The Glossary of Terms




Harperís Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Aaron, the brother of Moses and Miriam. The name is of uncertain meaning but may be Egyptian, as are other names among the tribe of Levi, to which Aaron belonged.

In Mic. 6:4, the only reference to him in the prophets, Aaron is said to have been sent by God, together with Moses and Miriam, to lead Israel from Egypt (cf. Josh. 24:5; 1 Sam. 12:6, 8; Pss. 77:20; 105:26) and this conforms to the representation of him in the earliest Pentateuchal strata. There he appears as Mosesí helper and joint leader in the events of the Exodus, and there is no evidence of his having specifically priestly functions. Rather, he is depicted as a prophet (Exod. 7:1), particularly in the sense of one who announces the divine will (Exod. 4:16; 16:9; Num. 14:26-28). He accompanied Moses and the elders of Israel on important sacrificial occasions (Exod. 18:12; 24:9-11). He and Hur held up Mosesí hands during the battle with Amalek (Exod. 17:12), these two acted as judges when Moses was absent (Exod. 24:14), and, along with Moses, Aaron received the report of the spies (Num. 13:26).

All these, and other, references (e.g., Exod. 4:27-31) suggest that Aaron, together with other now rather shadowy figures, such as Miriam, Hur, and the elders, once played a distinctive, even an independent role, in the Exodus events, an observation that may be confirmed by the traditions that show Aaron in an unfavorable light because of his opposition to Moses, notably Num. 12:1-16, but also by the episode of the golden calf (Exod. 32). However, in the early Pentateuchal material he is clearly subordinated to Moses as his agent and indeed is assimilated to the greater leader. Thus a miraculous rod, which originally belonged to Moses (Exod. 4:2-5, 17), is also attributed to Aaron; with it he causes the Egyptian plagues (Exod. 7:9-12, 19; 8:5-7, 16-17). Both Aaron and Moses suffer the Israelitesí hostility in the wilderness (Num. 16:1-3; 20:2), both are denied entrance to Canaan for the sin of striking the rock (Num. 20:12), and both die on a mountain outside it (Deut. 32:48-52).

In the later priestly sources of the Pentateuch (Exod. 25-31; 35-40; all Leviticus; Num. 1-10; 15-19; 25-35), Aaron is given very much greater prominence. Here he appears essentially as the ancestor of the Aaronite priesthood that finally emerged at Jerusalem after the Exile: the story of the budding of Aaronís rod (Num. 17:1-11) seems designed to establish the claims of the Jerusalem clergy over rival claimants. Aaron and his sons alone are to serve as priests (Exod. 28:1), to offer sacrifices (Num. 8:1-7), and to bless the people (Num. 6:22-27). He fathers an everlasting priesthood (Exod. 40:14; Num. 25:13), and his successors in his office are given supreme authority, even over the secular leader (Num. 27:21; cf. Ecclus. 45:17). In particular, the figure of Aaron represents the high priest and the position he held as the head of the Jerusalem Temple state in postexilic times, where he took over much of the role of the former king. So Aaron was anointed (Lev. 8:12), as was the Israelite king, and the special vestments that he wore were those worn by pre-exilic monarchs (Exod. 28:1-38); such seems certainly to be the case with the breastpiece (Exod. 28:15-30) and the turban and its gold plate (Exod. 28:36-38). On him centers the particular priestly concern with atonement, for it is he, and his high-priestly successors, alone who officiate on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:32-34).

In later Jewish thought, the picture of Aaron is still further developed. He is the most prominent figure in the list of Israelís great men, much more even than Moses, in Ecclus. 44-49 and the high-priestly vesture is endowed with symbolic and cosmic significance (Wisd. of Sol. 18:24).

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