Aaron, the traditional founder and head of the Jewish priesthood, who, in company with Moses, led the Israelites out of Egypt. The greater part of his life-history is preserved in late Biblical narratives, which carry back existing conditions and beliefs to the time of the Exodus, and find a precedent for contemporary hierarchical institutions in the events of that period. Although Aaron was said to have been sent by Yahweh (Jehovah) to meet Moses at the “mount of God” (Horeb, Ex. iv. 27), he plays only a secondary part in the incidents at Pharaoh’s court. After the “exodus” from Egypt a striking account is given of the vision of the God of Israel vouchsafed to himand to his sons Nadab and Abihu on the same holy mount (Ex. xxiv. 1 seq. 9-11), and together with Hur he was at the side of Moses when the latter, by means of his wonder-working rod, enabled Joshua to defeat the Amalekites (xvii. 8-16). Hur and Aaron were left in charge of the Israelites when Moses and Joshua ascended the mount to receive the Tables of the Law (xxiv. 12-15), and when the people, in dismay at the prolonged absence of their leader, demanded a god, it was at the instigation of Aaron that the golden calf was made. This was regarded as an act of apostasy which, according to one tradition, led to the consecration of the Levites, and almost cost Aaron his life (cp. Deut. ix. 20). The incident paves the way for the account of the preparation of the new tables of stone which contain a series of laws quite distinct from the Decalogue (Ex. xxxiii. seq.). Kadesh, and not Sinai or Horeb, appears to have been originally the scene of these incidents (Deut. xxxiii. 8 seq. compared with Ex. xxxii. 26 sqq.), and it was for some obscure offence at this place that both Aaron and Moses were prohibited from entering the Promised Land (Num. xx.). In what way they had not “sanctified” (an allusion in the Hebrew to Kadesh “holy”) Yahweh is quite uncertain, and it would appear that it was for a similar offence that the sons of Aaron mentioned above also met their death (Lev. x. 3; cp. Num. xx. 12, Deut. xxxii. 51). Aaron is said to have died at Moserah (Deut. x. 6), or at Mt. Hor; the latter is an unidentified site on the border of Edom (Num. xx. 23, xxxiii. 37; for Moserah see ib. 30-31), and consequently not in the neighbourhood of Petra, which has been the traditional scene from the time of Josephus.
Several difficulties in the present Biblical text appear to have arisen from the attempt of later tradition to find a place for Aaron in certain incidents. In the account of the contention between Moses and his sister Miriam (Num. xii.), Aaron occupies only a secondary position, and it is very doubtful whether he was originally mentioned in the older surviving narratives. It is at least remarkable that he is only thrice mentioned in Deuteronomy (ix. 20, x. 6, xxxii. 50). The post-exilic narratives give him a greater share in the plagues of Egypt, represent him as high-priest, and confirm his position by the miraculous budding of his rod alone of all the rods of the other tribes (Num. xvii). The latter story illustrates the growth of the older exodus-tradition along with the development of priestly ritual: the old account of Korah’s revolt against the authority of Moses has been expanded, and now describes (a) the divine prerogatives of the Levites in general, and (b) the confirmation of the superior privileges of the Aaronites against the rest of the Levites, a development which can scarcely be earlier than the time of Ezekiel (xliv. 15 seq.).
Aaron’s son Eleazar was buried in an Ephraimite locality known after the grandson as the “hill of Phinehas” (Josh. xxiv. 33). Little historical information has been preserved of either. The name Phinehas (apparently of Egyptian origin) is better known as that of a son of Eli, a member of the priesthood of Shiloh, and Eleazar is only another form of Eliezer the son of Moses, to whose kin Eli is said to have belonged. The close relation between Aaronite and Levitical names and those of clans related to Moses is very noteworthy, and it is a curious coincidence that the name of Aaron’s sister Miriam appears in a genealogy of Caleb (1 Chron. iv. 17) with Jether (cp. Jethro) and Heber (cp. Kenites). In view of the confusion of the traditions and the difficulty of interpreting the details sketched above, the recovery of the historical Aaron is a work of peculiar intricacy. He may well have been the traditional head of the priesthood, and R. H. Kennett has argued in favour of the view that he was the founder of the cult at Bethel, corresponding to the Mosaite founder of Dan. This throws no light upon the name, which still remains quite obscure; and unless Aaron (Aharon) is based upon Aron, “ark”, it must be placed in a line with the other un-Hebraic and difficult names associated with Moses and Aaron, which are, apparently, of South Palestinian (or North-Arabian) origin.