The only person by this name in the Hebrew Bible, Aaron's identity is unambiguous. He was the elder brother of *Moses and a descendant of *Levi (Ex 4:14). Aaron at first served as Moses' assistant, particularly as his spokesman (Ex 4:15-16; 7:1-2), and then became Israel's first chief *priest (Ex 28:1-5). From that time forward only descendants of Aaron could legitimately function in that role (Ex 29:9; 40:15; Num 3:10; 18:7). The narrative does not disclose the circumstances of Aaron's birth, but it is obvious that it took place before the proclamation of *Pharaoh's decree that every male child born to the Hebrews must die (Ex 1:22-2:3). There is likewise no etiological explanation of his name. Most likely, it, like the name of his grandson Phinehas, is of Egyptian origin, ʿʾrn ("the name is great") or the like.

  1. Aaron the Prophet
  2. Aaron the Priest
  3. Aaron and Historical Criticism

1. Aaron the Prophet.

1.1. The Setting and Circumstances of His Birth. According to the *chronology of the Masoretic Text, the exodus of Israel from *Egypt took place in the middle of the fifteenth century b.c. (1 Kings 6:1; see Exodus, Date of). Moses was eighty years old at the time (Ex 7:7), his birth thus having occurred toward the end of the sixteenth century, about 1525 b.c. Aaron was three years older (Ex 7:7). In terms of Egyptian history this was the so-called New Kingdom era, specifically the Eighteenth Dynasty. The Hyksos, who had ruled Egypt for about 150 years (1730-1580 b.c.), had been expelled by Ahmose, founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and in the aftermath of that expulsion the Hebrews may have come under suspicion as possible collaborators with the Hyksos (Ex 1:8-10). This set the stage for Egyptian repression of the Hebrews, a pogrom that eventually ended in infanticide (Ex 1:22).

Aaron's apparent exemption from the royal decree suggests that it became effective sometime between the time of his birth and that of Moses. In any event, he obviously was spared and lived to grow up in the household of his father Amram and mother Jochebed (Ex 6:20).

1.2. His Ancestral Lineage. Aaron's parents were "of the house of Levi" (mibbêt lēwî), that is, descendants of Jacob's son of that name (Ex 2:1). More specifically, they traced their lineage back to Levi through Kohath, a son of Levi (Ex 6:16-20; 1 Chron 6:1-3). The four generations (Levi and Aaron inclusive) involved comports well with the promise to *Abraham that his descendants would depart from Egypt in the fourth generation (Gen 15:16). However, the reference to the sojourn as four hundred years (Gen 15:13)—or precisely 430 in the exodus narrative itself (Ex 12:40)—suggests that the Aaronic *genealogy is not "closed," that is, without missing generations. He perhaps was of the tribe of Levi, clan of Kohath, and family (bêt ʾāb) of Amram (cf. Josh 7:16-18). The main point to the genealogies, however, is to link Aaron to the tribe that was eventually set apart by Yahweh to minister in the sacred office (cf. Num 3:5-10), thus establishing Aaron's levitical and priestly credentials (cf. Num 18:1-7).

1.3. His Role as Prophet. Aaron's first ministry was not as priest, however, but as *prophet. When it was safe for Moses to return to Egypt from Midianite exile (Ex 2:23; 4:19), Yahweh instructed him to do so and to take steps to lead God's people from there to the land God had promised to the patriarchs (Ex 3:7-10; 6:10-11). Moses demurred, arguing that he lacked the necessary oratorical skills and persuasive powers (cf. Ex 4:1-2, 10, 13; 6:30). To this Yahweh replied that Moses would speak to the people and to Pharaoh through Aaron. Aaron, he said, was a forceful speaker ( dabbēr yĕdabbēr, Ex 4:14). He would become Moses' mouth, and Moses would be to him like God (Ex 4:16). That is, Aaron would be a prophet between Moses and the people, a spokesman on his behalf. To underscore this relationship and Aaron's proclamatory role, Yahweh went on to tell Moses that Moses would be like God to Pharaoh and that Aaron would be his prophet. This time the classic term for prophet (nābîʾ) occurs, solidifying the fact that Aaron was a prophet not only by gift but by office (Ex 7:1-2).

The gift and calling of Aaron are confirmed, albeit in a rather negative way, in his confrontation with Moses en route to Canaan (Num 12:1-15). Envious of his younger brother's leadership role, Aaron—together with his sister *Miriam—used the pretext of Moses' having married a Cushite woman to challenge Moses' uniqueness as a prophet. Aaron's premise seems to be that since Moses had violated some social or even religious norm, he had undermined his authority as a spokesman for Yahweh. "Is it indeed only by means of Moses that Yahweh has spoken?" he asks. "Has he not also spoken by us?"

The claims of Aaron and Miriam (cf. Ex 15:20-21) to prophetism were indeed legitimate, as Moses' forbearance ( ʿānāw, "humility," Num 12:3) and Yahweh's acquiescence make clear. However, they, unlike Moses, were "ordinary" prophets who received revelation by visions and *dreams (Num 12:6). Moses received God's self-disclosures in a direct manner ( peh ʾel peh, "mouth unto mouth," Num 12:8; cf. Deut 34:10). When Aaron understood this difference, he confessed his hubris and begged Moses to intercede for his sister, who had been struck with a loathsome skin disease for her equally presumptuous insubordination (Num 12:11-12). The tradition is silent thereafter with regard to Aaron's prophetic activity.

2. Aaron the Priest.

2.1. Antecedents to the Aaronic Priesthood. Though Aaron was founder of a new postexodus order of priests, Israel already had some kind of priestly cult in place while still in Egypt. This is presupposed by Moses' demand to Pharaoh to let Israel leave Egypt to worship Yahweh in the desert (Ex 3:18; cf. 5:1, 8; 7:16; 8:8, 25-28; 10:9, 25-26). It is explicit following the exodus when, at Sinai, Yahweh cautioned Moses to see to it that the priests sanctified themselves in view of the impending epiphany on the mountain and that they should not attempt to penetrate the boundary lines surrounding Yahweh's glory (Ex 19:22, 24).

2.2. Intimations of the Aaronic Priesthood. Aaron's official appointment to the priesthood was preceded by certain events and allusions that pointed in that direction. For example, Moses asked him to gather up some manna in a pot to "be laid up before Yahweh," that is, in the sanctuary before the ark of the covenant (Ex 16:33-34). Though proleptic, this hints at a future priestly role for Aaron. Likewise, his association with the pre-exodus priests at Sinai attests to his increasing priestly involvement (Ex 19:24). Most striking of all is Aaron's participation in the covenant ceremony attendant to the giving of the commandments (Ex 24). He with his sons and seventy elders were allowed to ascend Sinai part way (Ex 24:9). Such gradual nearness to the Holy One was preparatory to even greater intimacy.

2.3. Aaron's Call and Ordination to the Priesthood. The first clear statement of Aaron's priestly status comes in the midst of the instructions about the building and equipping of the *tabernacle (Ex 28-29). He and his four sons were to be brought near (haqrēb), that is, presented to Yahweh, in order to commence their ministry (Ex 28:1). They first put on sacred garments (see Priestly Clothing), drawing attention to two facets of the priestly ministry: glory (kābôd) and beauty (tipʾeret). The worship of Yahweh thus had transcendent, even frightening, forms but it was also invested with aesthetic attraction. All of the items of apparel are rich in symbolism, suggesting that the priest in his very appearance was a metaphor of divine-human mediation.

Investiture to the office included being set apart (lĕqaddēš) to it through proper *sacrifices and rituals (Ex 29:1-18) and being dedicated in it through further such ceremonies (Ex 29:19-34). Only through these procedures could they and their priestly descendants be qualified to serve ( lĕkahēn, lit., "to be or serve as priest," Ex 29:44).

2.4. Aaron as Chief Priest. In addition to brief narrative descriptions of Aaron fulfilling his regular priestly duties (cf., e.g., Lev 8:31-36; 9:8-24) are the accounts of his deeds with or under Moses in the course of the desert sojourn. The first of these records his leadership of Israel in the apostate act of casting a *golden idol in Moses' absence on the summit of Sinai (Ex 32:1-29). Though Aaron construed the image to be a representation of Yahweh (Ex 32:4-5), this itself was a flagrant violation of the second commandment (Ex 20:4-6) even before the tablets of the *Decalogue had been brought down from the mountain. Only Moses' fervent intercession spared Aaron and his priesthood. Ironically, Aaron's own levitical kinsmen took sword in hand to slay the ringleaders of the idolatry (Ex 32:25-29) of which their priestly head had been an instigator. A subsequent challenge came to him from certain Reubenites and other Levites who resented his priestly leadership (Num 16:1-35). In a public showdown orchestrated by Moses, Aaron and the Aaronic priesthood were conclusively vindicated. Only Aaronides would ever be qualified to burn incense, that is, to minister before Yahweh as intercessors (Num 16:40, 47-48).

In a third episode Aaron, with Moses, angered Yahweh by striking the rock for water rather than merely commanding it to yield its life-giving streams (Num 20:2-13). The result was their disbarment from the Promised Land, a penalty that followed their failure to set Yahweh apart (lĕhaqdîšēnî<) as the one who bestows the blessings of life (Num 20:12). To strike the rock was human effort, androcentric; merely to speak would have shown dependence on divine power and be theocentric.

The account of Aaron's death follows shortly. After arriving at Mount Hor in the Arabah, Moses, having been told that Aaron's demise was imminent, stripped his brother of his priestly apparel and put them on Aaron's son *Eleazar, his successor to the holy office (Num 20:22-29). After the customary thirty-day lament the community resumed its life of desert sojourn.

3. Aaron and Historical Criticism.

Post-Enlightenment criticism has painted quite a different picture of Israel's cultic history—including, of course, the priesthood—from that of ancient Jewish and Christian tradition. Beginning with de Wette's assertion that Deuteronomy (D) was of seventh-century provenience and subsequent arguments that the Priestly source (P) presupposes D, the consensus today in critical scholarship is that priesthood as described in such meticulous detail in the Pentateuch is by and large a postexilic phenomenon.

However, the extreme view of an earlier era that the whole apparatus of priestly religion was a late, antiprophetic and degenerative movement no longer commands attention. The undeniable evidence of such systems from elsewhere in the ancient Near East and from a period earlier than even the traditional date for Moses has put to rest the theory that the priestly religion of the Old Testament was the product of a religious evolutionism that placed it necessarily at the end of the process because of its alleged tendency toward professionalism and institutionalism. Still, the idea persists that the P source as such is a late redaction of priestly traditions that in their final form are a far cry from the Bible's own witness to their origins and pristine shape.

A casualty of this way of assessing the biblical witness is any notion of the actual historical existence of Aaron, at least as the flesh-and-blood person of the texts. Later OT (Ezra 7:5; Ps 77:20; 99:6; 105:26; 115:10-12; Mic 6:4) as well as NT (Lk 1:5; Acts 7:40; Heb 5:4) testimony notwithstanding, Aaron is thought at best to be a shadowy figure to whom later tradition pointed as a sufficient explanation for the origin of the priestly office and order. Such an assessment plays down the authenticity of the canonical tradition and is inadequate to explain the persistence of Aaron and his descendants as integral to the entire scope of the biblical religious history.

See also Altars; Levi, Levites; Miriam; Priestly Clothing; Priests, Priesthood.

Bibliography. M. Aberbach and L. Smolar, "Aaron, Jeroboam, and the Golden Calves," JBL 86 (1967) 129-40; U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967); B. S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974); A. Cody, A History of Old Testament Priesthood (AnBib 35; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1969); J. I. Durham, Exodus (WBC 3; Waco, TX: Word, 1987); C. L. Feinberg, "Aaron," BEB 1.1-2; H. E. Finley, "Aaron," Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996) 1; B. Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible: Exodus (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1992); J. A. Motyer, "Aaron," The Complete Who's Who in the Bible, ed. Paul Gardner (London: Marshall Pickering, 1995) 1-2; M. Noth, Exodus (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962); N. M. Sarna, "Aaron," EncJud 2.4-7; J. R. Spencer, "Aaron," ABD 1.1-6; G. J. Wenham, "Aaron," NIDOTTE 4.346-48.

E. H. Merrill


Abel, the second son of *Adam and *Eve, appears only briefly in the biblical record, yet that appearance is long enough to secure God's earliest approval for an offering and long enough to become a lightning rod to his dejected brother's wrath. In the process Abel becomes the first victim of murder.

  1. Biblical Evidence
  2. Trends in Interpretation
  3. Implications

1. Biblical Evidence.

Abel appears only briefly in the OT, where he attracts both the favor of God and the lethal envy of his brother *Cain (Gen 4). In the NT the story of Abel supplies illustrations of obtaining divine favor (Hebrews) and of guilt incurred by murdering the innocent (Gospels and 1 John).

1.1. Old Testament.

1.1.1. Abel Obtains God's Favor (Genesis 4:1-5). Abel enters the biblical narrative with minimal introduction. Unlike Cain, even Abel's name surfaces without explanation. The reader is left to speculate that this character may turn out to be a fleeting figure (Abel, from hebel, "breath" or "futility"). Abel turns to animal husbandry, while his elder brother struggles to bring produce from the soil.

In time each presents the Lord an offering (minḥâ) from his respective productivity: earth's fruit and the flock's firstborn. This constitutes the first presentation to God in the biblical record. Abel and his animals earn divine commendation, while Cain and his crops do not. Scripture refrains from explaining, leaving ample room for speculation. Several scholars advise caution at this point, arguing that acceptance of offering is an issue peripheral to the point of the text. We should focus instead on regard for one's brother (see the valuable narrative study in van Wolde, 33), response to correction and violent consequences of unbridled anger (Krasovec, 10; cf. Heck, 137 n. 26; and Radday, 75). Others maintain that we can discern the reason for divine favor, though explanations vary. These may be summarized in three primary opinions.

The first opinion infers that as God favored one offering over another his actions were simply inscrutable. Westermann surmises that he responded immutably (Westermann, 296) and Brueggemann that the divine preference is simply inexplicable (Brueggemann, 56).

The second focuses on the genre or source of the offering. Several explanations arise from this opinion. Perhaps both brothers knew that God preferred an animal offering, though not yet specified in the Torah (von Rad, 104). Two weaknesses undermine this explanation. First, if it could be shown that God had given instructions concerning gifts or sacrifices, this proposal would be greatly strengthened (as presumed by Calvin [Lewis, 493]). Sacrificial instruction later in the Torah will leave nothing to assumption (cf. Lev 1-7). Why a fact so salient here would be left unspecified is problematic if God expected an animal offering.

Second, consider the term for "offering" (see the excellent summary in Waltke, 366-68). The brothers each presented a minḥâ ("offering"). In a noncultic setting *Jacob dispatched an advance minḥâ as a gift to pacify vindictive *Esau prior to their face-to-face encounter (Gen 32:19). Nothing was slain. This usage recalls the underlying meaning of minḥâ, deriving from mnḥ, "to give" (Anderson, 27-29).

If animal slaying were integral to this act of worship, the writer could have selected any of several other terms that often (or in some cases always) required slaying an animal. These include ʿōlâ ("burnt offering"), zebaḥ šĕlāmîm ("fellowship offering"), ḥaṭṭāʾt ("sin offering") and ʾāšām ("guilt offering"), to list the primary sacrificial categories. In contrast, minḥâ in Leviticus is restricted to grain offerings, absent of blood. Thus by its definition a minḥâ was designed to obtain favor—not expiation—thus explaining why it need not include animal sacrifice. Is it possible that the Septuagint's translation thysia ("sacrifice") for Cain's minḥâ ("offering," Gen 4:3) has misled interpreters to presume a divine requirement of blood in the elder brother's gift (Lewis, 496)?

Another explanation supporting the genre or source offering opinion recalls the curse upon soil uttered to Adam (Gen 3:17). Perhaps any subsequent offering from blighted fields was thereby rejected (see the sensitive reading in Spina, 319-32; cf. Herion, 53). If later rescission of this inferred prohibition were more explicit, it would ease concurrence. By the time we reach Leviticus a minḥâ consisting of grain harvested from the ground is prescribed, not proscribed.

A third opinion recommends that the character of the offerer may best explain God's response. Early interpreters such as the writer of Hebrews, Josephus, Irenaeus and Augustine attributed Abel's initial success to his more noble character (Heb 11:4; Lewis, 484-89). Later writers agree, often observing that Abel brought gifts of higher quality (not superior genre), as conveyed by "firstborn" and "fat portions" (Cassuto, 205; Speiser, 30; Heck, 134; Waltke, 368-69). Further, ḥēleb ("fat") may form a complementary assonantal link to Abel's name. After a thorough consideration of the evidence, W. Lane concludes: "The general tenor of Scripture indicates that the superior quality of Abel's offering derived from the integrity of his heart rather than from the nature of the offering itself" (Lane, 334).

The evaluation formula itself appears to focus principal attention on the offerer, since each brother is specified by name before mention of his offering: "Abel and his offering... Cain and his offering" (Gen 4:4-5, emphasis added; cf. Heck, 139). As the story unfolds in the ensuing verses, the flawed character of the elder brother will become glaringly evident.

1.1.2. Abel Succumbs to Cain's Anger (Genesis 4:6-16). As Cain capitulates to resentment and envy, Abel succumbs as the first fatal casualty of intrafamilial strife. Younger brother fades to a voiceless victim, with *blood-stained soil his only advocate. God, champion of the victimized, responds to fratricide, personally ensuring that injustice will not go unanswered (cf. Prov 22:22-23). The cry of blood is testimony sufficient to sway the divine court (Brueggemann [60] detects lawsuit language in questions posed to Cain).

1.2. New Testament.

1.2.1. The Gospels. Abel appears in the Gospels as Jesus warns religious leaders against callous opposition to his message (Mt 23:35 par. Lk 11:51). With hyperbole he lays against his contemporaries the blame for the murder of all from ages past who by conduct or communication con fronted others with the need to repent. If by Zech- ariah the postexilic prophet is intended, then the expression "from Abel to Zechariah" forms a set of chronological bookends, an A-to-Z of martyred messengers. (This infers a martyrdom for postexilic Zechariah, which was not reported in the OT. Uriah in Jer 26:20-23 was the latest OT martyr recorded.) If instead Zechariah the martyr is intended (2 Chron 24:20) and if Chronicles is the last book of the OT, then "from Abel to Zechariah" forms a canonical front-to-back statement of comprehensiveness.

1.2.2. Hebrews 11:4; 12:24. In Hebrews the writer makes a case for faith as an attribute attracting divine favor. He produces Abel as the earliest individual receiving such commendation (Heb 11:4). Later he recalls the personification of Abel's blood "speaking" from the earth (Heb 12:24; cf. Gen 4:10). Jesus' blood speaks as well, the writer observes—even "better than" Abel's. Instead of simply crying out for vindication, Jesus' blood announces the inauguration of an entire era of *grace and reconciliation.

1.2.3. 1 John 3:12. It is an exhortation to love each other that brings Cain and his brother to 1 John 3:12. Cain supplies a counterillustration. There the writer traces murder to its source: prior wicked deeds on Cain's part confronted the righteous deeds of his brother, resulting in a deadly combustion. By pointing to prior deeds of each, John's interpretation sounds very much like the conversation between Abel and Cain supplied by Targum Neofiti (neatly filling the lacuna in mt at Gen 4:8a). According to this source, Abel explains: "It was because my deeds were better than yours that my sacrifice was accepted with favor and your sacrifice was not" (Kugel, 177, cf. 181).

2. Trends in Interpretation.

In addition to the interpretations noted above, several other approaches merit mention. (For a historical review of interpretations on Abel's offering from the Septuagint forward, see Lewis's useful survey.)

Liberation theology recognizes the Cain-Abel account as significant for the theme of victimization. Depending on the writer, liberation theology may focus on either Abel or Cain as victim. While Abel's suffering is transparent from the text, in a materialist reading Cain may be recognized as suffering as a peasant farmer dispossessed by the dominant society (McEntire, 25-26). M. McEntire seeks to characterize God not only by his involvement but also by divine absence at conspicuous points (McEntire, 28, 30). For example, why did God warn Cain of pending temptation but not Abel of pending murder?

H. Maccoby presumes that behind the biblical account is a myth akin to Romulus's killing of Remus. He infers this fratricide took place originally as a human sacrifice that obtained divine favor. In time biblical compilers altered the account to disparage human sacrifice (Maccoby, 11, 32). If the textual evidence could match the creativity of this revisionist interpretation, it might prove more compelling.

3. Implications.

Two implications flow from the life of Abel (not to mention those stemming from Cain). The first concerns God's attitude toward acts of worship. If Abel's gift was preferred because of the offerer's character, we encounter here a truth that biblical writers will later reiterate: cultic observance has worth if it springs from inward integrity (cf. Amos 5:21). Only then will gifts (and givers) obtain divine favor (cf. Mt 5:23-24). Alternatively, if Abel was preferred because his offering complied with unrecorded stipulations, such obedience would likewise recommend reception.

Second, injustice by its nature summons divine retribution. Aggrieved minds of prophets and martyrs alike may find rest in the fact that at the proper time God will bring justice on behalf of those innocently victimized (cf. Hab 2:8; Rev 6:10).

See also Cain.

Bibliography. G. A. Anderson, Sacrifices and Offerings in Ancient Israel: Studies in Their Social and Political Importance (HSM 41; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987); W. Brueggemann, Genesis (IBC; Atlanta: John Knox, 1982); U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, pt. 1: From Adam to Noah (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1961 [1998]); J. D. Heck, "Was Cain's Offering Rejected by God Because It Was Not a Blood Sacrifice: No," in The Genesis Debate, ed. R. Youngblood (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986) 130-47; G. A. Herion, "Why God Rejected Cain's Offering: The Obvious Answer," in Fortunate the Eyes That See: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman in Celebration of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. A. B. Beck, A. H. Bartelt, P. R. Raabe and C. A. Franke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995) 52-65; J. Krasovec, "Punishment and Mercy in the Primeval History (Gen 1-11)," ETL 70 (1994) 5-33; J. L. Kugel, "Cain and Abel in Fact and Fable: Genesis 4:1-16," in Hebrew Bible or Old Testament? Studying the Bible in Judaism and Christianity (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990) 167-90; W. Lane, Hebrews 9-13 (WBC 47B; Dallas: Word, 1991); J. P. Lewis, "The Offering of Abel (Gen 4:4): A History of Interpretation," JETS 37 (1994) 481-96; H. Maccoby, The Sacred Executioner: Human Sacrifice and the Legacy of Guilt (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1982); M. McEntire, The Blood of Abel: The Violent Plot in the Hebrew Bible (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1999); G. von Rad, Genesis (rev. ed.; OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972); Y. T. Radday, "Humour in Names," in On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, ed. Y. T. Radday and A. Brenner (JSOTSup 92; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990) 59-97; E. A. Speiser, Genesis (AB 1; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964); F. A. Spina, "The 'Ground' for Cain's Rejection (Gen 4): 'Adamah in the Context of Gen 1-11," Z AW 104 (1992) 319-32; B. K. Waltke, "Cain and His Offering," WTJ 48 (1986) 363-72; C. Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984); E. van Wolde, "The Story of Cain and Abel: A Narrative Study," JSOT 52 (1991) 25-41.

P. B. Overland