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Brother of Moses

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Aaron, brother of Moses, and High Priest of the Old Law.

1. LIFE.—Altogether different views are taken of Aaron’s life, according as the Pentateuch, which is the main source on the subject, is regarded as one continuous work, composed by Moses or under his supervision—hence most trustworthy in the narration of contemporary events—or as a compilation of several documents of divers origins and dates, strung together, at a late epoch, into the present form. The former conception, supported by the decisions of the Biblical Commission, is held by Catholics at large; many independent critics adopt the latter. We shall study this part of the subject under this twofold aspect, although dwelling longer, as is meet, on the former.

(a) Traditional Catholic Standpoint.—According to I Paral, vi, 1-3, Aaron (the signification of whose name is unknown) was the great-grandson of Levi, and the second of the children of Amram and Jochabed, Mary being the eldest and Moses the youngest. From Ex., vii, 7, we learn that Aaron was born eighty-three, and Moses eighty years, before the Exodus. It may be admitted, however, that this pedigree is probably incomplete, and the age given perhaps incorrect.

We know nothing of Aaron’s life prior to his calling. The first mention of his name occurs when Moses, during the vision on Mount Horeb, was endeavoring to decline the perilous mission imposed upon him, on the plea that he was slow of speech and lacking in eloquence. Yahweh answered his objection, saying that Aaron the Levite, who was endowed with eloquence, would be his spokesman.

About the same time Aaron also was called from on high. He then went to meet Moses, in order to be instructed by him in the designs of God; then they assembled the ancients of the people, and Aaron, who worked miracles to enforce the words of his divine mission, announced to them the good tidings of the coming freedom (Ex., iv). To deliver God‘s message to the King was a far more laborious task.

Pharao harshly rebuked Moses and Aaron, whose interference proved disastrous to the Israelites (Ex., v). These latter, overburdened with the hard work to which they were subjected, bitterly murmured against their leaders. Moses in turn complained before God, who replied by confirming his mission and that of his brother. Encouraged by this fresh assurance of Yahweh’s help, Moses and Aaron again appeared before the King at Tanis (Ps. lxxvii, 12), there to break the stubbornness of Pharao‘s will by working the wonders known as the ten plagues.

In these, according to the sacred narrative, the part taken by Aaron was most prominent. Of the ten plagues, the first three and the sixth were produced at his command; both he and his brother were each time summoned before the King; both likewise received from God the last instructions for the departure of the people; to both was, in later times, attributed Israel’s deliverance from the land of bondage; both finally repeatedly became the target for the complaints and reproaches of the impatient and inconsistent Israelites.

When the Hebrews reached the desert of Sin, tired by their long march, fearful at the thought of the coming scarcity of food, and perhaps weakened already by privations, they began to regret the abundance of the days of their sojourn in Egypt, and murmured against Moses and Aaron. But the two leaders were soon sent by God to appease their murmuring by the promise of a double sign of the providence and care of God for His people. Quails came up that same evening, and the next morning the manna, the new heavenly bread with which God was to feed His people in the wilderness, lay for the first time round the camp. Aaron was commanded to keep a gomor of manna and put it in the tabernacle in memory of this wonderful event. This is the first circumstance in which we hear of Aaron in reference to the tabernacle and the sacred functions (Ex., xvi).

At Raphidim, the third station after the desert of Sin, Israel met the Amalecites and fought against them. While the men chosen by Moses battled in the plain, Aaron and Hur were with Moses on the top of a neighboring hill, whither the latter had betaken himself to pray, and when he “lifted up his hands, Israel overcame: but if he let them down a little, Amalec overcame. And Moses‘ hands were heavy: so they took a stone, and put under him and he sat on it: and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands on both sides” until Amalec was put to flight (Ex., xvii).

In the valley of Mount Sinai the Hebrews received the Ten Commandments; then Aaron, in company with seventy of the ancients of Israel, went upon the mountain, to be favored by a vision of the Almighty, “and they saw the God of Israel: and under his feet as it were a work of sapphire stone, and as the heaven, when clear.” Thereupon Moses, having entrusted to Aaron and Hur the charge of settling the difficulties which might arise, went up to the top of the mountain.

His long delay finally excited in the minds of the Israelites the fear that he had perished. They gathered around Aaron and requested him to make them a visible God that might go before them. Aaron said: “Take the golden earrings from the ears of your wives, and your sons and daughters, and bring them to me.” When he had received them, he made of them a molten calf before which he built up an altar, and the children of Israel were convoked to celebrate their new god. What was Aaron’s intention in setting up the golden calf? Whether he and the people meant a formal idolatry, or rather wished to raise up a visible image of Yahweh their deliverer, has been the subject of many discussions; the texts, however, seem to favor the latter opinion (cf. Ex., xxxii, 4).

Be this as it may, Moses, at God‘s command, came down from the mountain in the midst of the celebration; at the sight of the apparent idolatry, filled with a holy anger, he broke the Tables of the Law, took hold of the idol, burnt it and beat it to powder, which he strowed into the water. Then, addressing his brother as the real and answerable author of the evil: “What,” said he, “has this people done to thee, that thou shouldst bring upon them a most heinous sin?” (Ex., xxxii, 21). To this so well deserved reproach, Aaron made only an embarrassed answer, and he would undoubtedly have undergone the chastisement for his crime with the three thousand men (so with the best textual authority, although the Vulgate reads three and twenty thousand) that were slain by the Levites at Moses‘ command (Ex., xxxii, 28), had not the latter prayed for him and allayed God‘s wrath (Deut., ix, 20).

In spite of the sin, God did not alter the choice he had made of Aaron (Hebr., v, 4) to be Israel’s first High Priest. ‘When the moment came, Moses consecrated him, according to the ritual given in Ex., xxix, for his sublime functions; in like manner Nadab, Abiu, Eleazar, and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons, he devoted to the divine service. What the high priesthood was, and by what rites it was conferred, we shall see later. The very day of Aaron’s consecration, God, by an awful example, indicated with what perfection sacred functions ought to be performed. At the incense-offering, Nadab and Abiu put strange fire into the censers and offered it up before the Lord; whereupon a flame, coming out from the Lord, forthwith struck them to death, and they were taken away from before the sanctuary, vested with their priestly garments, and cast forth out of the camp. Aaron, whose heart had been filled with awe and sorrow at this dreadful scene, neglected also an important ceremony; but his excuse fully satisfied Moses and very likely God Himself, for no further chastisement punished his forgetfulness (Lev., x; Num., iii, 4; xxvi, 61).

In Lev., xvi, we see him perform the rites of the Day of Atonement; in like manner, to him were transmitted the precepts concerning the sacrifices and sacrificers (Lev., xvii, xxi, xxii). A few months later, when the Hebrews reached Haseroth, the second station after Mount Sinai, Aaron fell into a new fault. He and Mary” spoke against Moses, because of his wife the Ethiopian. And they said: Hath the Lord spoken by Moses only?” (Num., xii). From the entire passage, especially from the fact that Mary alone was punished, it has been surmised that Aaron’s sin was possibly a mere approval of his sister’s remarks; perhaps also he imagined that his elevation to the high priesthood should have freed him from all dependence upon his brother. However the case may be, both were summoned by God before the tabernacle, there to hear a severe rebuke. Mary, besides, was covered with leprosy; but Aaron, in the name of both, made amends to Moses, who in turn besought God to heal Mary. Moses‘ dignity had been, to a certain extent, disowned by Aaron.

The latter’s prerogatives likewise excited the jealousy of some of the sons of Ruben; they roused even the envy of the other Levites. The opponents, about two hundred and fifty in number, found their leaders in Core, a cousin of Moses and of Aaron, Dathan, Abiron, and Hon, of the tribe of Ruben. The terrible punishment of the rebels and of their chiefs, which had at first filled the multitude with awe, soon roused their anger and stirred up a spirit of revolt against Moses and Aaron, who sought refuge in the tabernacle.

As soon as they entered it “the glory of the Lord appeared. And the Lord said to Moses: Get you out from the midst of this multitude, this moment will I destroy them” (Num., xvi, 43-45). And, indeed, a burning fire raged among the people and killed many of them. Then again, Aaron, at Moses‘ order, holding his censer in his hand, stood between the dead and the living to pray for the people, and the plague ceased. The authority of the Supreme Pontiff, strongly confirmed before the people, very probably remained thenceforth undiscussed. God, nevertheless, wished to give a fresh testimony of His favor. He commanded Moses to take and lay up in the tabernacle the rods of the princes of the Twelve Tribes, with the name of every man written upon his rod. The rod of Levi’s tribe should bear Aaron’s name: “whomsoever of these I shall choose,” the Lord had said, “his rod shall blossom.”

The following day, when they returned to the tabernacle, they “found that the rod of Aaron… was budded: and that the buds swelling it had bloomed blossoms, which, spreading, the leaves were formed into almonds.” All the Israelites, seeing this, understood that Yahweh’s choice was upon Aaron, whose rod was brought back into the tabernacle as an everlasting testimony. Of the next thirty-seven years of Aaron’s life, the Bible gives no detail; its narrative is concerned only with the first three and the last years of the wandering life of the Hebrews in the desert; but from the events above described, we may conclude that the life of the new pontiff was passed unmolested in the performance of his sacerdotal functions.

In the first month of the thirty-ninth year after the Exodus, the Hebrews camped at Cades, where Mary, Aaron’s sister, died and was buried. There the people were in want of water and soon murmured against Moses and Aaron. Then God said to Moses: “Take the rod, and assemble the people together, thou and Aaron thy brother, and speak to the rock before them, and it shall yield waters” (Num. xx, 8). Moses obeyed and struck the rock twice with the rod, so that there came forth water in great abundance. We learn from Ps. cv, 33, that Moses in this circumstance was inconsiderate in his words, perhaps when he expressed a doubt as to whether he and Aaron could bring forth water out of the rock. Anyway God showed himself greatly displeased at the two brothers and declared that they would not bring the people into the Land of Promise. This divine word received, four months later, its fulfilment in Aaron’s case.

When the Hebrews reached Mount Hor. on the borders of Edom, God announced to Moses that his brother’s last day had come, and commanded him to bring him up on the mountain. In sight of all the people, Moses went up with Aaron and Eleazar. Then he stripped Aaron of all the priestly garments wherewith he vested Eleazar, and Aaron died. Moses then came down with Eleazar, and all the multitude mourned for Aaron thirty days.

Mussulmans honor on Djebel Nabi-Haroun a monument they call Aaron’s tomb; the authenticity of this sepulchre, however, is not altogether certain. By his marriage with Elizabeth, Nahason’s sister, four sons were born to Aaron. The first two, Nadab and Abiu, died without leaving posterity; but the descendants of the two others, Eleazar and Ithamar, became very numerous. None of them, however, honored Aaron’s blood as much as John the Baptist, who, besides being the Precursor of the Messias, was proclaimed by the Word made Flesh “the greatest among them that are born of women” (Matt., xi, 11).

(b) Independent Standpoint.—Aaron’s history takes on an entirely different aspect when the various sources of the Pentateuch are distinguished and dated after the manner commonly adopted by independent critics. As a rule it may be stated that originally the early Judean narrative (J) did not mention Aaron; if his name now appears here and there in the parts attributed to that source, it is most likely owing to an addition by a late redactor. There are two documents, principally, that speak of Aaron. In the old prophetic traditions circulating among the Ephraimites (E) Aaron figured as a brother and helper of Moses. He moves in the shadow of the latter, in a secondary position, as, for instance, during the battle against Amalec; with Hur, he held up his brother’s hands until the enemy was utterly defeated.

To Aaron, in some passages, the supreme authority seems to have been entrusted, in the absence of the great leader, as when the latter was up on Mount Sinai; but his administration proved weak, since he so unfortunately yielded to the idolatrous tendencies of the people. According to the document in question, Aaron is neither the pontiff nor the minister of prayer. It is Moses who raises his voice to God at the tabernacle (Ex., xxxiii, 7-10), and we might perhaps understand from the same place (v. 11) that Josue, not Aaron, ministers in the tent of meeting; in like manner, Josue, not Aaron, goes up with Moses on Mount Sinai, to receive the stone Tables of the Law (Ex., xxiv, 13).

In the Priestly narratives (P) Aaron, on the contrary, occupies a most prominent place; there we learn, indeed, with Aaron’s pedigree and age, almost all the above-narrated particulars, all honorable for Moses‘ brother, such, for instance, as the part played by Aaron in the plagues, his role in some memorable events of the desert life, as the fall of the manna, the striking of water from the rock, the confirmation of the prerogatives of his priesthood against the pretensions of Core and the others, and, finally, the somewhat mysterious relation of his death, as it is found in Num., xx. From this analysis of the sources of his history Aaron’s great personality has undoubtedly come out belittled, chiefly because of the reputation of the writer of the Priestly narrative; critics charge him with caste prejudices and an unconcealed desire of extolling whatever has reference to the sacerdotal order and functions, which too often drove him to exaggerations, upon which history can hardly rely, and even to forgeries.

II. PRIESTHOOD.—Whatever opinion they adopt with regard to the historical value of all the traditions concerning Aaron’s life, all scholars, whether Catholics or independent critics, admit that in Aaron’s High Priesthood the sacred writer intended to describe a model, the prototype, so to say, of the Jewish High Priest. God, on Mount Sinai, instituting a worship, did also institute an order of priests. According to the patriarchal customs, the first born son in every family used to perform the functions connected with God‘s worship. It might have been expected, consequently, that Ruben‘s family would be chosen by God for the ministry of the new altar. According to the biblical narrative, it was Aaron, however, who was the object of Yahweh’s choice. To what jealousies this gave rise later, has been indicated above. The office of the Aaronites was at first merely to take care of the lamp that should ever burn before the veil of the tabernacle (Ex., xxvii, 21). A more formal calling soon followed (xxviii, 1).

Aaron and his sons, distinguished from the common people by their sacred functions, were likewise to receive holy vestments suitable to their office. When the moment had come, when the tabernacle, and all its appurtenances, and whatever was required for Yahweh’s worship were ready, Moses, priest and mediator (Gal., iii, 19), offered the different sacrifices and performed the many ceremonies of the consecration of the new priests, according to the divine instructions (Ex., xxix), and repeated these rites for seven days, during which Aaron and his sons were entirely separated from the rest of the people.

When, on the eighth day, the High Priest had inaugurated his office of sacrificer by killing the victims, he blessed the people, very likely according to the prescriptions of Num., vi, 24-26, and, with Moses, entered into the tabernacle so as to take possession thereof. As they “came forth and blessed the people. And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the multitude: And behold a fire, coming forth from the Lord, devoured the holocaust, and the fat that was upon the altar: which when the multitude saw, they praised the Lord, falling on their faces” (Lev., ix, 23, 24). So was the institution of the Aaronic priesthood inaugurated and solemnly ratified by God.

According to Wellhausen’s just remarks, Aaron’s position in the Law with regard to the rest of the priestly order is not merely superior, but unique. His sons and the Levites act under his superintendence (Num., iii, 4); he alone is the one fully qualified priest; he alone bears the Urim and Thummin and the Ephod; he alone is allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, there to offer incense (Lev., xxiii, 27) once a year on the great Day of Atonement. In virtue of his spiritual dignity as the head of the priesthood, he is likewise the supreme judge and head of the theocracy (Num., xxvii, 21; Deut., xvii). He alone is the answerable mediator between the whole nation and God; for this cause he bears the names of the Twelve Tribes written on his breast and shoulders; his trespasses involve the whole people in guilt, and are atoned for as those of the whole people, while the princes, when their sin offerings are compared with his, appear as mere private persons (Lev., iv, 3, 13, 22; ix, 7; xvi, 6).

His death makes an epoch; it is when the High Priest, not the King, dies, that the fugitive slayer obtains his amnesty (Num., xxxv, 28). At his investiture he receives the chrism like a king and is called accordingly the anointed priest; he is adorned with a diadem and tiara like a king (Ex., xxviii), and like a king, too, he wears the purple, except when he goes into the Holy of Holies (Lev., xvi, 4).

Aaron, first High Priest of the Old Law, is most naturally a figure of Jesus Christ, first and sole Sovereign Priest of the New Dispensation. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews was the first to set off the features of this parallel, indicating especially two points of comparison. First, the calling of both High Priests: “Neither doth any man take the honor to himself, but he that is called by God, as Aaron was. So Christ also did not glorify himself, that he might be made a high priest, but he that said unto him: Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee” (Heb., v, 4, 5). In the second place, the efficacy and duration of both the one and the other priesthood. Aaron’s priesthood is from this viewpoint inferior to that of Jesus Christ. If, indeed, the former had been able to perfect men and communicate to them the justice that pleases God, another would have been useless. Hence its inefficacy called for a new one, and Jesus’ priesthood has forever taken the place of that of Aaron (Heb., vii, 11-12).


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