Aaron was the older brother of Moses. His story has been preserved in the Book of Exodus, in events closely linked with the story of his more famous brother Moses.
It should be easy to put the events into sequence. But several different people or groups of people seem to have written different sections of his life story, and so the Bible reader has to be a detective and ask
For example, in Exodus 4:14-15 Aaron is called “the Levite”, which if it was said later on in the Bible would mean that he was an active priest. Here, however, it simply means that he is a member of the tribe of Levi, not necessarily a priest. The idea of Levites being priests came later.
The waters of the Nile seemed to turn into blood
Aaron took part in a contest with the magicians of Pharaoh, and turned his staff into a snake
The nomadic Hebrew tribesmen with Aaron and Moses may have looked like
There is very little deﬁnite information about Aaron’s and Moses’ ancestry. Indeed, the names of his family that are mentioned have a distinctly Egyptian sound: Phinehas, Putiel, and Hofni. However, Aaron was the ﬁrst to meet Moses when he returned from his exile and his divine encounter at Mount Horeb.
Aaron was the ﬁrst of the Levites to adopt the new faith and his claim to leadership alongside Moses appears to have been fully accepted by all the Israelites. The point is, though, that it was secular leadership. The oldest traditions of the Exodus story say nothing about a division of authority between the two brothers, nothing about Aaron being a speciﬁcally religious leader.
These stones, excavated at the ancient city of Megiddo, were probably part of an ancient sanctuary
You have to keep in mind that these ancient stories were composed during the early period of Israel’s history before Jerusalem and its Temple became the focus of the Israelites. At that time there were dozens, maybe hundreds of sanctuaries at different places in the country. There were no official priests attached to a religious centre in Jerusalem, and in fact ordinary people as well as religious officials could preside over religious ceremonies and sacrifices at the altars (Exodus 23:19).
As a whole, the J and E strands of Exodus accurately reﬂect historical facts and conditions. To this extent they differ fundamentally from the idealistic, almost Utopian accounts of the P (Priestly) strand.
The priestly writers assumed that a tabernacle of the dimensions and magniﬁcence of a full-scale Temple was erected very soon after the events on Mount Sinai (see a reconstruction of Solomon's Temple below; this was built many hundreds of years after the time of Aaron).
They also assumed that the functions and duties of the priests were laid down at the same time. In fact however, the organization of the priesthood, as deﬁned in the Priestly sources, belong to a very much later period when a physical House of the Lord in Jerusalem was familiar to everyone.
Although the early sources refer to Aaron as an officiating priest and as the foremost of the priests, quite obviously he could hardly have fulﬁlled such a function during the bondage in Egypt, or in the wilderness when the Israelites had no real sanctuaries. Even the description of him as “the Levite” in Exodus 4:14 probably reﬂects no more than the general feeling that his ofﬁce was more appropriate to a member of the Levi clan. Later on, the terms “Levite” and “priest” were to become practically synonymous and this is a case of the meaning being imposed on the older tradition at a later date.
The Golden Calf
One of the early traditions of Exodus 32 records that because Moses “delayed to come down from” Mount Sinai, the people gave up hope that he would ever return, and demanded that Aaron make them gods to worship. Under pressure, Aaron acquiesced. He had the men collect their womenfolk’s gold jewellery and from it made them a molten calf “fashioning it with a graving tool” (Exodus 32:1-4). An altar was built before it and burnt sacriﬁces offered, Aaron presumably officiating. You can read about this on 'The Golden Calf' page
Bronze bull excavated in northern Israel. The bull, cow and calf were symbols of fertility, in crops, flocks & people. Worship of the forces of Nature continued for hundreds of years after settlement in Israel.
Aaron Revolts Against Moses
In Numbers 12, there is a story in which Aaron challenges Moses’ authority. Perhaps he feels he has more ability to lead than Moses has, and that the weary Hebrew tribespeople will follow him more more gladly.
In any event, he and his sister Miriam complain about Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman. But the real reason for their protest seems to have been their resentment of Moses’ unique position as the mouthpiece of God. They too, they argued, had received divine revelation, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Numbers 12:2).
Their insolence was answered by God in the form of a pillar of cloud proclaiming his complete conﬁdence in Moses who “is entrusted with all my house.” (12:7). Punishment for their lčse majesté was rather unfairly limited to Miriam. She was tormented by a skin ailment that the Hebrews believed was leprosy, and excluded from the camp for seven days. But her brother Aaron stood by her, interceding with Moses, and she recovered. He himself had not suffered, it was said, because he had priestly status.
The fact that the Israelites halted their march for the time that Miriam was in disgrace suggests that her “sin” may possibly have involved others beside herself and Aaron.
Aaron as High Priest and Priestly Ancestor
In contrast to the secular leader of the earliest traditions, the Aaron of the P (Priestly) source is quite a different character. A picture is built up of Aaron “the Levite”, i.e. an ofﬁciating priest, Moses’ religious vice-regent and the ﬁrst High Priest of Israel. From him all lawful priests must be descended, other members of the tribe of Levi acting as their servants (Exodus 28, 29 and 39; Leviticus 8-l5; Numbers 17-18). Throughout the “priestly” regulations for the tabernacle and religious organization, the phrase “Aaron and his sons“ is used to mean the priesthood in general.
This new picture marked the triumph of the trend towards centralization within the priesthood. There was no room in the single central sanctuary for more than one Levite family to ofﬁciate as priests, and the line that won out was the “house of Aaron”.
They cannot have reached this position without encountering opposition, which is probably echoed in the unfavourable stories of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32) and the rebellion of Aaron and Miriam (Numbers 12). Many scholars consider that the story of the Calf provides the basis for the consecration of Levites to the service of the Lord (Exodus 32:29) for on this occasion they proved their unquestioning loyalty to God.
In post-Exilic times (Ezr. 2:61-63) the claim of the house of Aaron to undisputed tenure of the priestly ofﬁce was fully recognized. Levites and priests who could not claim a proper genealogy were excluded from service at the altar and limited to subsidiary duties.
Aaron and the story of the priesthood
The way Aaron and his role are presented can best be understood in terms of the long story of the priesthood, ﬁrst of all in the sanctuaries throughout Israel, then in Jerusalem.
The contradictory accounts of Aaron’s role in the Exodus reflect the struggle between different groups of priests. The most moderate and widely accepted theory is that the priests who returned from Babylon at the time of Ezra and who were probably descendants of Zadok (King David’s High Priest, apparently a Levite with no special pedigree), had somehow to amalgamate with a non-Zadokite group claiming descent from Aaron, who had stayed on in Palestine during the Exile. These priests were from the family of Abiathar and they claimed to be descendents of the house of Eli which, they maintained, had been selected as priests while the Israelites were still in Egypt (I Samuel 2:27-28).
In the course of time, as Aaron became acknowledged the ﬁrst High Priest of Israel, they also claimed descent from him. During the long period of sanctuaries, before the building of the Jerusalem Temple, there was no great urgency in the disputes between the rival priestly families. But when all worship and priestly privileges were centred in the Jerusalem Temple, particularly after Josiah’s reform, the struggle for recognition became much more acute.
Eventually, after the Exile, an agreement was reached by which the two leading families shared the priesthood on an equal footing as “Sons of Aaron”. The post-Exilic Chronicler provided them with the necessary titles to this office in his genealogies of Levi and Aaron (I Chronicles 6:3-15) and the priestly organization which was ascribed to David (I Chronicles 24:1-6), in which it is clearly stated that all Aaron’s sons were priests.
Aaron died in the 39th year of the Israelites‘ wanderings, on the eve of the Conquest. Numbers 20:23-29 records his death on the top of Mount Hor, on the borders of Edom.
Study Resource for Archaeology: Aaron, elder brother of Moses and
Miriam, spokesman for the Hebrew tribes to Pharaoh