Biblical Studies Aaron
John R. Spencer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0121


Aaron has an important role as priest in the Bible, particularly in the Hebrew Bible. When he is first introduced in Exodus 4:14, he is identified as the brother of Moses and as a Levite, one of the groups of priests. Hence, from the beginning, Aaron is seen as a priest. He is the son of Amram, the brother of Moses and Miriam (Numbers 26:50), and the eponymous ancestor of the priestly group called the Aaronites (the “Sons of Aaron”) (Exodus 28:1). The portrayal of Aaron is mixed. At times it is very positive, with Aaron and his sons serving as the priests for the ancient Israelites (Exodus 28–29; Leviticus 8–9). At other times, Aaron appears in a negative light, associated with the building of the golden calf (Exodus 32), the opposition to Moses (Numbers 12), and the incident at Meribah (Numbers 20). This fluctuating prominence of Aaron appears to be connected with the changing dynamics of the relationship between Aaron and his followers (Aaronites, or sometimes Aaronides), on the one hand, and the priestly followers of Levi (the Levites) and Zadok (the Zadokites), on the other. In the earlier materials of the Hebrew Bible, Aaron appears to have a neutral or negative persona. In later materials, especially in what is traditionally see as postexilic (after 586–538 BCE), Aaron has a very positive reputation and is seen as having a priestly role superior to that of the Levites (1 Chronicles 23–24) and Zadokites (Ezra 7:1–5).

General Overviews

There are several classical writings that discuss Aaron, his role as priest, and the priesthood of his successors (Aaronites), in the Hebrew Bible. They provide an understanding of priesthood in general, often looking at the larger context of ancient Near Eastern priesthood to get a sense of the commonality with and uniqueness of the Israelite priesthood. Wellhausen 1957 (first published in 1878), a classic and somewhat controversial history of ancient Israel, was one of the first works to take a serious look at the role of priests in ancient Israel. Gunneweg 1965, although in German and not accessible to all, has had a major influence on the understanding of priests and Levites. A good broad overview in English of the role of priests and Aaron is provided by Cody 1969. The next step in the understanding of Aaron is Sabourin 1973, which takes more of a “history of religions” look at Aaron and priests as it compares the role of the priests of ancient Israel with those of other communities. Valentin 1978 looks at what the author considers materials about Aaron prior to the writings of the “P,” or Priestly, materials and explores how the role of Aaron developed. Spencer 1992 provides a succinct discussion of Aaron and the issues surrounding the Aaronite priesthood. Blenkinsopp 1995 places the discussion of priests in the context of other important roles in ancient Israel. Along with sages and prophets, Blenkinsopp seeks to view the roles of priests apart from Christian presuppositions about those roles. An article with a more limited but important focus is Homan 1998, which features a presentation of the difficulties in providing the etymological origins of the word aaron. Findlay 2017 is the first extensive discussion of Aaron in a while, although the author confines the analysis to the Pentateuch.

  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Sage, Priest, Prophet: Religious and Intellectual Leadership in Ancient Israel. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995.

    Chapter 2 of this volume focuses on the priests in the Hebrew Bible. Blenkinsopp first wants to counter the negative image of Israelite priests in modern Christian scholarship. He goes on to trace the development of the priesthood and the roles of priests. Major sections deal with the relation of the Aaronites to other priestly groups, and with the Aaronites’ prominence in the Second Temple period.

  • Cody, Aelred. A History of Old Testament Priesthood. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1969.

    This is a thorough review of the development of Israelite priesthood. It begins with an examination of priesthood in the ancient Near East and continues with a study of the growth and change of priests and priestly groups in ancient Israel. It is similar to the coverage by Gunneweg 1965 but provides the materials in English.

  • Findlay, James D. From Prophet to Priest: The Characterization of Aaron in the Pentateuch. Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 76. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2017.

    Findlay looks at specific passages in the Pentateuch (Exodus 7–11, 32–34; Leviticus 8–10; Numbers 12, 16–17; and Deuteronomy 9–10). He applies form and literary criticism (including rhetorical, narratological, and semiotic criticisms) to each passage. His goal is to understand Aaron more fully. He argues that Aaron’s “character is fluid and malleable,” undergoing constant “construction and re-construction” (p. 399) throughout, which results in a variety of views of Aaron.

  • Gunneweg, A. H. J. Leviten und Priester. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1965.

    A classical text in the study of priests and Levites (one of the priestly groups). It focuses on the difference between priests (i.e., Aaronites) and the Levites and is similar in coverage to Cody 1969.

  • Homan, Michael M. “A Tensile Etymology for Aaron: ‘Ahărōn ‘ahălōn.” Biblische Notizen 95 (1998): 21–22.

    The etymology of the name Aaron has always been a question. Homan suggests that it may be an Egyptianized form of the Semitic word ‘ahl, and that it means “tent-man.”

  • Sabourin, Leopold. Priesthood: A Comparative Study. Studies in the History of Religions 25. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1973.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004378438

    A broad study of priesthood, from primitive societies to the time of Jesus. It includes Eastern, Greek, ancient Near Eastern, and Israelite religions. Aaron is presented in this broader context. This comparative study advanced the presentations of Cody 1969 and Gunneweg 1965 by expanding the context in which the priesthood of the Hebrew Bible is discussed.

  • Spencer, John. “Aaron.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 1. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 1–6. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    A concise overview of the roles of Aaron and the Aaronites, with emphases on the changing fortunes of the Aaronites and on the relationships of the Aaronites with the Levites and Zadokites.

  • Valentin, Heinrich. Aaron: Eine Studie zur Vor-Priesterschriftlichen Aaron-Überlieferung. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 18. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978.

    Valentin focuses on the passages of Exodus 17:8–13, 24:14, 32; Numbers 12; and Deuteronomy 9:20 as the only five passages that are truly written earlier than the P (Priestly) materials. In these materials Aaron is not seen as a priest, is not associated with the priesthood at Bethel, and is merely a clan leader. It is only with the Priestly writer that Aaron is linked with the priesthood.

  • Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. New York: Meridian Books, 1957.

    This book (first published in 1878), is famous and controversial for its developmental understanding of ancient Israel and the articulation of the “documentary hypothesis” that sought to explain the multiple authorship of the Pentateuch. Chapter 4, “The Priests and the Levites,” focuses on the distinction between the sons of Aaron and the Levites. Wellhausen sees the priesthood as developing over time, culminating in the role of the high priest associated with Aaron in the postexilic period.

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