“Bring Aaron, your brother, forward to you, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel for him to function as a priest for me.” (Ex 28:1)
The redacted text of the Pentateuch as it now stands bears witness to an internecine rivalry that existed within the tribe of Levi, that is within the priesthood itself. At least two priestly groups that we know of wrote texts aimed at legitimating their right as sole officiating high priests and mediators to Yahweh. These two priestly schools and the texts they wrote have come to be identified as the pro-Aaronid Priestly source, whose main religious and cultic ideology is found in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, and the (rest of the) Levites whose religious views are found in the book of Deuteronomy, as well as a couple of passages from the Elohist source.
These two priestly schools—the Aaronids and the Levites—had vastly different and competing views on religion, the role of the cult and its priesthood, Yahweh, ethics, how sin was to be expiated, and Yahweh’s covenants (e.g., #30, #117, #118, #151). More surprisingly however, is that both of these priestly schools wrote texts whose purpose was to legitimate their position and beliefs through the creation of archaized narratives that retrojected into the past their religious views and divine right to rule as high priests, expressed through the mouthpiece of their god Yahweh. These narrative creations served to legitimate and justify each guild’s claims. Yet when examined side-by-side, they rather reveal their very human origins, agendas, and role as propagandist literature written to legitimate their own priestly guilds.
Our first glimpse into this internecine priestly rivalry and how priestly scribes composed archaized literary works to legitimate the supremacy of their guild over and against other priestly claimants, and even defame those claimants, comes in the Golden Calf narrative (Ex 32). There we will see how Aaron, the head and father figure of the Aaronid priests, is negatively portrayed as the fabricator of Israel’s “great sin.” The text goes to lengths, in other words, to present Aaron as Israel’s first apostate. Conversely, the text also introduces Moses and the Levites as Yahweh’s priestly agents who expiate Aaron’s sin, and its sinners from Israel (Ex 32:28-29). It portrays the Levites in a favorable role and suggests that following Levite dictates is the way to safeguard against breaking Yahweh’s covenant and suffering its ensuing punishment. But as we shall see, this portrait is explicitly negated by the Priestly material that now surrounds this Elohist narrative, namely Exodus 28-29 and 40, wherein Yahweh chooses Aaron and his sons as his sole anointed to function as his high priests.
Since the Golden Calf narrative was created by 8th century BC Levite scribes as a parody and polemic of the bull-cult Aaronid-led cultic institutions established by Jeroboam in the north (see forthcoming contradictions), and how this sin led to the destruction of Israel in 722 BC (1 Kgs 17), it serves as a stark reminder about what happens to apostates—at least as seen through the eyes of our Levite authors, who wrote this story to denigrate the calf altars of Jeroboam which were officiated over by Aaronid priests. We as readers cannot help but adopt the author’s perspectives. In other words the propagandist function of the literature works its charms on the reader. We side with Moses and the Levites, and against Aaron. To defame a potential rivalry for the priesthood, ancient scribes attacked its founder figure. But as we shall see, the Pentateuch on the whole presents Aaron in glowing terms. He is Yahweh’s consecrated one or messiah, and is without blemish or fault.
It is difficult to know with certainty the history of the Levites since the literature produced by this guild has its own agenda. Nevertheless, 1 Kings 2:26-27 recounts how Solomon banished the Levites from Jerusalem. Additionally, the rest of the Deuteronomic history from Solomon to Hezekiah makes no mention of Levites as priests in Jerusalem. Yet with the Levite led Deuteronomistic reform under Josiah, a Levitical priesthood emerged or reemerged in Jerusalem. What we know is that the 7th century BC Deuteronomic literature presents the Levites as sole officiating priests at the centralized altar in Jerusalem. Deuteronomy 10:8-9 and 18:1-5 present Yahweh as choosing the Levites to serve him and to officiate his cult. This was also the case in the Golden Calf narrative penned by the Elohist.
Yet other texts now contained in the same Sinai material, namely those written from the opposing camp, the Aaronids, present Yahweh claiming just the opposite: only the Aaronids are priests (Ex 28:1, 28:41, 29:1-9, 40:12-16; Lev 1-8; Num 3:1-9, 25:10-12). And, more shockingly, the Levites are demoted to the role of mere ministers of the officiating Aaronid priesthood (Num 3:5-10, 16:8-11, 16:17, 18:1-7).
All of these passages from Numbers are written by the Aaronids, and not surprisingly present Yahweh declaring as an eternal covenant (25:19) that only Aaronid descendants may serve as priests and serve Yahweh at his altar. The Levites, on the other hand, are appointed to serve the Aaronid priests! But they cannot officiate over the cult, perform sacrifices, expiate sins, nor enter the Holy of Holies.
Again it is not surprising that texts written by Aaronid priests should present Yahweh declaring that the priesthood belongs to Aaron’s descendants only, and texts written by Levites have Yahweh claim that all Levites are chosen to be Yahweh’s priests. The Bible is chock-full of examples like this. Indeed this was what ancient literature was all about.
As a further example, we may note that the exilic Aaronid author of Ezekiel also presents Yahweh condemning the Levites, blaming them and their officiation of the cult for the destruction of Judah, and limiting their service to that of helpers to the Aaronids (Ez 44). In fact, contrary to the picture painted in Exodus 32 where Aaron, and thus the Aaronid priesthood, is presented as worshiping idols and the Levites expiate this sin, Ezekiel has Yahweh declare that the Levites were the idol worshipers! And a scion from Aaron, the Zadokites, are to be sole officiating high priests in the future post-exilic temple. These are just glimpses of the rivalries that existed among the Israelite priesthood and how each guild penned texts to legitimate themselves and defame the their rival—all through the mouthpiece of their god, Yahweh!
It is the literature of the post-exilic period that affords us more clarity on this priestly rivalry, at least its outcome. All post-exilic texts not only distinguish between “the priests and the Levites,” but the Aaronid guild is portrayed as the clear winner. Repeatedly the Priestly literature now contained in Leviticus and Numbers declares, through the mouthpiece of Yahweh, that Israel’s deity himself chose Aaron and his sons as his priests, to officiate the cult, expiate sin, and to serve him. This is a powerful theological message. The Aaronid priestly guild, in other words, were the sole mediators of the god of Israel. Certainly tradition still preserved Moses as Yahweh’s mediator of his laws. But in the post-exilic community, it was the Aaronids who served as sole mediators of Yahweh’s graces, and through the cult uniquely. This conflict between Moses as mediator of Yahweh’s laws or torah, and the Aaronids as the mediator of Yahweh’s presence and holiness via the cult is a tension that influenced the very making of the Pentateuch as we will see later on.
To legitimate their sole rule as Yahweh’s priests in the post-exilic period, Aaronid scribes, much like the Deuteronomic scribes before them, rewrote “history.” It is not incoincidental that Aaron appears out of the blue in chapter 4 of Exodus. He is not mentioned as Moses’s brother during the alleged killing of all male infants as decreed by Pharaoh (#83-84), nor is there even any mention of the fact that Moses had a brother until Exodus 4:14. This is startling considering that for the Aaronid priests, Yahweh’s messiahs, Aaron was vastly more important than Moses. In the Elohist literature Aaron is Moses’ mere Levite brother, that is they are from the same tribe, the Levites. But the Aaronid priests of the post-exilic period had to find a way to legitimate their rule over and above that of the Levitical priesthood and even above their founding figure, Moses. The Priestly writers first coup de grace was to change Aaron’s pedigree from a brother Levite into a flesh and bones older brother of Moses (#95), and to accentuate his role throughout the Exodus story. The genealogy crafted by the Priestly writers, now preserved in Exodus 6:14-25, highlights Aaron’s genealogy not Moses’!
Furthermore, we are to learn that Aaron’s grandson Phinehas, highlighted as the last entry in the genealogy (Ex 6:25) is given, in another story, the covenant of the priesthood.
“Here I [Yahweh] am giving him my covenant of peace, and it shall be his and his seed’s after him, a covenant of eternal priesthood, because he was zealous for his god and he made atonement for the children of Israel” (Num 25:12-13).
And violà! This is how one legitimates their rule in the ancient Near Eastern world, by recreating “history” and having the national deity proclaim a covenantal relationship to the contemporaneous group’s ancestor. This singling out of Aaron and his descendants as sole heirs to the priesthood did not stop with the writing of passages that expressed Yahweh’s selection and consecration of Aaron and his sons as high priests (Ex 28:1-5, 29:6-10, 40:12-15; Lev 8:1-13) and conversely passages that delimited the Levites to mere ministers of the Aaronid priestly guild (Num 3:5-10, 16:8-11, 18:1-7), but rewrote the past in more subtle ways in an attempt to raise Aaron above his younger brother Moses.
In the plague narrative that the Priestly writers inherited, for example, it is now Aaron who performs the mighty signs of Yahweh with his staff and not Moses (#91, #105). And it is Aaron who is consecrated as Yahweh’s messiah at the end of Exodus. Conversely, the Priestly writers went to extreme measures to defame Moses in any way they could. In the Exodus story relating Moses’ heavy tongue and his inability to articulate the god’s words to Pharaoh, the Priestly writer retells the episode by referring to Moses as now having “uncircumcised lips” (#93). The choice of words is not haphazard. To be deformed in any way or to be uncircumcised eliminated oneself from entering the presence of Yahweh. And indeed this is just what the Aaronid Priestly writers did.
Another literary tactic used by the Aaronid scribe to defame Moses was to attack his Midianite connection through his wife (see #87). This is most prominent in the Baal Pe’or episode where the Priestly scribe had changed Israel’s enemies and the cause of their sinning from the Moabites to the Midianites (Num 25). All of these literary rewritings and the penning of laws and commandments that placed Aaron and his sons above Moses were all penned as divine proclamation! This was how one legitimated their supremacy over and against the claimants of their rival. The Levitical Deuteronomist had done the same a century and a half earlier.
To be sure, the priestly rivalry did not end with the divine appointment of the Aaronids as high priests according to their propagandist writings. The creation of the Mosaic Torah in the post-exilic period also evidences these priestly rivalries which played a significant role in the formation of the Torah in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Rivalry priestly schools in ancient Israel left their mark on the formation of the Pentateuch.
Yet other post-exilic writings also convey a portrait of continued strife between priestly houses. The book of Malachi, for example, is a sustained criticism against the priesthood, presumably the Aaronids (?). We know through other texts of the Bible, namely post-exilic literature, that the Aaronids, that is those priests who traced their lineage back to Aaron, won. The Aaronid priesthood was the sole officiating priests for the newly rebuilt temple in the Persian period.
As we see, the rivalries between ancient Israel’s priestly schools, to which the Bible bears witness, go far beyond mere polemics concerning which guild has authority to serve as Yahweh’s priests, and far beyond writing texts to legitimate such claims. Rather, these rivalries reveal that there were stark and contradictory differences in theological tenets, beliefs, conceptions of the cult, deity, and the people’s covenantal relationship to Yahweh. We will note these differences and competing views as we move forward.