Aaron was the older brother of Moses and Israel’s first high priest. He served as Moses’ spokesperson and played a key role in leading the Israelites out of Egypt.
God himself told Moses to appoint Aaron as the first high priest. This special role involved acting as mediator between the people and God. Once a year, the high priest entered the holiest part of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. This was where the Ark of the Covenant, a wooden chest containing sacred items, was kept.
Entering the sanctuary, the high priest took with him the blood of sacrificed animals, to atone for the sins of the people. For the ceremony, he wore holy vestments that matched the materials that decorated the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16:1-34).
Aaron’s sons – and their male descendants – were appointed as regular priests. Their role was to worship God in the Temple on a daily basis, offering a series of animal and grain sacrifices. After the exodus from Egypt but long before the Temple was built, Aaron and his sons began all these rituals (Leviticus 9:1-24).
Although Scripture describes Aaron as a “holy man”, he did have flaws. For example, he led the Israelites in worshipping a golden calf instead of God. Along with his sister Miriam, he also later questioned the authority of Moses. Because he lacked trust in God at a critical moment, he did not survive long enough to enter the Promised Land. After his death, the role of high priest was passed on to one of his sons, Eleazar.
The New Testament explains that Aaron’s role as high priest paved the way for Christ, who was to be the mediator between God and all people – not just Israel. The book of Hebrews goes into detail about how Christ became the eternal high priest by his death on the cross, discontinuing the priesthood of Aaron in the process (Hebrews 7:11-9:28).
This painting of Aaron in his glorious priestly robes is found in the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, in Manchester. It forms part of a reredos (altarpiece) in a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The painting is by the Gothic Revivalist Nathaniel Westlake and pictures Aaron holding his miraculous staff, which grew buds. The Latin text in the scroll, Quem ex his elegero, germinabit virga ejus, is taken from Numbers 17:5 and refers to this wonder. On the altarpiece, Aaron is pictured alongside other Old Testament saints who also experienced miracles.
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Where to find this work of art
Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, Manchester
Read the relevant passage
On a similar theme
- From the Old Testament: Aaron was also the brother of Miriam, who together with Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt.
- From the New Testament: Aaron’s descendent, St Zechariah, was the father of St John the Baptist.