is in each case communicated to him through Moses (Ex.7 f.). It is Moses, not Aaron, who disables the sorcerers by boils {Ex.9 8 f.), and causes the final destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea (14 15-18). Through his consecration by Moses, Aaron became ‘the priest’ (so usually) or, as he is elsewhere called, ‘the anointed priest’ (Lev. 43 5 16 6 15) or ‘the high-priest’ (Lev. 21 10 Nu. 35 25 28). His sons, representing the common priests, act under him (Nu. 3 4). As high-priest he has splendid vestments, different from those of his sons (Ex. 28); he alone is anointed (Ex.29 7) [2]; he alone, once a year, can enter the holy of holies (Lev. 16). He is the great representative of the tribe of Levi; and his rod, unlike the rods taken to represent the other tribes, buds miraculously, and is laid up for ever by the ark (Nu. 17 6 f. [21 f.]). Within this tribe, however, it is only the direct descendants of Aaron who may approach the altar, so that Korah the Levite, when he claims the power of the priesthood, is consumed by fire from Yahwè (Nu. 16 35). Aaron occasionally receives the law directly from Yahwè (Nu. 18). Even his civil authority is great, for he, with Moses, numbers the people (Nu. 1 3 17), and it is against him as well as against Moses that the rebellion of the Israelites is directed (Ex. l6 2 Nu. 14 2 5 26 16 3). This authority would have been greater but for the exceptional position of Moses, for in the priestly portions of Joshua the name of Eleazar (q.v. i), the next high-priest, is placed before that of Joshua. The ‘priestly’ writer mentions only one blot in the character of Aaron : viz., that in some way, which cannot be clearly ascertained in the present state of the text, he rebelled against Yahwè in the wilderness of Zin, when told to ‘speak to the rock’ and bring forth water (Nu. 2O 12). In penalty he dies, outside Canaan, at Mount Hor, on the borders of Edom (v. 22 f.).

2. In earlier writers.

As we ascend to the exilic and pre-exilic literature, Aaron is still a prominent figure; but he is no longer either the high-priest or the ancestor of all legitimate priests. Ezekiel traces the origin of the priests at Jerusalem no farther back than to Zadok (q.v. 1, § 3) in Solomon’s time. Dt. 10 6 (which mentions Aaron’s death, not at Hor but at Moserah, and the fact that Eleazar succeeded him in the priesthood) is generally and rightly regarded as an interpolation. In Mic. 6 4 (time of Manasseh?) Aaron is mentioned between Moses and Miriam as instrumental in the redemption of Israel.

3. In E.

In the Elohistic document of the Hexateuch (E) he is mentioned as the brother of Miriam the prophetess (Ex. 15 20; for other references to him see Ex. 17 12 24 1 9 10 14, Nu. 12 1); but it is Joshua, not Aaron, who is the minister of Moses in sacred things, and keeps guard over the tent of meeting (Ex. 33 11), and ‘young men of the children of Israel’ offer sacrifice, while the solenm act of sprinkling the blood of the covenant is reserved for Moses (Ex.24 5 6). Aaron, however, seems to have counted in the mind of E as the ancestor of the priests at ‘the hill of Phinehas’ (Josh. 24 33) and perhaps of those at Bethel. At all events, the author of a section added in a later edition of E speaks of Aaron as yielding to the people while Moses is absent on Mount Horeb, and taking the lead in the worship of Yahwè under the form of a golden calf. The narrator, influenced by prophetic teaching, really means to attack the worship carried on at the great sanctuary of Bethel, and looks back to the destruction of Samaria by the Assyrians in 721 as Yahwè’s ‘visitation’ of the idolatrous worship maintained in N. Israel (Ex. 32 ; see especially v. 34).

4. In J.

It is extremely probable that Aaron’s name was absent altogether from the earliest document of the Hexateuch (J) in its original form. In it Aaron appears only to disappear. For example, according to our present text, Pharaoh sends for Moses and Aaron that they may entreat Yahwè to remove the plague of frogs ; but in the course of the narrative Aaron is ignored, and the plague is withdrawn simply ‘at the word of Moses’ (Ex. 8 8-15 a [4-11 a]). Apparently, therefore, the name of Aaron has been introduced here and there into J by the editor who united it to E (cp Exodus, § 3 n.). If that is so we may perhaps agree with Oort that the legend of Aaron belonged originally to the ‘house of Joseph,’ which regarded Aaron as the ancestor of the priests of Bethel, and that single members of this clan succeeded, in spite of Ezekiel, in obtaining recognition as priests at Jerusalem. So, doubtfully, Stade (GVI i. 583), who points out that no strict proof of this hypothesis can be offered.

As to the derivation of ‘Aaron,’ Redslob’s ingenious conjecture that it is but a more flowing pronunciation of hā’ārōn, ‘the ark,” is worth considering only if we can regard Aaron as the mythical ancestor of the priests of Jerusalem (bnē hā’ārōn = bnē Aharōn).

MLA Citation

  • “Aaron”. Encyclopaedia Biblica, 1899. CatholicSaints.Info. CatholicSaints.Info. 5 June 2018. Web. 17 May 2021. <>