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Aaron was the eldest son of the Levite Amram by Jochebed, and the brother of Moses (Exod. 6:20; 7:7; Num. 26:59); born B.C. 1742. He is first mentioned in the account of Moses’ vision of the burning bush (Exod. 4:14), where the latter was reminded by the Lord that Aaron possessed a high degree of persuasive readiness of speech and could therefore speak in His name in his behalf. During the absence of Moses in Midian (B.C. 1698–1658), Aaron had married a woman of the tribe of Judah, named Elisheba (or Elizabeth), who had borne to him four sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar; and Eleazar had, before the return of Moses, become the father of Phinehas (Exod. 6:23–25). Pursuant to an intimation from God, Aaron went into the wilderness to meet his long-exiled brother, and conduct him back to Egypt. They met and embraced each other at the Mount of Horeb (Exod. 4:27), B.C. 1658. When they arrived in Goshen, Aaron, who appears to have been well known to the chiefs of Israel, introduced his brother to them, and aided him in opening and enforcing his great commission (Exod. 4:29–31). In the subsequent transactions, Aaron appears to have been almost always present with his more illustrious brother, assisting and supporting him; and no separate act of his own is recorded, although he seems to have been the actual instrument of effecting many of the miracles (Exod. 7:19 sq.). Aaron and Hur were present on the hill from which Moses surveyed the battle which Joshua fought with the Amalekites (Exod. 17:10–12); and these two long sustained the weary hands upon whose uplifting (in order to extend the official od, rather than in prayer, see ver. 9) the fate of the battle was found to depend. Afterward, when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the tables of the law, Aaron, with his sons and seventy of the elders, accompanied him part of the way up, and were permitted to behold afar off the symbol of the Sacred Presence (Exod. 24:1, 2, 9–11). During the absence of Moses in the mountain the people seem to have looked upon Aaron as their head, and an occasion arose which fully vindicates the divine preference of Moses by showing that, notwithstanding the seniority and greater eloquence of Aaron, he wanted the high qualities which were essential in the leader of the Israelites. The people at length concluded that Moses had perished in the fire that gleamed upon the mountain’s top, and, gathering around Aaron, clamorously demanded that he should provide them with a visible symbolic image of their God, that they might worship him as other gods were worshiped (Exod. 32). Either through fear or ignorance, Aaron complied with their demand; and with the ornaments of gold which they freely offered, cast the figure of a calf (see Kitto’s Daily Bible Illust. in loc.). See Calf. However, to fix the meaning of this image as a symbol of the true God, Aaron was careful to proclaim a feast to Jehovah for the ensuing day (see Moncaeius, Aaron purgatus sive de vitulo aureo, Atreb. 1605, Franckf. 1675). At this juncture, Moses’ reappearance confounded the multitude, who were severely punished for this sin. Aaron attempted to excuse himself by casting the whole blame upon the people, but was sternly rebuked by his brother, at whose earnest intercessions, however, he received the divine forgiveness (Deut. 9:20). During this and a second absence in the mountain, Moses had received instructions regarding the ecclesiastical establishment, the tabernacle, and the priesthood, which he soon afterward proceeded to execute. See Tabernacle, Worship. Under the new institution Aaron was to be high-priest, and his sons and descendants priests; and the whole tribe to which he belonged, that of Levi, was set apart as the sacerdotal or learned caste. See Levite. Accordingly, after the tabernacle had been completed, and every preparation made for the commencement of actual service, Aaron and his sons were consecrated by Moses, who anointed them with the holy oil and invested them with the sacred garments (Lev. 8:9), B.C. 1657. The high priest applied himself assiduously to the duties of his exalted office, and during the period of nearly forty years that it was filled by him his name seldom comes under our notice. But soon after his elevation his two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, were struck dead for daring, seemingly when in a state of partial inebriety, to conduct the service of God in an irregular manner, by offering incense with unlawful fire. On this occasion, it was enjoined that the priests should manifest none of the ordinary signs of mourning for the loss of those who were so dear to them. To this heavy stroke Aaron bowed in silence (Lev. 10:1–11). Aaron joined in, or at least sanctioned, the invidious conduct of his sister Miriam, who, after the wife of Moses had been brought to the camp by Jethro, became apprehensive for her own position, and cast reflections upon Moses, much calculated to damage his influence, on account of his marriage with a foreigner—always an odious thing among the Hebrews. For this Miriam was struck with temporary leprosy, which brought the high priest to a sense of his sinful conduct, and he sought and obtained forgiveness (Num. 12). See Miriam. Subsequently, to this (apparently B.C. 1620), a formidable conspiracy was organized against Aaron and his sons, as well as against Moses, by chiefs of influence and station—Korah, of the tribe of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, of the tribe of Reuben. See Korah. But the divine appointment was attested and confirmed by the signal destruction of the conspirators; and the next day, when the people assembled tumultuously, and murmured loudly at the destruction which had overtaken their leaders and friends, a fierce pestilence broke out among them, and they fell by thousands on the spot. When this was seen, Aaron, at the command of Moses, filled a censer with fire from the altar, and, rushing forward, arrested the plague between the living and the dead (Num. 16). This was, in fact, another attestation of the divine appointment; and, for its further confirmation, as regarded Aaron and his family, the chiefs of the several tribes were required to deposit their staves, and with them was placed that of Aaron for the tribe of Levi. They were all laid up together over night in the tabernacle, and in the morning, it was found that, while the other rods remained as they were, that of Aaron had budded, blossomed, and yielded the fruit of almonds. The rod was preserved in the tabernacle (comp. Heb. 9:4) as authentic evidence of the divine appointment of the Aaronic family to the priesthood—which, indeed, does not appear to have been ever afterward disputed (Num. 17). Aaron was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, on account of the distrust which he, as well as his brother, manifested when the rock was stricken at Meribah (Num. 20:8–13). When the host arrived at Mount Hor, in going down the Wady Arabah [see Exode], in order to double the mountainous territory of Edom, the divine mandate came that Aaron, accompanied by his brother Moses and by his son Eleazar, should ascend to the top of that mountain in the view of all the people; and that he should there transfer his pontifical robes to Eleazar, and then die (Num. 20:23–29). He was 123 years old when his career thus strikingly terminated; and his son and his brother buried him in a cavern of the mountain, B.C. 1619. See Hor. The Israelites mourned for him thirty days; and on the first day of the month Ab the Jews yet hold a fast in commemoration of his death (Kitto, s. v.).
In Psa. 133:2, Aaron’s name occurs as that of the first anointed priest. His descendants (“sons of Aaron,” Josh. 21:4, 10, 13, etc.; poetically, “house of Aaron,” Psa. 115:10, 12; 118:3, etc.) were the priesthood in general, his lineal descendants being the high priests. See Aaronite. Even in the time of David, these were a very numerous body (1 Chron. 12:27). The other branches of the tribe of Levi were assigned subordinate sacred duties. See Levite. For the list of the pontiffs, including those of the line of Ithamar (q. v.), to whom the office was for some reason transferred from the family of the senior Eleazar (see Josephus, Ant. v, 11, 5; viii, 1, 3), but afterward restored (comp. 1 Sam. 2:30), see High priest.
Aaron and his sons were invested by Moses with the priestly office, which was to remain in Aaron’s line forever (Exod. 29). This was altogether distinct from the semi-sacerdotal character with which his mere seniority in the family invested him according to patriarchal usage. The duty and right of sacrificing to God was thereafter reserved to that family exclusively. The high priesthood was confined to the first-born in succession; and the rest of his posterity were priests, simply so called, or priests of the second order (Ernesti, De Aarone, Wittenb. 1688–9).
Aaron was a type of Christ—not, indeed, in his personal, but in his official, character: 1. As high-priest, offering sacrifice; 2. In entering into the holy place on the great day of atonement, and reconciling the people to God; in making intercession for them, and pronouncing upon them the blessing of Jehovah, at the termination of solemn services; 3. In being anointed with the holy oil by effusion, which was prefigurative of the Holy Spirit with which our Lord was endowed; 4. In bearing the names of all the tribes of Israel upon his breast and upon his shoulders, thus presenting them always before God, and representing them to Him; 5. In being the medium of their inquiring of God by Urim and Thummim, and of the communication of His will to them. But, though the offices of Aaron were typical, the priesthood of Christ is of a far higher order. Aaron’s priesthood was designed as “a shadow of heavenly things.” to lead the Israelites to look forward to “better things to come,” when “another priest” should arise, “after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:20), and who should “be constituted, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life.”
John M’Clintock and James Strong, “A′äron,” Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1880), 1–2.