How All Kohanim Became Sons of Aaron
The Origin of Kohanim: A Traditional Approach
The Torah lays out clearly the origins of the priesthood. As part of YHWH’s command to build a Tabernacle, he informs Moses that his brother Aaron and his sons are to become Israel’s kohanim, their priestly leaders:
שמות כח:א וְאַתָּה הַקְרֵב אֵלֶיךָ אֶת אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאֶת בָּנָיו אִתּוֹ מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְכַהֲנוֹ לִי…
Exod 28:1 You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests…
In Leviticus, Aaron and his sons are installed as priests in an elaborate ordination (מִלּוּאִים) ceremony conducted by Moses, after which their position as the official priesthood is established in perpetuity. Although Aaronide priests are only referenced sporadically in other parts of the Bible, the assumption in Second Temple period works is that kohen “priest” is coterminous with Aaronide. For example, the book of Nehemiah refers to priests as “descendent of Aaron”:
נחמיה יב:מז וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּימֵי זְרֻבָּבֶל וּבִימֵי נְחֶמְיָה נֹתְנִים מְנָיוֹת הַמְשֹׁרְרִים וְהַשֹּׁעֲרִים דְּבַר יוֹם בְּיוֹמוֹ וּמַקְדִּשִׁים לַלְוִיִּם וְהַלְוִיִּם מַקְדִּשִׁים לִבְנֵי אַהֲרֹן.
Neh 12:47 And in the time of Zerubbabel, and in the time of Nehemiah, all Israel contributed the daily portions of the singers and the gatekeepers, and made sacred contributions for the Levites, and the Levites made sacred contributions for the Aaronites.
Up to the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E., and continuing throughout Jewish history, kohanim are understood as exclusively descendants of Aaron. Traditional Jewish sources, such as the Mishnah and Talmud, take it for granted that all references to Israelite priests in biblical literature should be understood as Aaronide priests since, from their perspective, from the time of Moses, these were the only people permitted to serve YHWH at an altar or temple.
Challenges to the Classical Storyline
A historical-critical reading of the biblical text suggests that the origin of the priesthood is much more complex than this, and that for much if not all of the First Temple period, kohen was not synonymous with “Aaronide.” The biblical corpus preserves additional traditions, which depart from the “Aaron as the father of all kohanim” model. In fact, the concept of an Aaronide priesthood, all descendants of the high priest appointed at Sinai, presumes a single origin story for Israel, which the biblical text itself belies.
Instead, most scholars believe that Israelite identity emerged among the highland settlers in a gradual process during the early Iron Age (12th and 11th cent. B.C.E.), including the materialization of common ritual forms. This process took place within the land of Canaan, across a broad spectrum of clans and tribes that would eventually become Israel. Within this context, one family could not have served all the various tribes of Israel, and unsurprisingly, the biblical text mentions multiple priestly families, some of whom are not Aaronide.
David’s Sons—The list of royal appointments in 2 Samuel claims that David’s sons, who were from the tribe of Judah, served as priests, (2 Sam 8:18).
Levites—The book of Deuteronomy uses the term הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם, “levitical priests,” which equates all Levites with priests; this disagrees with the Priestly model of Aaron as representing just one branch in the much broader tribe of Levi.
Moses and Mushite Priests—In the Priestly text of the Pentateuch, Moses’ priesthood only lasts until he performs the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons, after which, only the Aaronides serve as priests. Nevertheless, much of his persona is priestly, as it is he who sets up the Tabernacle, and it is he who is described as part of God’s household (Num 12:7). Moreover, in Psalm 99:6, Moses and Aaron are described as joint priests:
תהלים צט:ו מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן בְּכֹהֲנָיו וּשְׁמוּאֵל בְּקֹרְאֵי שְׁמוֹ…
Ps 99:6 Moses and Aaron among His priests, Samuel, among those who call on His name…
This image of Moses as a priest reflects the self-understanding of a group of priests that served in the pre-exilic period who appear to have understood Moses to be their ancestor, a group known in scholarship as Mushite priests. This group was the main priestly clan in the northern Dan temple, which was said to have been founded by Moses’ grandson (Judg 18:30). This may also have been the priestly lineage of Eli, the priest of Shiloh. Moses, of course, continues as the “greatest man” in all history (Deut 34:10), but as a prophet and lawgiver, not as the founding father of the priesthood.
The Zadokite Priesthoods
Perhaps the most significant alternative priestly lineage was the family of Zadok, which was dominant in the all-important Jerusalem Temple. The prophet Ezekiel, who once served as a priest in that Temple before being exiled to Babylon in 597 B.C.E., consistently emphasizes Zadokite priests:
לַכֹּהֲנִים שֹׁמְרֵי מִשְׁמֶרֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ הֵמָּה בְנֵי צָדוֹק הַקְּרֵבִים מִבְּנֵי לֵוִי אֶל יְ־הוָה לְשָׁרְתוֹ.
For the priests who perform the duties of the altar—they are the descendants of Zadok, who alone of the descendants of Levi may approach YHWH to minister to Him.
וְנָתַתָּה אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם אֲשֶׁר הֵם מִזֶּרַע צָדוֹק הַקְּרֹבִים אֵלַי נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה לְשָׁרְתֵנִי
You shall give to the levitical priests who are of the stock of Zadok, and so eligible to minister to Me—declares the Lord YHWH
וְהַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם בְּנֵי צָדוֹק אֲשֶׁר שָׁמְרוּ אֶת מִשְׁמֶרֶת מִקְדָּשִׁי בִּתְעוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעָלַי הֵמָּה יִקְרְבוּ אֵלַי לְשָׁרְתֵנִי…
But the levitical priests descended from Zadok, who maintained the service of My Sanctuary when the people of Israel went astray from Me—they shall approach Me to minister to Me…
לַכֹּהֲנִים הַמְקֻדָּשׁ מִבְּנֵי צָדוֹק אֲשֶׁר שָׁמְרוּ מִשְׁמַרְתִּי אֲשֶׁר לֹא תָעוּ בִּתְעוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כַּאֲשֶׁר תָּעוּ הַלְוִיִּם.
This consecrated area shall be for the priests of the line of Zadok, who kept My charge and did not go astray, as the Levites did when the people of Israel went astray.
The historical circumstances that Ezekiel envisions here are difficult to reconstruct, but apparently, in his conception, many different Levitical families were once eligible to be priests, but after the Levites sinned (the details are not provided), only the Zadokite family remained as eligible for the priesthood. Notably, Ezekiel never once mentions Aaron or Aaronide priests.
David’s High Priests
Unlike Aaron, Zadok is not a figure from the wilderness or exodus periods, but is described as one of King David’s high priests in the book of Samuel:
שמואל ב ח:יז וְצָדוֹק בֶּן אֲחִיטוּב וַאֲחִימֶלֶךְ בֶּן אֶבְיָתָר כֹּהֲנִים…
2 Sam 8:17 Zadok son of Ahitub and Ahimelech son of Abiathar were priests…
Although Abiathar and Zadok were both priests for David, according to the text of Kings, in the time of Solomon, Abiathar supports Solomon’s brother, Adonijah, for the throne, and as a consequence, Solomon banishes him from the priesthood:
מלכים א ב:כז וַיְגָרֶשׁ שְׁלֹמֹה אֶת אֶבְיָתָר מִהְיוֹת כֹּהֵן לַי־הוָה לְמַלֵּא אֶת דְּבַר יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עַל בֵּית עֵלִי בְּשִׁלֹה.
1 Kgs 2:27 So Solomon dismissed Abiathar from his office of priest of YHWH—thus fulfilling what YHWH had spoken at Shiloh regarding the house of Eli.
This last verse connects Abiathar and the priests of Nob with the (Mushite?) priestly family of Eli, who had been in charge of the tabernacle in Shiloh, and whose family was cursed to lose prominence after his sons sinned (1 Sam 3). In contrast, Zadok comes out of nowhere, with no explanation about his origins as a priest or his connection to David. Nevertheless, with Solomon’s dismissal of Abiathar, Zadok becomes the founding father of the Jerusalem Temple priesthood.
Many scholarly theories have been floated to explain the mysterious appearance of Zadok, including the proposal that Zadok was originally a Canaanite priest in pre-Israelite Jerusalem, and was absorbed into the ranks of the still-forming Israelite priestly class after David took Jerusalem as his personal stronghold (2 Samuel 5). More likely, Zadok was from a priestly family that served in Judah, David’s own tribe. Thus the appointment of Abiathar and Zadok reflected David including both a northern and a southern priestly family.
Whatever the origin of Zadok’s family, how and when did the Zadokites became Aaronides? To answer this question, let us first start with the terminus ad quem—a late text that takes this for granted.
Ezra the Aaronide-Zadokite Priest
In Jewish tradition, Ezra is remembered more as a scribe than as a priest, but his introduction in chapter 7 of the book of Ezra emphasizes his priestly pedigree:
עזרא ז:א וְאַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּמַלְכוּת אַרְתַּחְשַׁסְתְּא מֶלֶךְ פָּרָס עֶזְרָא בֶּן שְׂרָיָה בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה בֶּן חִלְקִיָּה.ז:ב בֶּן שַׁלּוּם בֶּן צָדוֹק בֶּן אֲחִיטוּב. ז:גבֶּן אֲמַרְיָה בֶן עֲזַרְיָה בֶּן מְרָיוֹת. ז:דבֶּן זְרַחְיָה בֶן עֻזִּי בֶּן בֻּקִּי. ז:ה בֶּן אֲבִישׁוּעַ בֶּן פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הָרֹאש.
Ezra 7:1 After these things, during the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah, 7:2 the son of Shallum, the son of Zadok, the son of Ahitub, 7:3 the son of Amariah, the son of Azariah, the son of Meraioth, 7:4 the son of Zerahiah, the son of Uzzi, the son of Bukki, 7:5 the son of Abishua, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the chief priest.
The text as an attempt to accurately portray Ezra’s lineage is problematic. At the very least, the tradition is telescoping generations, skipping several intermediate ancestors, and probably arranging Ezra’s ancestry details for maximum rhetorical effect, accentuating his priestly lineage. As many scholars have noted, Ezra is presented as the son of Seraiah, the last of the pre-exilic chief priests of Jerusalem (2 Kgs 25:18).
מלכים ב כה:יח וַיִּקַּח רַב טַבָּחִים אֶת שְׂרָיָה כֹּהֵן הָרֹאשׁ וְאֶת צְפַנְיָהוּ כֹּהֵן מִשְׁנֶה וְאֶת שְׁלֹשֶׁת שֹׁמְרֵי הַסַּף… כה:כוַיִּקַּח אֹתָם נְבוּזַרְאֲדָן רַב טַבָּחִים וַיֹּלֶךְ אֹתָם עַל מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל רִבְלָתָה. כה:כא וַיַּךְ אֹתָם מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל וַיְמִיתֵם בְּרִבְלָה בְּאֶרֶץ חֲמָת….
2 Kgs 25:18 The chief of the guards also took Seraiah, the chief priest, Zephaniah, the deputy priest, and the three guardians of the threshold…. 25:20 Nebuzaradan, the chief of the guards, took them and brought them to the king of Babylon at Riblah. 25:21 The king of Babylon had them struck down and put to death at Riblah, in the region of Hamath….
Seraiah is executed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and Ezra is described as coming to Judea in the 7th year of Artaxerxes I (458–424 B.C.E.), which would be 451 B.C.E. According to this chronology, if בֶּן means “son” rather than “descendant,” the youngest Ezra could possibly have been, if he was the biological son of Seraiah, would be 135 years old, which is obviously absurd. Nevertheless, it is difficult to doubt that Ezra did possess priestly heritage.
Merging Zadokite and Aaronide Priesthoods
When did Zadokites begin to see themselves as Aaronides? The process can be imagined in two different directions. One popular view nowadays is to assume that in First Temple times, Aaron was an unknown or unimportant figure, and that Zadok was the sole ancestor figure of the Jerusalem priesthood. According to this model, after the Babylonian exile, Aaronide priests supported by the Persian empire annexed or appropriated once-independent Zadokite traditions upon rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple and took up the role of chief priests themselves.
This explanation relies on dating the composition of much of P, the Priestly document, only in the Persian period. Those of us who date much of P to the First Temple period must assume that already then, perhaps as early as the time of David and Solomon, the Zadokites saw themselves as descendants of Aaron.
Whichever model is correct, the author of Ezra 7 is stating that Ezra is doubly legitimate: he is both an Aaronide and a Zadokite priest.
Both textual and anthropological evidence suggest that in a society such as early monarchic Israel or Judah, adoption/claiming of a figure like Aaron for purposes of increasing sacral power was common. The study of biblical genealogies, for example, show that group assumptions about ancestral sequences or relationships shift over time, with the sequence of some ancestral figures altered or reconfigured to reflect the changes between or within segments of a lineage group.
For example, in some cases the Bible suggests that Caleb was a Kenizzite (Num 32:12), and in others a Judahite (1 Chr 2:9). Similarly, did Moses marry into a Midianite or a Kenite family? Is Samuel an Ephraimite (1 Sam 1:1, 20) or a Levite (1 Chr 6:13)?  Are Aaron and Moses brother Levites or actual brothers? It depends on the text.
On both literary and social levels, then, the figure of Aaron could be emulated or claimed as the “property” of a group that in earlier days may not have been associated with Aaronide traditions. Conversely, Aaron traditions could be “projected” across other groups that the Aaronides sought to dominate, exerting their own influence and power in a way that caused once-independent legends or ritual traditions to be refracted through an Aaronide prism.
Aaronide as an Umbrella of Legitimacy
The recasting of other priestly families, such as the Zadokites, as Aaronide, likely took place over the course of a few centuries in monarchic Judah, with “Aaron” being used as a common priestly ancestor to galvanize and standardize priestly identity in a way that benefitted the Zadokites and, ultimately, their Davidic patrons.
If this was the case—if the Aaronides (led by the Zadokite clan) and the Davidic kings stood at the apex of the official religion of the kingdom of Judah—we can see why descendants of Aaron and descendants of David were selected to lead the restoration community of Yehud in the early Persian period. The Persians sought to maintain power in Yehud by having traditional leaders mediate between the imperial powers and the local population(s), and selecting Aaronides presupposes that this group was a highly regarded priesthood before the Babylonian exile.
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Prof. Mark Leuchter is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism in the Department of Religion at Temple University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 2003. His research focuses on the history of the priesthood in ancient Israel and early Jewish scribal tradition.
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