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AARON (PERSON) [Heb ʾahărōn (אַהֲרֹן)] – John R. Spencer

AARON (PERSON) [Heb ʾahărōn (אַהֲרֹן)] - John R. Spencer

AARON (PERSON) [Heb ʾahărōn (אַהֲרֹן)] – John R. Spencer

AARONITES. The son of Amram and the brother of Moses and Miriam who was the eponymous ancestor of the priestly Aaronites and the paradigm for later priests. He dies at Mount Hur (Deut 32:50) and is succeeded by his son Eleazar (Num 20:22–29).

Aaronites are the priests who claim descent from Levi through Aaron. They are often referred to as the “sons of Aaron” (Heb bĕnê ʾahărōn) (cf. Lev 3:8; 21:1; Num 10:8; Josh 21:4; 1 Chr 24:1; Neh 12:47) or as “belonging to Aaron” (Heb lĕʾahărōn) (cf. 1 Chr 12:28—Eng12:27; 27:17). The meaning of the name “Aaron” is uncertain, although it is perhaps derived from Egyptian.


  1. Introduction
  2. Images of Aaron in the Biblical Literature
  3. Aaron/Aaronite Relations with Others
  4. The Priestly Functions of Aaron and the Aaronites
  5. Summary


AARON (PERSON) [Heb ʾahărōn (אַהֲרֹן)] - John R. Spencer
AARON (PERSON) [Heb ʾahărōn (אַהֲרֹן)] – John R. Spencer


The first task in understanding Aaron and the Aaronites is to examine the varied images of them in the biblical accounts. Sometimes there is a strong positive image of Aaron as the officially ordained priest of God. At other times, the picture is rather negative, portraying Aaron at odds with Moses and “mainline” religious practices. In examining these portrayals, it becomes clear that positive images appear in the later biblical materials and negative images are prominent in the earlier materials. It is also true that there is a significant body of biblical literature (the prophets—especially Ezekiel—and the Deuteronomistic History) in which priests are present but there is little or no reference to Aaron or his followers. Thus, in order to understand the images of Aaron and the Aaronites, one needs to be aware of the particular literature in which these references to Aaron are found, and the specific time frame in which that literature emerged.

A second set of concerns when discussing Aaron and the Aaronites focuses on their relationship to other people or priestly groups. In terms of individuals, the question is primarily Aaron’s relationship with Moses. In terms of the Aaronites, the question is how they relate to the Levites and Zadokites, two other major priestly factions.

Finally, Aaron and his descendants are the preeminent models of what it means to be a priest. They are the ones who perform the most holy of rituals, who handle the holiest of sacred objects and who enter the holiest of places. In addition, they are the ones who oversee all priestly functions and groups, and monitor the activities of the priests at both the temple and the tabernacle.

Images of Aaron in the Biblical Literature

It is clear that there is some ambivalence in the biblical texts toward Aaron. On the one hand, he becomes involved with the construction of the GOLDEN CALF (Exodus 32) and joins Miriam in opposing Moses (Numbers 12). On the other hand, Aaron and his sons are singled out to serve God as priests (Exodus 28–29; Leviticus 8–9). Somewhere amid these two perspectives stands a remarkable silence on the Aaronites (e.g. 1–2 Kings, Ezekiel), in which they are neither good nor bad. There are other priests or priestly groups present, but Aaron and the Aaronites are not part of that presence.

This confusing portrayal has been the subject of speculation for some period. As early as Wellhausen (WPHI) and Kennett (1905), it was suggested that the positive portrayal of Aaron emerged only in the post-exilic period and that the negative or neutral portrayals dated from the pre-exilic period. Since those early discussions, Meek (1929), Welch (1939), North (1954) and Cody (1969, 1977) have offered slight variations on the same basic position—that the positive image of Aaron is a product of the post-exilic period.

Their arguments are based on an examination of the materials in which Aaron appears. There are 346 references to Aaron in the Hebrew Bible (several in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha and 5 in the NT). A vast majority (296) appear in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The remainder are spread out in Deuteronomy (4), Joshua (6), Judges (1), 1 Samuel (2), Micah (1), Psalms (9), Ezra (1), Nehemiah (3), 1 Chronicles (16), and Chronicles (7). The lack of appearances in Ezekiel, who is very concerned with priests, and the scarcity in Deuteronomy (4), where Moses plays a predominant role, are very curious. However, prior to drawing any conclusions, specific passages need to be investigated, and this investigation must be cognizant of the historical situation from which the passages emerge.

A safe place to begin such an examination is the work of the Chronicler, whose postexilic date is essentially undisputed. In 1–2 Chronicles one sees a prominent positive role for Aaron. He is the brother of Moses (1 Chr 5:29—Eng6:3); he and his sons make sacrifices, offerings, and atonement in the most holy place in the temple (1 Chr 6:34—Eng6:49); and Aaron and his sons are “set apart” to perform the most sacred of duties—to burn incense, to minister, and to bless (1 Chr 23:13; 24:19). Furthermore, in 2 Chr 26:16–21, it is explicitly indicated that only the sons of Aaron, and not King Uzziah, could burn incense to Yahweh.

There are many other positive portrayals of Aaron, but most are found in P (Priestly) material, a collection of material more problematical in terms of dating than the Chronicler’s materials. The general consensus, albeit certainly not uniform, is that the present form of the P material reflects the understandings and perspectives of the early Second Temple period (i.e., postexilic period). Following that consensus yields a perspective on Aaron which is consistent with what emerged in the postexilic work of the Chronicler.

When one looks at the P material, one sees a very positive understanding of Aaron. A few examples from Exodus will support this point. Following the description of the ark and tabernacle (Exod 25:1–27:20), Aaron and his sons (the Aaronites) are to “tend” the tent of meeting (Exod 27:21), to serve Yahweh as priests (Exod 28:1), to wear priestly garments (Exod 28:3–43), including the Urim and Thummim (Exod 28:30), to be consecrated to Yahweh (Exod 29:1) and to be ordained (Exod 29:9, 35). To celebrate this ordination, a bull and two rams are to be sacrificed in Aaron’s honor (Exod 29:10–37). Finally, Aaron and his sons shall be anointed and consecrated as priests of Yahweh with “holy oil” (Exod 30:30–31). This positive image of Aaron continues through most of Exodus (with the exception of Exodus 32, which will be discussed later), throughout all of Leviticus and most of Numbers.

In Leviticus, much time is spent describing specific offerings and the procedures for those offerings. Consistently, Aaron, or “Aaron’s sons, the priests” are specified as the only people authorized to perform these rituals. In Lev 6:1–9:24—Eng6:8–9:24, Aaron and his sons are instructed as to the law of the various offerings and their crucial role in these offerings. The ritual for anointing Aaron and his sons is spelled out in Lev 6:12–16—Eng6:19–23. The actual ceremony for the ordination of Aaron and his sons is prescribed in Leviticus 8–9. The regulations for the actions of the Aaronites—“the priests, the sons of Aaron”—are spelled out in Leviticus 21. The concern is to maintain the holy status of the priests so that they do not become defiled by such actions as marrying a divorced woman (v 7), letting one’s hair hang loose (v 10), or coming in contact with a dead body (v 11). In addition, no person with a blemish may “offer bread” to Yahweh (v 18).

In Numbers 1–4, Moses and Aaron conduct a census of the people in preparation for war. Three factors should be considered when examining the role of Aaron in this census. First, the Levites, another priestly group, are numbered separately from the rest of the people (Num 1:47; 3:16–37), and are to be given to Aaron to stand (Heb ʾmd) before and serve (Heb šrt) him (3:6). The second point is that the line of succession to Aaron is established. In Num 3:2–3 Aaron’s sons are listed and identified as anointed priests “ordained to minister in the priest’s office” (literally “whose hands are filled for the priesthood” [Heb mlʾ yd lkhn], “to fill the hand,” is the common Hebrew expression used to indicate ordination). Since Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons, have died (Leviticus 10), Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s other sons, are the successors to Aaron. Finally, only Aaron and his sons are to be priests. All others who seek to come near the tent of meeting should be killed (Num 3:10).

This perspective on Aaron’s exclusive role as priest is continued in Numbers 16. The account records the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram against Moses and Aaron (Num 16:1–3) and contains the statement that only the descendants of Aaron can be priests (Num 17:5—Eng 16:40). This is curious since Korah, the son of Ishar, and Aaron, the son of Amram, are both seen as descendants of the priestly family of Levi (Exod 3:16–18; Num 3:17–19; 16:1). However, for the Priestly writer it is only Aaron’s branch of the Levitical family which can claim the legitimate right to the priesthood at the temple and tabernacle. Other material in Numbers (except Numbers 12) conveys the same basic positive evaluation of Aaron. As with the Chronicler, the Priestly writer presents a positive image of Aaron.

In contrast to that perspective, one can find materials in which there is a negative, or at least neutral, image of Aaron. One example is in Deuteronomy. This material is examined first because it can be identified, with a comfortable degree of certainty, as having originated in a pre-exilic context. One example, in particular, is Deuteronomy 9, which contains part of Moses’ presentation to the people. Of interest here is the telling of the story of Moses’ descent from Mount Horeb after having received the two tablets of stone. Moses comes upon the people who have sinned and made a GOLDEN CALF (Deut 9:15–16). The story continues with a statement that Yahweh is so angry toward Aaron that he was about to destroy him. It appears that it is only Moses’ intercessory prayer and his utter destruction of the Golden Calf which saves Aaron. It is certainly not a glowing recommendation of Aaron. Indeed, the only other appearance of Aaron in Deuteronomy is in 32:50, where Aaron is merely mentioned as a brother of Moses. Thus Deuteronomy neither presents a positive image of Aaron, nor contains a reference to Aaron as priest (unless one considers Aaron’s role in the building of the Golden Calf as priestly—but even then it would not be seen as consistent with the mainline worship of Yahweh).

This negative perspective is not confined to this passage in Deuteronomy. In Exodus 32, although there is some discussion as to the integrity of the passage, Aaron is portrayed as the villain who receives the gold from the people (Exod 32:4a), makes the calf (Exod 32:4a, 35), declares, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exod 32:4b), and builds an altar before the calf (Exod 32:5). When Moses returns from the mountain, he indicates that Aaron has brought a great sin upon the people (Exod 32:21) and has allowed the people to “break loose” (Exod 32:25). While Aaron seeks to redirect Moses’ anger (Exod 32:22–24), his culpability is clearly indicated.

A third example of this negative image of Aaron is found in Numbers 12. Here Aaron and his sister Miriam challenge Moses’ authority (12:1) and claim that Yahweh speaks through them as well as through Moses (12:2). The response of Yahweh is clear; Moses is the specially chosen spokesperson, and no one should challenge him (12:5–8). As punishment, Yahweh makes Miriam leprous and subsequently heals her only after Aaron pleads with Moses to petition Yahweh on their behalf.

All three of these passages which convey either a negative or a nonpriestly image of Aaron are generally considered to be preexilic in date. The single reference to Aaron in the prophets (Mic 6:4), which is preexilic, merely refers to Aaron as having been sent to Egypt with Moses and Miriam. In addition, there are precious few references to Aaron in the pre-exilic and exilic work of the Deuteronomistic Historian, which is surprising, given the number of times priests or priestly factions are mentioned. It is only in Joshua, where cities are distributed to the Levites (Josh 21:4, 13, 19), that Aaron is referred to as a priest. Finally, Ezekiel, an exilic work which spends much time discussing the roles and functions of the priests and priestly groups, never refers to Aaron or the Aaronites.

The implication of this examination of the biblical passages which refer to Aaron is that the positive image of Aaron and the Aaronites, and of their role as priests, arises in the post-exilic period. This may be expected since it reflects, in general, the prominent position of priests in the postexilic period, and, in particular, the emergence of the role of the high priest. In contrast, in the pre-exilic period Aaron is mentioned only a few times, often in a neutral or negative way, and very rarely as a priest. Thus one must conclude that the prominence of Aaron and the Aaronites as priests is a post-exilic phenomenon.

AARON (PERSON) [Heb ʾahărōn (אַהֲרֹן)] - John R. Spencer
AARON (PERSON) [Heb ʾahărōn (אַהֲרֹן)] – John R. Spencer

Aaron/Aaronite Relations with Others

A second area of consideration is the relationship of Aaron to other individuals and of the Aaronites to other priestly groups. Aaron’s relationship to Moses is of primary importance. In terms of the associations of the Aaronites, there are two other priestly factions which have a significant role in the Hebrew Bible—the Zadokites and the Levites. It is clear that there is struggle, conflict, and competition among these three groups over who is going to have control of the priesthood. As indicated in the previous section, one must remember that all of these relationships are fluid and that Aaron’s priority is emphasized in the later biblical materials.

The close association of Moses and Aaron is a common theme in the Pentateuch (although not exclusively found there [Josh 24:5; 1 Sam 12:6; Ps 77:21—Eng 77:20, 99:6]), particularly in the later (Priestly) writings of the Pentateuch. The association begins with the claim that Aaron is Moses’ brother (Exod 4:14; 6:20; 28:1; Num 26:59; 27:12–13; Deut 32:50; 1 Chr 5:29—Eng6:3; 23:13). There are also over 65 instances where the phrase “Moses and Aaron” appears, almost like a word pair, and only a few instances where the phrase “Aaron and Moses” occurs (Exod 6:26; Num 3:1). What is striking about many of these instances is that the presence of “Aaron” is not crucial to the passage. It could easily be removed without a significant impact on the passage or its meaning (cf. Exod 7:8; 10:3; 16:6; Lev 9:23; 11:1; Num 4:1; 14:5; 33:1). So the evidence for a close association of Moses and Aaron is not absolutely certain, and it is primarily found in the later materials.

In the relationship between Moses and Aaron, it is clear that Moses has a more prominent role. Most often in the Torah, Yahweh speaks to Moses, who in turn speaks to Aaron (Exod 7:19; 16:32–34; Lev 17:1–2; Num 6:22–23; 8:1–2), or Yahweh speaks to Moses and Aaron at the same time (Exod 12:43; Lev 11:1; 14:33; Num 2:1; 19:1; 20:12). Only rarely does Yahweh speak directly to Aaron (Lev 10:8; Num 18:1). In addition, when one looks at the dynamics of the plague stories, there is a clear but subtle shift in the relationship between Moses and Aaron. At the beginning, Moses fumbles for words and pleads his incompetence until in anger Yahweh appoints Aaron to be Moses’ spokesperson. Even then Aaron receives Yahweh’s words through Moses (Exod 4:1–17; 7:19). Thus at the beginning of the plague stories Aaron has an important role. When both Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh (Exod 5:1, 7:10), it is Aaron’s rod which becomes the serpent (7:10), swallows the rods of Pharaoh’s magicians (7:12), is used to turn the Nile into blood (7:19), causes the plague of frogs (8:1—Eng8:5), and brings about the plague of gnats (8:16–17). However, with Exodus 9, Aaron begins to fade from the scene, and it is Moses who brings the boils (9:10) and uses his own rod to bring hail and fire (9:23) and the locusts (10:12–13). One explanation of this shift is that the earlier plagues tend to be from the P writer and the later plagues tend to be from the older pentateuchal source, the J writer. Although there is considerable and justifiable discussion about the degree to which one can identify a particular passage or verse as J or P, the general perspective suggests that the older materials do not place an emphasis on Aaron whereas the newer materials do. Thus, like the prominence of Aaron as priest in the postexilic period, it seems that the association of Aaron with Moses also finds its greatest emphasis in the post-exilic materials.

Moses and Aaron also appear together when the people are “murmuring” during the Exodus. Usually this murmuring involves the rebellion of the people against the leadership. In Exodus 17 the people murmur against Moses (v 2). Aaron is not the target of the rebellion and his role in the incident is only that of holding up Moses’ arms, along with Hur (v 12). In Numbers 12, the rebellion is again directed at Moses (v 1). However, this time it is Aaron and his sister Miriam who lead the rebellion against Moses. Finally, in Numbers 14 and 16, the rebellion is directed not just against Moses but also against Aaron (Num 14:2, 16:3). This confused situation becomes clear when one realizes that the early materials (Numbers 12, Exodus 17) either ignore Aaron or are negative toward him, whereas in the later materials (Numbers 14, 16) there is a positive picture of Aaron and a link with Moses.

When one turns to the priestly groups, it is apparent that the relations between the Zadokites and Aaronites change over time. During the monarchy, it is the Zadokites who play a prominent role in the priesthood and little is said about the Aaronites. One merely needs to look at the dearth of references to Aaron or Aaronites in Kings and Samuel (only 2 Samuel) in contrast to the 26 references to Zadok as the priest of the monarchy. At the end of David’s reign, there is a conflict over the succession to the throne between Solomon and his followers and Adonijah and his followers (1 Kings 1–2). When Solomon is victorious in the struggle, he appoints Zadok as the priest of the Temple and expels Abiathar (1 Kgs 2:27), the associate of Adonijah. While there may be some debate over the actual association of Abiathar—whether he is Levite or Aaronite—it is clear that Zadok and his followers, the Zadokites, are the priests in good standing. That perspective continues in the late exilic work of Ezekiel; he never mentions the Aaronites. Rather, it is the Zadokites with the assistance of the Levites who are the priests (Ezek 40:46; 44:15; 48:11).

It is only in the post-exilic material of the Chronicler that any association between Aaron and Zadok appears, and the perspective is always that Zadok the priest is a descendant of Aaron (1 Chr 5:29–34—Eng6:3–8; 6:35–38—Eng6:50–53; Ezra 7:1–5), which preserves the priority of Aaron. In addition, the Chronicler seeks to clarify the relationship of Zadok and Abiathar, the two priests of David (2 Sam 8:17, cf. 1 Sam 22:20) who are rivals after his death. According to 1 Chr 24:3, Zadok is a descendant of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, and Abiathar is a descendant of Ithamar, also a son of Aaron. Thus, for the Chronicler, all priests are descendants of Aaron, which again stresses the post-exilic prominence of the Aaronites.

The relationship between the Aaronites and the Levites is much more confusing and more prone to be hostile than that between the Aaronites and the Zadokites. Nevertheless, this relationship also shows development and change. A prime example of the hostility emerges in Exodus 32. The complicity of Aaron in the Golden Calf apostasy has already been mentioned. At the end of that account, there is the punishment for those involved in the idolatry (Exod 32:25–29). Moses calls for those “on Yahweh’s side” to join him in opposition to the people who “broke loose,” and presumably that included Aaron. It is the Levites who respond to Moses’ call and slay 3,000 people who participated in the apostasy. As a result of the Levites’ actions, they are “ordained” to the service of Yahweh (Exod 32:29). The Hebrew text says “their hands are filled,” which is a clear reference to their ordination as priests. It thus appears that the Levites’ rise in status is directly related to their opposition to Aaron and his followers.

This same perspective is present when one examines 1 Kings 12. In this passage Jeroboam establishes two cultic centers in the Northern Kingdom at Dan and Bethel (vv 25–33), and makes two calves of gold for these centers (v 28). Jeroboam erects these calves and declares, “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” the same phrase as was used by Aaron in Exod 32:4. In addition, when Jeroboam selects priests for his temple he explicitly excludes Levites (1 Kgs 12:31). (According to 2 Chr 13:8–9, Jeroboam excludes both Levites and Aaronites, which reflects the later post-exilic perspective of the Chronicler in which Aaron is the only true priest and could not have participated in the apostasy of the Northern Kingdom.) A further piece of data which links these two golden calf incidents of Exodus 32 and 1 Kings 12 together is that the two eldest sons of Aaron and the sons of Jeroboam have virtually the same names: Nadab and Abihu for Aaron (Exod 6:23) and Nadab and Abijah for Jeroboam (1 Kgs 14:1, 20). Furthermore, all four of these sons die as a result of their idolatry (cf. Leviticus 10; 1 Kgs 14:1–14; 15:25–30). So based on these early materials, the improper cultic practices of Jeroboam are associated with those of Aaron, and the Levites either do not participate or actively oppose those idolatrous religious practices.

Numbers 16 is another passage in which there is opposition between Aaron and the Levites. However, in this instance, it is Aaron who is declared the righteous follower of God; and it is Korah, the descendant of Levi, who revolts against Moses and Aaron. Indeed, the followers of Aaron (Aaronites) are explicitly identified as the priests of Yahweh to the exclusion of Korah (Num 16:1–5—Eng16:36–40).

This change in perspective on Aaron, where Aaron is now seen as the dominant priest, is reflective of the post-exilic materials of the Priestly writer and the Chronicler and again exemplifies the post-exilic relationship of Aaronites and Levites. It also shows that although all priestly factions traced their ancestry back to Levi, and Levi is considered ordained by God, the Levites’ primary function is to serve the Aaronites.

When the census of the people is being taken by Aaron and Moses in Numbers, the Levites are explicitly set aside (Num 1:47) and not numbered at the beginning, since they have special tasks around the tabernacle. Later, however, the Levites are numbered and chosen by God to stand (Heb ʾmd) before Aaron and to “minister” (Heb šrt) to Aaron, since they are given to Aaron and his sons (Num 3:5–10; cf. 4:27). What is clear in this passage is that there is a distinction between the Aaronites as priests and the Levites, who, although also ordained, are secondary priests subordinate to Aaron.

Aaron is then to collect the Levites and consecrate them to service (Heb ʿbd) (Num 8:5–26; cf. 18:1–7). This perspective is continued in Chronicles, where there is a clear distinction between priests, understood to be Aaronites, and Levites (1 Chr 23:2; 24:31; 28:13, 21; and 2 Chr 7:6; 11:13; 13:9; 19:8; 23:4, 6). The Levites are to stand (Heb ʾmd) before the priests, the sons of Aaron (1 Chr 23:27–28), and guard (Heb šmr) the sons of Aaron (1 Chr 23:32; cf. 2 Chr 13:10; 35:14; Neh 12:47).

The priority of the Aaronites is illustrated in no better way than in the account in Num 17:16–28—Eng 17:1–13. According to the passage, each of the twelve tribes has a rod or staff, and each is to have the tribal ancestor’s name placed on the rod. However, the rod representing Levi’s tribe has Aaron’s name written upon it. When all twelve rods are deposited in the tent of meeting to determine which of them will be chosen by God, it is the “rod of Aaron” which sprouts and bears “ripe almonds.” This, of course, indicates Yahweh’s selection of Aaron over all other (cf. Ps-Philo 17:1–4; 53:9). Finally, Aaron’s rod, which is put before the “testimony” in the tent of meeting, is to become a sign that the people should not murmur against Yahweh (cf. Numbers 16).

In the following chapter (Numbers 18), where Aaron’s priesthood and the role of the tribe of Levi are again discussed, the priority of Aaron and his sons as priests and the secondary status of the tribe of Levi are reiterated. The Levites are to minister to (Heb šrt; Num 18:2), to guard (Heb šmr; Num 18:3), and to serve (Heb ʿbd; Num 18:6) Aaron and his sons. This role of attending to Aaron and the Aaronites is given exclusively to the Levites (Num 18:4). However, the Levites are firmly cautioned not to approach the altar, lest they die (Num 18:3). This material in Numbers is late, again suggesting that the priority of Aaron and the Aaronites and the secondary status of the tribe of Levi (the Levites) emerges in the time of the Second Temple. In the material from the earlier periods, the Levites are often preferred, and it is the Aaronites whose activities are questionable and whose status is secondary to the Levites.

In general, it appears that Aaron’s relationship with others has had the same mixed history as was seen in the review of Aaron in the biblical literature. In the monarchical period, Aaron and the Aaronites have a secondary, nonexistent, or negative status in relation to the other priestly groups. That perspective changes in the post-exilic period of the high priest, when Aaron and his sons (the Aaronites) become the high priests and establish their superiority over other groups. They do this by a genealogical link which traces their ancestry back to Moses and beyond to Levi, and by the accounts of Yahweh’s selection of Aaron as the chosen priest, the paradigm—preferred over the other priestly factions (Levites and Zadokites). Indeed, the other priestly factions became servants to Aaron and the Aaronites.

The Priestly Functions of Aaron and the Aaronites

The role of Aaron as priest emerges in the activities and functions he and his descendants, the Aaronites, perform. Of course, one of their main functions is to preside at cultic ceremonies. However, there are other related activities in which they are involved.

There are numerous references in which Aaron (or his descendants) officiate at and participate in cultic rituals. In fact, the majority of the discussion in Leviticus is devoted to the priestly functions of Aaron and the Aaronites. They perform the “burnt offering” (Lev 1:3–17; 9:12–14), the “cereal offering” (Lev 2:1–16), and the “peace offering” (Lev 3:1–17; 9:18–21). Aaron is not explicitly mentioned when the “sin offering” (Lev 4:1–5:13) or “guilt offering” (Lev 5:14–26—Eng5:14–6:7) are discussed. However, when the laws (Heb tôrāt) of the “sin offering” are presented (Lev 6:17–23—Eng6:24–30; cf. 9:8, 16:6), it is the Aaronites who are addressed. For the “guilt offering” Aaron is again not specified, but it is always a priest who officiates (Lev 5:16, 5:25–26—Eng6:6–7, 7:1–5), and Aaron is in charge when the offering of atonement is made (Leviticus 16). Thus the presumption that this anonymous priest should be understood as Aaron seems valid (cf. 1 Chr 6:34—Eng6:49).

Another priestly function of the Aaronites is participation in ordination. Indeed, the Aaronites participate in their own ordination ceremony (Leviticus 8). It is run by Moses at Yahweh’s command, but Aaron and his sons participate by laying their hands upon the bull of the “sin offering” (8:14), the ram of the “burnt offering” (8:18), and the ram of the “ordination” (8:22). Finally, they are to eat from the ordination offering (8:31–36).

An important passage which outlines Aaron’s duties is Leviticus 10:8–11. This passage is unusual because it is one of the few places where Yahweh speaks directly to Aaron rather than through Moses. Here Aaron is told to do three things: avoid drinking when going into the tent of meeting; distinguish between the holy and the common and between the clean and the unclean; and teach the people Yahweh’s statutes. One curiosity about the passage is how closely it echoes Ezekiel 44. In Ezekiel the reference is not to Aaron but to the priests who are the sons of Zadok and who also claim descent from Levi. Nevertheless, the functions of the priests are very similar: the sons of Zadok are told not to drink before going into the temple (Ezek 44:21); to distinguish between clean and unclean (Ezek 44:23b); to teach the people the difference between holy and common (Ezek 44:23a); to act as judge (Ezek 44:24a; cf. Exod 28:29–30); and to keep Yahweh’s laws (Ezek 44:24b). Although the priestly faction in charge may have changed, the priestly functions relative to the central shrine remain essentially the same.

The distinction between clean and unclean is the focus of Leviticus 11–14. Moses and Aaron (Lev 11:1) are to speak to the people about this distinction, and people who are thought to be diseased are to be brought before Aaron and his sons for examination (Lev 13:1–2). It is Aaron who is to determine clean and unclean in relation to disease, and to deal with unclean houses and how to cleanse them (Lev 14:33–57). The same standards of purity apply to the Aaronites themselves. They are to be without blemish and pure in all ways (Leviticus 21). This is another means of distinguishing Aaron from others, and supports the contention that Aaron is chosen above the others to be priest (Ps 105:26, 106:16) and to have access to the holy things (1 Chr 23:13) in the temple (1 Chr 24:19) or in the tent of meeting (Exod 27:21, Num 17:1–5—Eng 16:36–40).

In Joshua 21, the Aaronites are to receive 48 Levitical cities from among the cities recently conquered by the twelve tribes (vv 4, 10, 13, 19). These cities, along with their pasture lands (but not, presumably, the agricultural lands [Num 35:1–8]), are to be set aside as land in which the priests can live and raise herds. This perspective is reiterated in 1 Chr 6:39–66—Eng6:54–81, where there is a special reference to the sons of Aaron receiving cities of refuge (1 Chr 6:42–45—Eng6:57–60). They are said to receive 13 cities, although only 11 are listed by name, in which a criminal may find refuge from pursuers. In the other major references to the cities of refuge (Num 35:9–15; Deut 19:1–10; Joshua 20), only 6 cities are set aside, and there is no mention of the cities being given to Aaron. The Aaronite control of these cities of refuge may well reflect the Chronicler’s post-exilic perspective, in which there is a positive image of Aaron, and the Aaronites are in charge of the priesthood.

Finally, the Aaronites are given the Urim and Thummim (Exod 28:30, Lev 8:5–9). These “sacred lots” are used to determine the will of Yahweh (Num 27:21; 1 Sam 14:36–42, 27:6; cf. 1 Sam 10:20–24) and to indicate the juridical role of Aaron (Exod 28:29–30a; cf. Ezek 44:24). In Num 27:21, it is Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the next in the priestly line (cf. Num 20:22–29), who uses the Urim to inquire whether Joshua should succeed Moses. The Urim and Thummim are thus symbols of special access to God’s will; and, according to parts of the biblical tradition, they belong in the hands of the Aaronites.

It is clear that Aaron and the Aaronites play a prominent role as priests. Their fulfillment of that role is emphasized in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the later materials. That perspective continues in the intertestamental literature (4 Macc 7:11; 3 En. 2:3; 48A:7), although there are surprisingly few references to Aaron in this material. In the New Testament, the book of Hebrews speaks of Jesus being called by God, just like Aaron (Heb 5:4–5). However, to distinguish Jesus from the priests of his contemporary time, Jesus is said to be of the order of Melchizedek, not that of Aaron and the Levites (Heb 7:4–22). Thus the writer of Hebrews is claiming a priestly authority for Jesus which predates that of Aaron or Levi and comes through Melchizedek at the time of Abraham (Gen 14:17–24; Ps 110:4; Heb 7:1–3).


Aaron and the Aaronites play an important role in the religious structure of ancient Israel. The emphasis upon them and their functions clearly indicates their place as the preeminent priests. However, close examination of the biblical literature suggests that this prominent role was not present at the beginnings of Israel and was not won without a struggle. The earlier materials indicate a more significant role for the Levite and Zadokite priestly factions than for the Aaronites. It is only with the realignment and reorganization forced upon the Israelites by the trauma of the fall of Jerusalem in 586 b.c.e. that the Aaronites assume center stage. Then, in the writings of the post-exilic period, the Aaronites are portrayed as the paradigm of priests, and the other priestly groups are relegated to secondary or servant status. (See also PRIESTS AND LEVITES.)



Aberbach, M., and Smolar, L. 1967. Aaron, Jeroboam, and the Golden Calves. JBL 86: 129–40.

Cody, A. 1969. A History of Old Testament Priesthood. AnBib 35. Rome.

———. 1977. Aaron: A Figure with Many Facets. BToday 88: 1089–94.

Gunneweg, A. H. J. 1965. Leviten und Priester. FRLANT 89. Göttingen.

Horbury, W. 1983. The Aaronic Priesthood in the Epistle to the Hebrews. JSNT 19: 43–71.

Judge, H. G. 1956. Aaron, Zadok and Abiathar. JTS n.s. 7: 70–74.

Kennett, R. H. 1905. Origin of the Aaronite Priesthood. JTS 6: 161–86.

Meek, T. J. 1929. Aaronites and Zadokites. AJSL 45: 149–66.

North, F. S. 1954. Aaron’s Rise in Prestige. ZAW 66: 191–99.

Sabourin, L. 1973. Priesthood: A Comparative Study. SHR 25. Leiden.

Welch, A. C. 1939. The Work of the Chronicler. London.



John R. Spencer

WPHI J. Wellhausen. 1885. Prolegomena to the History of Israel. 2 vols. Trans. J. S. Black and A. Menzies. Edinburgh. Repr. Cleveland 1957; Gloucester, MA, 1973

P Pesher (commentary)

J “Yahwist” source

Ps-Philo Pseudo-Philo

3 En. 3 Enoch (Hebrew Apocalypse)

JBL Journal of Biblical Literature

AnBib Analecta Biblica

BToday Bible Today, Collegeville, MN

FRLANT Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments

JSNT Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Sheffield

JTS Journal of Theological Studies, Oxford

n.s. new series

AJSL American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures

ZAW Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, Berlin

SHR Studies in the History of Religions

John R. Spencer Associate Professor, John Carroll University, University Heights, OH

Spencer, J. R. (1996). Aaron (Person). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (D. N. Freedman, Ed.) (1:2-6). New York: Doubleday.

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