There are two places in all of the Pentateuch where Aaron is presented in less than flattering terms, as doing something gravely wrong:
- as the fabricator of Israel’s greatest sin during the wilderness period, the Golden Calf (see #157, #160-161), and
- as jealous rival and want-to-be to Moses and his authority as depicted in Numbers 12:1-2.
Additionally it is only in these two stories that Aaron addresses Moses as “my lord,” thus displaying Moses in a superior role. Not surprisingly both of these stories come from the same tradition—the Elohist.
Initially we might ask: Why would the Elohist tradition present Aaron in negative terms? But when we add the fact that this portrait largely contradicts the Aaron of the book of Leviticus and the opening of Numbers—that is the Aaron of the Priestly source—we begin to see the larger picture of what’s going on here, and what scribes were doing when they penned these and similar stories.
Recall that Aaron, not Moses, is the head-honcho in the Priestly source—not surprising when we realize that this corpus of literature was written by a priestly guild who traced its lineage and authority back to Aaron! In this corpus of literature, while Moses is traditionally still presented as the oraculum of Yahweh, Yahweh’s mouthpiece, it is Aaron and his sons who minister to Yahweh’s cult, expiate and atone the people’s sins, perform Yahweh’s sacred festivals, and keep the community pure by observing Yahweh’s torahs that distinguish between the pure and the impure (e.g., #183, #184). Additionally, while Moses is purified through ritual washing, only Aaron is consecrated/anointed; he is the anointed of Yahweh—in more familiar terms, Yahweh’s messiah! While Moses may approach the Tent of Meeting, only Aaron can enter the Holy of Holies, the inner shrine, and only Aaron and sons can, are pure enough to, eat Yahweh’s sacrificial meals (#177)! Moses ought to be envious of Aaron’s position in the Priestly literature.
Recall too that Aaron is mentioned some 260 times in the Aaronid-written Priestly text, while only twice in the Mushite- or pan-Levite written book of Deuteronomy, and 35 times in the Elohist source. In the Priestly text, there is no ambiguity: Aaron, Yahweh’s sole messiah, is above Moses!
Obviously, however, thus was not so for the earlier Elohist tradition. Thus these conflicting portraits of Aaron, even his absence in certain texts, are representative of larger disagreements or conflicts between the Pentateuch’s various scribal guilds, or more so the competing clans of the tribe of Levi as they vied for more authoritative positions in ancient Israel.
In other words, these archaized stories are polemical in nature, and most likely reflect real centuries-later historic rivalries between the clans of the tribe of Levites. So the story of Numbers 12 is a polemic against Aaronid Levites who would question the sole authority of the Mushite Levites (those descended from Moses) to be Yahweh’s spokesperson. Since the Elohist text is earlier than the Aaronid text of Leviticus, it displays also a period in time where Aaron and the Aaronid priests were marginal figures. From other northern sources, mainly passages from Samuel, we know that the northern cult was officiated over by Mushite Levites during the 9th-8th centuries BCE. But the real issue in Numbers 12 is not the cult. It is who has authority to be Yahweh’s spokesperson? In short the polemical response is only Mushite Levites.
In a similar fashion, but here from the pen of the Aaronid priestly writer, Numbers 16 which we will look at shortly is a polemic against Kohathite Levites who would question the Aaronid’s authority to be sole anointed priests to Yahweh. The archaized story strongly comes down against the claimants of the Kohathites: Yahweh wipes them all out. Remember this is a Yahweh crafted under the pen of an Aaronid priest wishing to legitimate his guild’s sole authoritative and “god-given” right to minister to Yahweh!
These narratives functioned to legitimate and sanctify the views of one clan against the claimants of another by showing how such claimants were long ago decided by Yahweh himself in the remote archaic past.