Aaron in the Bible

Bible Review's Supporting Roles by Elie Wiesel

Read Elie Wiesel’s essay on Aaron in the Bible as it originally appeared in Bible Review, December 1998. The essay was first republished in Bible History Daily in October 2013.—Ed.


Aaron, the first high priest and brother to Moses, worships the golden calf, in an illumination from the late-13th-century manuscript La Somme le Ray. Elie Wiesel points out that this incident, which had disastrous consequences for the Israelites fleeing Egypt, cast a shadow over Aaron. In Exodus 32, Aaron instructs the Israelites, who had grown restless during Moses’ long sojourn at Mount Sinai, to gather their jewelry and fashion a golden calf. He then constructs an altar and begins to worship. When Moses returns and sees the people worshiping the calf, he is angered by their idolatrous sin and throws down the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Later, when the Lord punishes “the people who through Aaron made the bull-calf” (Exodus 32:35), Aaron remains unharmed—a mystery Wiesel raises but cannot solve. Photo: British Library MSADD 28162, Folio 2V.

I have a problem with Aaron, number two in the great and glorious epic that recounts the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. He is a man of peace. He succeeds at everything. Everyone admires, even loves him. Whether great or small, they need him, his understanding and his mediation. Whatever he does, he is well regarded.
But is it possible that Aaron is without fault? Like all biblical characters, he must be imperfect. He too has his moments of weakness and his crises. But in those he is forgiven.
His younger brother Moses must overcome obstacles and dangers. More than once, Moses’ life has been threatened and his reputation questioned. But not Aaron, who passes through difficulties unscathed. Moses is often torn between two passions, two obligations: the demands of God and those of his people. But not Aaron. When the Hebrews became impatient and restless in the desert, demanding food and drink, they did not rise up against Aaron, but against Moses. Likewise, when God became angry at the people for their lack of faith, most of the time his anger was directed at Moses alone. Is this because Moses, the great political and military leader, represented civil authority, while his brother Aaron, the high priest, embodied spiritual authority? One would say that providence seemed to smile more on Aaron than on Moses.
While the Hebrews were still in Egypt, enslaved and suffering under Pharaoh’s harsh laws, it was Moses who defended them, going so far as to kill an Egyptian guard who was beating a Jewish slave. In the desert, again it was Moses who had to strike the rock to find a source of water. One gets the impression that as soon as there was danger, Aaron slipped away from the scene.
Nevertheless, Aaron’s balance sheet is not completely clean. At least two disconcerting episodes cast a shadow over his life. If the first arises out of his public persona, the second is strictly personal.

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The first is linked to the golden calf. That Aaron played an important role in this episode is clearly indicated in the text. True, the idea of making the golden calf comes from the people, but it is Aaron who gives it life. It is Aaron who collects the golden jewelry; it is he who builds the altar and lights the flame; it is he who makes the idol. Aaron even goes so far as to invite the idolatrous masses to a feast the next day. To celebrate what? The birth of a new god? Or a new faith? “Chag la adoshem machar,” he cries. “Tomorrow is a feast unto the Lord.” Has he forgotten the Law that the Lord gave to the people of Israel gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai? Has he forgotten his brother, who ascended to the heavens to receive it in the name of this very people?
Naturally, God becomes angry. Against his people? Yes, but also, indirectly, against Moses. God tells him, “Go down and you will see how far (to what point) your people has corrupted its faith and truth” (Exodus 32:7). God does not even mention Aaron. God condemns the entire people of Israel, but silently passes over the fact that it is the high priest himself who has fashioned—with his own hands—this idol. Note well: God seems critical of Moses, who is blameless, but not of his brother, who collaborated—either voluntarily or under duress—in an abomination that had disastrous consequences: Three thousand Israelites died (Exodus 32:28). It was the will of God: The men of the tribe of Levi went from gate to gate, each with the order to kill his brother, his friend, his parent (Exodus 32:27).

Read an interview BAR Editor Hershel Shanks conducted with Elie Wiesel and Biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross, republished from BAR, July/August 2004 >>

But…where is Aaron? Has he joined the killers of his own tribe? He was not among the victims—that is certain, since he continued to live for many more years, fulfilling his priestly functions. As though nothing had happened. As though God had forgiven him, and him alone, for a sin for which three thousand others had died at the hand of their avengers.
Don’t we have the right to ask the text, why this favoritism to Aaron? In the Midrash,a our sages try hard to answer this question and end up inventing several explanations that exonerate Aaron. For example: Aaron had no choice. If he had refused, he would have been assassinated. Or: It was out of loyalty to Moses that he agreed to make the idol—all alone. Thus, far from the crowd, Aaron deliberately stretched things out to give Moses time to return from his mission. Or another: Aaron chose to commit the sin himself, rather than have the people commit it, thus saving them from greater guilt and condemnation without mercy.
Yes, Aaron is certainly well loved in the Midrash—a little less in the Bible, let’s admit it. When God explains to Moses why he and his brother Aaron may not enter the Promised Land, he uses harsh words, hurtful arguments. But, Aaron can console himself because he is not the only one to be blamed.
The second episode is no less troubling. It concerns the malicious words Aaron and his sister Miriam direct against Moses. They seem to reproach him for his superiority over them—and also for his marriage to a black woman, a non-Jew, a “Cushite” (Numbers 12). God judged it necessary to reprimand them, and to punish Miriam—her skin becomes white with leprosy (Numbers 12:10).
There again, we cannot understand the divine attitude toward this “first family” of the Jewish people: If Miriam was guilty, so was Aaron. But he was not punished. Here again, the Midrash moves heaven and earth to explain this divine inequity.
The lesson of this story: In the Bible, as in life, there are some problems that remain insoluble.
Translated from French by Anne Renner.



a. Midrash is a genre of rabbinic literature that includes nonliteral elaborations of biblical texts.


Elie Wiesel

The author of more than 30 novels, plays and profiles of Biblical figures, Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. This online publication is adapted from Wiesel’s article “Supporting Roles: Aaron,” which was published in Bible Review in December 1998. At the inception of Wiesel’s Supporting Roles series in Bible Review, BAS editors wrote:

We are pleased—and honored—to present our readers with the first of a series of insightful essays by Elie Wiesel, the world-renowned author and human rights advocate. Wiesel is best known for his numerous books on the Holocaust and for his profiles of Biblical figures and Hasidic masters. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His occasional series for BR will focus on characters in the Bible that do not occupy center stage—those who play supporting roles.



More “Supporting Roles” by Elie Wiesel in Bible History Daily:

Cain and Abel


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27 Responses

  1. Sabrina says:

    What if… (& this is a big what if) but what if it’s because Genesis 1 is all there is supposed to be? What if Aaron’s reactions & behaviors are to show us the insanity of the “God” that begins in Genesis 2 & 3? Genesis 1 shows that every single creation God made was “good.” The day that God made man it didn’t say anything good or bad because maybe it’s supposed to be our free will to decide. The only rules in Genesis 1 are to procreate, rule over the earth & subdue it. It clearly states we are allowed to eat the fruit of every tree on the face of the earth. Why are we believing Genesis 2 & 3? Maybe we need to realize that the serpent wasn’t Satan at all & maybe the “God” that’s punishing is & we just drank his Kool Aid. What if we were never separated or punished & we created it ourselves? Adam never woke up from his sleep. I’ve been reading the book again with this perspective & I’m perceiving this aspect more & more… & coming from the idea that God is nothing but loving Aaron’s behaviors would make sense. Maybe we on earth are the insane ones following a false God & continuing in our own insanity.

  2. Mairead says:

    Did the Jewish people have to give up their gold when they were made slaves
    by the Egyptians or where the slaves?

  3. randolphg2 says:

    I think that one of the strangest passages in the entire Bible is Exodus 4:16 where YHWH tells Moses that Aaron will be like God to him. Seems to me that Aaron was getting a big promotion early on.Was Aaron actually elevated to God status? The way the whole conversation develops is unusual in my mind. There seems to be a better way for YHWH to make his point that God will tell Moses and Moses will tell Aaron. I am not learned in any of this. I’m sure that one would have to go to the original source document and review the translation. But it’s a strange verse in English,that’s for sure.Hopefully somebody will see this and explain what was meant by all this. Thank you.

  4. Lyla says:

    I’m having conflicted feelings about this article. Is the writer questioning God’s judgment? We as human beings do not need to know God’s reason behind everything he does. What we do need is to trust that he is the creator of the universe and that if we had his knowledge and perfection we would make the same choices. It is not right to question Him. He does everything in our best interest and even though He was critical of Moses He loved him, just as He loves the rest of us flawed humans.

  5. Mervyn Kersh says:

    An excellent primer into Israeli-Egyptian chronology is by Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky who corrected the “accepted” dating by the then “experts”. He wrote “Ages in Chaos”, an easy book to read and one which would make many of the above comments superfluous.

  6. Mervyn Kersh says:

    To understand Biblical History one must first read the Hebrew Bible.
    Moses and Aaron lived at the time of the 12th Dynasty which ended as the king/pharaoh drowned in the Reed Sea. This was in 1500 BCE. The next dynasties were Amu/Amalekite/Hyksos (different names for the same people) who invaded and ruled Egypt for the 400 years known as The Judges period in Israelite history. They invaded the destroyed Egypt as the Israelites were leaving. They fought the Israelites in the Sinai desert and than each went their own ways: The Hyksos into Egypt and the Israelites away from Egypt towards Midian (now in north-east Arabia).
    Akhenaton was well into the 18th Dynasty, long after David and Solomon who was contemporary with Hatshepsut (“Sheba”). If anything Akhenaton learned his monotheism from the Israeli Kingdom – not the other way round.. That was hundred of years later than Moses and Aaron.

  7. Jose Naim Wolf says:

    I have red the Bible as I don´t speak Hebrew, I agree with the diference i carácter betwen AAron and Moises YHWH bless them Shabat Shalom Jose Naim Wolf

  8. Dave B. says:

    The story of the Exodus has recently been challenged by recent archaeological findings. They found evidence,written in stone, that conflict with any Exodus at the accepted time-line. The presence of Hebrew slaves at present accepted time-line dates, place Israel as a already regional power trading with Egypt at Rameses time of rule.
    I was astounded as much as everybody else.

  9. Gift says:

    God knows how to handle every situation, Aaron is ordain by Him from onset so if God wishes to take His mantle of authority frm He will but all d silent He kept towards Aaron is only known to God alone cause he deserve some severe punishment.

  10. Cal Hamiltton says:

    If Moses was adopted by Pharoah daughter, because of the edict, that the firstborn male should be killed. How come AAron survived. If they were slaves, where did they get all the Gold to make the Golden Calf?

  11. Dave says:

    Could it be because the Aaronic history was written by later priests (P source), who didn’t want to subject their ancestor to criticism?

  12. Christy says:

    Aaron wore a priestly mantle given by God, and God did not take his life until he laid the mantle down because God always keeps His promises(David could not kill King Saul because He was anointed basically same principle there judgement comes in a different form because God will judge them more harshly) Moses was freed from entering the promise land which was Gods mercy because only war came when they entered so God spared Him, He also set Moses up on the cleft of the Rock and allowed Him a rare view of His hind parts…I would hardly say that was punishment considering no other man has had that rare privilege…

  13. Jürgen Rahf says:

    @Beverley: Historic schedule/timetable does not fit that Moses or even Aaron was Akhnaten. Maybe just a dreamwish of the Jews, but punishment for one of the greatest cultures ever, the Egypts, even Akhnaten´s monotheism was ignored by the priesthood. But Akhnaten´s religion was the “real” one: without sun we can not live. But without a god we can life.

  14. Jürgen Rahf says:

    Aaron, Moses, Jethro are all just imaginations. No proofs at all. It´s really funny what people comment on fancy writings somebody wrote during or even after the Babylonian exile. There was even no exodus at all. Most of Jewish traditions had been taken from the Egypts like circumcision and the Sabbath was old Babylonian tradition, common also in Egypt.
    Its funny how blind people read some texts. I fully agree with @fausto here. Nice bed time stories.

  15. Beverley Mason says:

    Maybe because the later rabbis followed the Aaronic line. Perhaps Moses was not Akhnaten but Aaron was Akhnaten. Maybe Moses was a follower of Akhnaten.

  16. fausto coppi says:

    It just a good bed time story.
    No proof it ever happened

  17. Rose Stauros says:

    Remember Moses and Aaron came out of Egypt, not India, and the ‘fall at your feet 7* and 7* was directed to Pharaoh, not Vishnu. The Jubile and the 7×7 were Egyptian concepts in the XVIII Dynasty under Akhenaton.

    Plato seems to have distanced the Greeks from sacrificing to spirits of the dead and expecting them to respond (as was the case in Homer), Yet most of Christianity seems to have reverted with the devil and hell. It was Philo of Alexandria who first wrote that the Logos was the Son of God, but then said the Son of God hadn’t arrived yet (about 40 CE or so).

    The 7*7 is bigger than most realize and shows that the so-called 70 year prophesies were the product of the Septuagint, but never in the Hebrew scriptures. It’s ironic that the Septuagint or LXX was named after its most egregious translation error. Consider 11Q13 among the Dead Sea Scrolls called, “The Coming of Melek-Tsedeq”. It describes the Jubile or 7*7 as well as a super duper Jubile every 10 periods or 490 years.

    The Hebrew word for seventy and weeks is identical שבעים
    ‘Seventy Weeks’ in Daniel 9:24 is simply שבעים שבעים
    Same word for the 7 ‘weeks’ in 9:25 or the 62 ‘weeks’
    7 x 70 = 490 as does 49 x 10.

    So when Peter asks Jesus how many times to ‘forgive’ his brother and Jesus says 70 x 7 did he actually utter שבעים שבעים

    For those who believe in Prophesy the pattern below blows any 70 year harmonization out of the realm of possibility. Of course it could have been derived by the author of 11Q13, never the less it reconciles the entire Bible better than anything coughed up by the Church regarding the so-called ‘70’ years.

    0…….587 BCE………… Zedekiah 11th year fall of the Temple
    49…..539/538 BCE….. Cyrus frees the Temple
    490…49 BCE………….. Julius Caesar becomes Emperor
    49 ….1 BCE …………….Traditional birth of Jesus
    490 ..491 CE ……………Pope Gelasius I (492-496) canonized the Bible

    In addition 49 Hebrew years of 364 days each is 61.5 weeks short of 49 terrestrial years. That would be the ‘midst’ of the 62nd week as the 62nd week is only 61 completed weeks. So the 62 weeks is the Jubilee period.

    The 1290 and 1335 days is the seventh year of the seven Sabbaths of years.

    This can all be verified in software like MS Excel by recreating the Hebrew calendars using the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    11Q13 may very well be the reincarnation of the Logos.

    (see the Dead Sea Scrolls A New Translation; Calendar Texts)

  18. Paul Ballotta says:

    In response to Rose mentioning the connection between the Levitical Sabbatical and the seemingly universal phrase of the Canaanite vassals; “seven times seven times”; that there was perhaps a borrowing of a priestly tradition from an eastern religion. Canaan was a “servant of servants ” (Genesis 9:25) to the Hurrians of whom the king of Jerusaem, Abdu Hepa was and who was himself was a representative of a class who were dominated by another people, the Indo-Aryans who controlled the Mitanni Empire and were known as “Maryannu” or Lords of the Sky.
    The earliest srata of the Rig Veda dates back to this period (Samhita period, 1500-800 B.C.E.), and like later Judaic beliefs, these priests regarded their archaic ritual sacrifices as being the keys to the mystery of creation. Like the seven days of Genesis 1, it is the seven Rsis, or seers, who are the source of divine inspiration.
    “So by this knowledge men were raised to Rsis, when ancient sacrifice sprang up, our Fathers. With the minds eye I think that I behold them who first performed this sacrificial worship. They who were versed in ritual and metre, in hymns and rules, were the seven godlike Rsis. Viewing the path of thoses of old, the sages have taken up the reigns like chariot drivers” (Rig Veda, 10:130).
    “One of the preoccupations of the Rsis, as represented in the hymns, is to discern with their ‘mind’s eye’ the subtle realms of the gods and to fathom the mysteries of creation” (Veda and Torah, by Barbara A. Holdredge, p.34).
    Genesis 1, it is thought, was written after the return from captivity in Babylonia, and we see the eastern influence of the Persian Empire and King Cyrus’ Zoroaster religion (It was then that the Hurdy Gurdy Man came bringing songs of love) on the prophet Zechariah as he frequently mentions the phrase “I raised my eyes” in tandem with a vision. Comparable to the seven Rsis there is the vision of the seven lamps being “the eyes of the Lord, ranging over the whole earth” (Zechariah 4:10).
    Gershom Scholem, in his “Origins of the Kabbalah,” devotes the last section to the doctrine of “Shemittoth”, or world cycles, involved in the perpetual process of recreating the world.
    “As a matter of fact, doctrines relating to cosmic cycles in the evolution of the world were also known in Jewish medieval literature outside the Kabbalah, Through the intermediary of Indian and Arabic sources, rather than under the influence of Platonic thoughts, ideas of this type slipped into astrological writings in particular” (p.462).

  19. Eburk says:

    Despite his privileged position, Aaron had his shortcomings. During Moses’ first 40-day stay on Mount Sinai, “the people congregated themselves about Aaron and said to him: ‘Get up, make for us a god who will go ahead of us, because as regards this Moses, the man who led us up out of the land of Egypt, we certainly do not know what has happened to him.’” (Ex 32:1) Aaron acceded and cooperated with these rebellious ones in making a golden calf statue. (Ex 32:2-6) When later confronted by Moses, he gave a weak excuse. (Ex 32:22-24) However, Jehovah did not single him out as the prime wrongdoer but told Moses: “So now let me be, that my anger may blaze against them and I may exterminate them.” (Ex 32:10) Moses brought the matter to a showdown by crying: “Who is on Jehovah’s side? To me!” (Ex 32:26) All the sons of Levi responded, and this undoubtedly included Aaron. Three thousand idolaters, probably the prime movers of the rebellion, were slain by them. (Ex 32:28) Nevertheless, Moses later reminded the rest of the people that they, too, bore guilt. (Ex 32:30) Aaron, therefore, was not alone in receiving God’s mercy. His subsequent actions indicated that he was not in heart harmony with the idolatrous movement but simply gave in to the pressure of the rebels. (Ex 32:35) Jehovah showed that Aaron had received his forgiveness by maintaining as valid Aaron’s appointment to become high priest.—Ex 40:12, 13.

  20. Rose Stauros says:

    Actually I believe the Bible and take it quite literally, but most Church tradition regarding the Bible is nonsense in my opinion. Religions have a tendency to make up a bunch of silly Axioms that pollute the simple understanding of the Bible itself. Harmonizing the Biblical Record with the Historical Record validates the Bible taking it out of the hands of the Church and making it something real.

    Consider Aaron the Levite Priest in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. The Levite Priests were the keepers of the Jubile Calendar, which is the seven sabbaths of years, or the forty nine years. Who else was venerated by seven times and seven times? Akhenaton in the Amarna Letters.

    Leviticus 25
    8 And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years.
    9 Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubile to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land.

    Abdi-Heba was a local chieftain of Jerusalem writing to Akhenaton in the Amarna Letters.

    Say to the king, my lord: Message of Abdi-Heba, your servant. I fall at the feet of my lord 7 times and 7 times…. EA 287.

    Say to the king, my lord, my god, my Sun: Message of Shuwardata, your servant, the dirt at your feet. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, my god, my Sun, 7 times and 7 times…. EA 280

    Where was the border betwixt the Promised Land and Egypt exactly in 1350 BCE or so and what proof does the Bible actually offer to draw that line?


  21. Danny says:

    @ CB, I think you misinterpret my statement. I believe in the Bible deeply but one need not believe in the Mosaic authorship of the Torah to take it seriously. Especially because the Torah does not claim mosaic authorship for itself. Setting this aside, I made no statement about whether or not the “golden calf episode” was historic, I was merely speculating about the reason for the story’s inclusion in the book of Deuteronomy, which was to point out that the people were not to worship YHWH with graven images as the Israelites were doing in the north. The purpose of bolstering exclusive devotion to YHWH shaped the way the story was told. This is not scandalous. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s audience, theology, and context shaped which stories they emphasized and which they left on the cutting room floor. This is all I am pointing out. Disagree with it but don’t question my commitment to the bible when you don’t know me.

  22. S Jackson-Mann says:

    “When God explains to Moses why he and his brother Aaron may not enter the Promised Land, he uses harsh words, hurtful arguments.” What is the biblical reference to this statement? I always wondered what the reason was for Moses being deprived of entrance into the Promised Land after all his effort and suffering

  23. Freta says:

    Because God knows the heart of each one.

  24. Robin Roderick says:

    The people knew Aaron better than Moses–he suffered along with them in bondage, while Moses was raised as a prince in the Egyptian court and then dwelt in freedom among the Midianites for forty years! Aaron may have been weak when he made the golden calf at the insistence of the Israelites, but when Moses demanded, “Who stands with me!?” he moved to his brother’s side! And Miriam may have been the instigator of criticizing Moses and was therefore struck with the leprosy, again Aaron being more easily swayed by a persuasive tongue. God knew his heart!

  25. Brian says:

    @ Rose, and Danny

    Or, perhaps, it is just as the Bible records it! The Biblical record doesn’t require anything to be based, however loosely, on any Egyptian pharaoh. Nor does “the deuteronomist” (Moses himself, apart from the final brief section recording his death), need to be seen as dramatically retelling a later event in the history of the Chosen People! Deut.29:29; Gen.18:25.

    I often wonder why a site such as Bible History Daily is read, and commented upon, by those who appear to have no acceptance of the Biblical record, as it stands.

  26. Danny says:

    The golden calf story appears to be the deuteronomist’s dramatic retelling of the sin of Jeroboam (compare to 1 Kings 12:25-33). It depicts God kindling his wrath in response to the institution of the use of the gold calf of worship. This story serves as an explanation for why God let the Assyrians invade Israel. It’s as if to say: “God punished the Israelites in the wilderness for building ONE golden calf and here you all went and built two! What did you think would happen?” At the same time, whoever is writing this story as a polemic against the use of graven images and in favor of centralized worship in the Jerusalem temple, is not going to undermine the Aaronid priesthood who is charged with carrying out Israel’s exclusive devotion to YHWH. Therefore, in the deuteronomist’s telling of the tale, Aaron gets a pass.

  27. Rose Stauros says:

    It’s because the character Aaron is loosely based on the life of the Pharaoh Akhenaton. While Moses is loosely based on all Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty.

    Aaron worshipped the Solar Calf as did Akhenaton, and there’s no question who made the breastplates in that day with lattice of gold and purple, with 12 rows of stones in patterns of 4 repeating 3 times.

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