Priests of the Bible – 2. Aaron
“At Mount Sinai, God designated Aaron and his descendants to serve as priests (Exodus 28:1, 29:44; 30:30; 40:13-15; Numbers 3:3). One of the twelve tribes of Israel, Levi, was assigned priestly duties, although not all Levites were priests. Only those designated could perform priestly duties, not other Levites (Numbers 16:1-3; 17:1-10; 18:1-3), not Moses or his descendants (1 Chronicles 23:13). The Levitical priests had to be between 30 and 50 years old (Numbers 4:3), unblemished – e.g. not lame (Leviticus 21:16-23), have a proper marriage (Leviticus 21:9, 14) – i.e. not married to a harlot or a divorced woman or a widow other than a priest’s widow (Ezekiel 44:22). While the other tribes of Israel were given an inheritance, when it came to dividing up the land, this was not so for the tribe of Levi, for the Lord was their inheritance (Deuteronomy 10:9). The standards of ritual holiness and actual holiness among priests were high, and when two of Aaron’s sons offered unauthorized fire before the Lord (Leviticus 10:1), without further ado, God struck them down dead. Among the duties of the priests was to teach the people (Leviticus 10:8-11), serve as judges to resolve controversy (Deuteronomy 21:5), offer sacrifices (Exodus 29:38-42), assess impurity (Leviticus 13-15), burn incense (Exodus 30:7-8), bless the people (Numbers 6:22-27), bless God (Deuteronomy 10:8), keep the tabernacle (Numbers 3:38; 4;16), take care of the altar (Leviticus 6:8-13), the lamps, and the showbread (Leviticus 24:1-9), prepare the holy things for each day’s journey (Numbers 4:5-15), continue the sacred fire (Leviticus 6:12-13), and blow the trumpets (Numbers 10:1-10). As for the high priest, he was God’s leader over the priests. Aaron served as the first high priest (Exodus 40:12-13). Aaron’s son, Eleazer, replaced him as high priest when he died (Numbers 20:26-28). The position of high priests continued through the time of Christ (Matthew 26:3) until the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 AD. Their duties included: direct the work of the priests and Levites (Numbers 3:4), inquire of the Lord (Judges 20:28), consecrate other priests (Exodus 29:1-37), maintain the golden candlestand with its fire (Leviticus 24:1-4), burn incense daily (Exodus 30:7-8), and offer sacrifices on the Day of Atonement (Hebrews 5:1, Leviticus 16, 23) the one day he could enter the Holy of Holies”. Extract from my book: Prophets of the Bible (click here), in which I consider the relationship between prophets, kings and priests.
Do bear with me for quoting myself but I needed to set the scene before I get down to discussing the first High Priest of Israel, Aaron, whose descendants, even down to New Testament days, occupied the priest’s office. He appears on the scene soon after Moses’ burning bush experience, when God called Moses to be the one to lead the Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land. His job was to be Moses’ spokesman when dealing with Pharoah, requesting he let the Israelites go. At the time, Moses was aged 80 and Aaron was 83. Their older sister, Miriam, had had the presence of mind to find a way for baby Moses to escape Pharoah’s slaughter of Hebrew baby boys. The three had a close relationship and were together for the next forty years before they all died just before Israel entered the land promised to Abraham. Aaron did not resent his younger brother taking the limelight as leader over Israel. While there were blemishes, Aaron mostly served God, Moses and the people well. Besides his important role in dealing with Pharoah, we read, for example, of Aaron holding up Moses arms, when early on the Israelites fought the Amalekites and prevailed. As far as we can tell, he carried out his priestly duties as laid down. When his two sons, Nahab and Abihu, were slain by God for offering “strange fire”, he accepted God’s judgment and, when it was his time to die, just prior he passed the High Priest mantle onto one of his two remaining sons, Eleazar, after which Israel mourned his passing for 30 days.
The big blot on Aaron’s tenure as Moses’ right-hand man and Israel’s High Priest for the best part of 40 years was the part he played in “the golden calf” incident which, but for Moses’ intercession, might have put an end to any hope Israel had of becoming a great nation, dwelling in the land God had promised them. While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Law from God and establishing the covenant that He was to have with His chosen people, Israel, Aaron was left in charge down below. The people grew impatient and demanded of Aaron that he would make them a golden calf as an object of worship. Rather than resist, Aaron gave into those demands. Then toward the end of their wilderness journey, Aaron sided with his strong-minded sister against Moses, thus incurring God’s displeasure. A final blot was when Moses struck the rock at Meribah to bring water for the complaining Israelites. While the main person one attributes blame may be Moses, Aaron was complicit in not giving God glory and, along with Moses, lost his opportunity to enter the Promised Land.
Overall however, Aaron was faithful in what he did, who carried out his duties supporting Moses and serving as Israel’s High Priest diligently and well, showing what was best practice for future High Priests. The duties Aaron and other priests carried out in the Tabernacle, were very important for behind all the carefully laid out activities was Aaron representing the people to God and God to the people. Probably, Aaron’s most important high priestly duty took place on the Day of Atonement, when he offered a sacrifice on behalf of the people so they could receive atonement for the sins they had committed during the course of the preceding year. The fact this had to be done every year is an important reason, as was argued in the Book of Hebrews (see here), why the priesthood of the Order of Melchizedek, which Jesus represented, is superior to that of the Order of Aaron, a precursor to and shadow of what was to come.