Pre-Biblical Aaron, Miriam, and Moses
Three Leaders of the Exodus?
We are all familiar with the exodus story as it appears now in the Torah. In its final form, Moses takes the Israelites out of Egypt and is supported by his older brother Aaron, who performs some of the miracles on command and is his official spokesman. The text briefly mentions Miriam, Moses’ older sister, who leads the women in song after the Egyptians drown. Yet this is a relatively late picture of the exodus story and its protagonists.
A somewhat different depiction of their relationship is reflected in in the 8th century B.C.E. prophetic work, Micah, whose oracles are characterized by a deep interest in Israel’s foundational traditions from high antiquity:
מיכה ו:ד כִּי הֶעֱלִתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּמִבֵּית עֲבָדִים פְּדִיתִיךָ וָאֶשְׁלַח לְפָנֶיךָ אֶת מֹשֶׁה אַהֲרֹן וּמִרְיָם.
Mic 6:4 In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
Here, Micah describes Moses, Aaron, and Miriam as partners of similar standing in redeeming the people. As Micah’s oracle predates the Pentateuch in its final form, it is difficult to know what exodus tradition he was familiar with, but this much is clear: Aaron and Miriam played a more significant role than they do in our Torah text. Although it is natural to read Micah in line with Torah texts, Micah does not seem to have conceived of them as siblings. In fact, it is unclear that all the sources from which the Torah was composed think of them as siblings either.
Aaron and Moses Are Brothers: The Priestly Text
The description of Aaron and Moses as brothers appears in a genealogy in Exodus 6, which lists the descendants of Jacob’s first three sons as a way of introducing the lineage of Moses. Verse 20 reads:
שמות ו:כ וַיִּקַּח עַמְרָם אֶת יוֹכֶבֶד דֹּדָתוֹ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה וַתֵּלֶד לוֹ אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת מֹשֶׁה.
Exod 6:20 Amram took to wife his father’s sister Jochebed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses.
The relationship between Aaron and Moses is reiterated in a genealogy in the book of Numbers, which lists a third sibling, their sister Miriam:
במדבר כו:נט וְשֵׁם אֵשֶׁת עַמְרָם יוֹכֶבֶד בַּת לֵוִי אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה אֹתָהּ לְלֵוִי בְּמִצְרָיִם וַתֵּלֶד לְעַמְרָם אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת מֹשֶׁה וְאֵת מִרְיָם אֲחֹתָם.
Num 26:59 The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt; she bore to Amram Aaron and Moses and their sister Miriam.
Several other texts, however, imply that Moses and Aaron were not brothers:
1. “Your Brother the Levite”—When Moses complains to YHWH in the wilderness that he is “heavy of mouth and tongue” (כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן) and thus cannot speak to the Israelites, YHWH responds:
שמות ד:יד הֲלֹא אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ הַלֵּוִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי דַבֵּר יְדַבֵּר הוּא וְגַם הִנֵּה הוּא יֹצֵא לִקְרָאתֶךָ וְרָאֲךָ וְשָׂמַח בְּלִבּוֹ.... ד:טז וְדִבֶּר הוּא לְךָ אֶל הָעָם וְהָיָה הוּא יִהְיֶה לְּךָ לְפֶה וְאַתָּה תִּהְיֶה לּוֹ לֵאלֹהִים.
Exod 4:14 There is Aaron, your brother the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you…. 4:16 and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him.
As many scholars have noted, it is strange, if they are brothers, for YHWH to reference that Aaron is a Levite. Thus, many translate the phrase not as “your brother who is also a Levite” but as “your fellow Levite,” i.e., the men are not literal brothers but are “brother Levites.”
2. “Aaron’s Sister”—After the splitting of the sea and the drowning of the pursuing Egyptian army, first Moses leads the people in song and afterwards Miriam. In introducing Miriam’s song, the verse says:
שמות טו:כ וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ...
Exod 15:20 Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand…
Should she not have been referred to as the sister of Moses and Aaron? Moreover, if they were only going to mention one sibling, considering the prominence of Moses in the story, should it not have been him? This implies that the author was unaware of the tradition that Moses and Miriam were siblings, and by extension, that Moses and Aaron were.
3. Miriam and Aaron vs. Moses—In Numbers 12, Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses (וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה), and YHWH responds by explaining to Moses’ role as a unique prophet. No mention is made of Moses being their brother, and the story does not read well as a dispute among siblings. Similarly, when Aaron apologizes, he merely calls Moses אדוני “sir” (v. 11) and never mentions that Moses should take pity on the stricken Miriam because she is his sister.
4. An Only Child—Moses’ birth story begins:
שמות ב:א וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֵוִי וַיִּקַּח אֶת בַּת לֵוִי. ב:ב וַתַּהַר הָאִשָּׁה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן...
Exod 2:1 A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2:2 The woman conceived and bore a son…
The passage makes no mention of older siblings and, on its own, implies that Moses is the firstborn son. If so, the scene involving an older sister watching the boy (2:4) is a later addition.
Critical scholars suggest that the passages that describe Moses as the brother of Aaron and Miriam, and the passages that do not make this assumption, derive from different sources. The texts that describe Aaron and Moses as siblings all come from the later, Priestly source, while the earlier, non-Priestly sources connect Aaron with Miriam but not Moses.
The Bible thus contains three different traditions about the relationship between Moses, Aaron, and Miriam:
- Micah describes Aaron, Moses, and Miriam as partners (not siblings).
- A passage in the non-Priestly text of the Pentateuch thinks of Aaron and Miriam as siblings, but not Moses.
- Priestly genealogical texts describe all three as siblings.
In other words, over time these three figures became more closely connected genealogically.
Egyptian names also connect these figures. Scholars have long noted that Moses—moshe/mose—means “son” in Egyptian. This is a shortened form of a standard Egyptian-style name that generally comes with a theophoric element: Ramesses/Ramose= “son of Ra,” Thutmose=“son of Thoth,” etc.
Miriam’s name begins with the Egyptian word meri meaning “beloved.” This is also a common part of Egyptian names with a theophoric element: Meryamun=“beloved of Amun,” Meritaten=“beloved of Aten,” etc.
The etymology of Aaron/Aharon’s name is less clear, but it does not appear to be Hebrew, and many scholars assume it is of Egyptian origin. Although its meaning is debated, one prominent suggestion is that it derives from aha-rw, “warrior lion.”
What About the Exodus Story?
In the Torah, the reason that Moses, Aaron, and Miriam would have Egyptian names is that they were from Egypt. While the exodus story as we know it cannot be historical—it is built out of multiple contradictory versions and includes many fantastic embellishments—some contemporary scholars, such as Richard Elliott Friedman, argue for the historicity of a core exodus story, and that the Egyptian names of the Levites suggest that they formed the group which left Egypt.
Others scholars believe that the story is not historical at all, but derives from emergent Israel’s experiences in the Late Bronze-Iron I period, when the Egyptians pulled out of the Levant, leaving the natives to contend with each other. In this view, the story of Egypt leaving Israel becomes the story of Israel leaving Egypt. In either case, Egyptian names support the likelihood that the early traditions about these figures are quite ancient, as they make sense only for figures who lived in—or whose stories derive from—the pre-settlement/early settlement period.
Following Thutmose III’s conquest of the Levant in the 15th century, Egypt had been the dominant force in the region. Around the mid-12th century, however, Egypt pulled back into its own territory. Thus, an Egyptian name for a holy figure in the Late Bronze age fits well, whereas a figure dating to the post-settlement period, after Egypt already abandoned the Levant, would be more difficult to account for.
Miriam’s Song and Moses’ Song
Can we reconstruct anything about these early figures from the pre-settlement period? One important clue comes from comparing the Miriam and Moses traditions. At the end of the splitting of the sea account, Moses leads the people in the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:1b-18), after which Miriam leads the women in song.
Notably, what Miriam sings is virtually identical with the opening verse of the Song of the Sea. In the biblical text as we have it now, the implication is that Miriam was leading the Israelite women in the same song that Moses and the men had just sung.
A number of critical scholars, however, have suggested that the song was originally part of the Miriam tradition, but that the biblical author moved it to Moses because of his emerging importance as the leader of the exodus and YHWH’s chief prophet. Other scholars suggest that these are parallel traditions, built around two poems with (almost) the same opening verse, one brief and one expanded, that were each attributed to a different figure from Israel’s prehistory.
Whether Miriam’s Song is the full Song of the Sea or just what was included in v. 21, we have here a war poem ascribed to Miriam and a parallel tradition ascribing this war poem to Moses. The fact that both of these figures are associated with war poetry may shed light on their place in early Israel.
In “Who Were the Levites?” (TheTorah, 2017), Mark Leuchter argues that the early traditions regarding Moses, and what some scholars have called the “Mushite Priesthood,” are saturated with violence, presenting warriors-turned-priests. The attachment of a version of this same war song to yet another holy figure associated with the Levites, Miriam, implies that, perhaps, the clan or group who adopted Miriam as their holy figure came to prominence against a similar violent background.
This makes sense against the backdrop of the early settlement period, when Egypt was in the process of pulling out its military and administrative presence from the Levant. This process was characterized by successive violent confrontations between various groups, including Israelites and Canaanites in the central Canaanite highlands and the lowlands surrounding them. At such a time, successful military leaders of small bands of proto-Israelites would have been able to establish temples and a following.
A military aetiology for early priestly or Levitical figures is not limited to Moses and Miriam. Phinehas in particular, who is remembered in tradition as a descendant of Aaron, but likely originated from a different family, also comes to prominence around an act of violence, namely the slaying of Zimri and Kozbi during their illicit union (Num 25). Similarly, it is worth noting that the Priestly family of Eli, and his sons Hophni and Phinehas, are remembered as having been in charge of the Ark of the Covenant, which they would deploy during war (1 Sam 4).
Tentatively, we suggest that military leadership may have been a standard way for priestly holy figures dating from the turbulent pre-monarchic period to establish themselves. Aaron too may have been established this way, though no tradition remains connecting him with war.
These priest-warriors would have been independent clan leaders, and only later in Israelite historiography were they connected with familial ties. More specifically, once the concept that all Levites must descend from Levi and all priests from Aaron, these various figures were grafted on to Aaron’s family.
These suggestions, however, do not explain why Aaron, Miriam, and Moses become siblings in Israelite historiography, nor do they explain why the Aaron-and-Miriam-as-siblings tradition developed before the tradition that Aaron, Moses, and Miriam are siblings. The answer may be found in their respective burial traditions.
According to biblical tradition, Moses, Aaron and Miriam are all buried in the Transjordan. Moses is said to have died somewhere in the Mishor, slightly northeast of the Dead Sea. Miriam is buried in Kadesh (Num 20:1), on the border with Edom (Num 20:16). The Torah has two burial traditions about Aaron: Numbers 21:22–29 and 33:38 have Aaron die on Mount Hor, while Deuteronomy 10:6 has him die at Moserah. These two locations are in close proximity to each other, in the southern Transjordan near biblical Edom and Kadesh.
Of course, in the Torah’s exodus tradition, Miriam, Aaron, and Moses are buried in the Transjordan because they died on the way from Egypt to the holy land and never made it to their final destination. This, however, is a post-facto explanation. Instead, as Martin Noth argues, based this on a principle called Ortsgebundenheit (literally “binding to place”): “a grave tradition usually gives the most reliable indication of the original provenance of a particular figure of tradition.”
In the pre-settlement period, many early Israelites/proto-Israelites likely inhabited much of the Transjordan before their massive settlement in the Cisjordanian highlands. In fact, whereas Israelites continued to inhabit the Transjordanian Mishor for centuries after the settlement of the Cisjordan, evidence for proto-Israelite settlement of the area near Edom, where Miriam and Aaron are buried, dates only to the pre-settlement period. As the Israelite population left this area, in the 12th–11th centuries B.C.E., and moved into the Cisjordan, they would have brought their Aaron and Miriam traditions with them.
Because of their geographic proximity, it may be that the venerators of Miriam and Aaron were of the same or closely related clans, and that these two figures were associated with each other at a very early stage. When this period was remembered in Israelite cultural memory as the period of the exodus and the wilderness wandering, they became associated with the chief protagonist of those traditions, Moses, also buried in the Transjordan, though much farther north.
The Opposite Trajectories of Aaron and Miriam
Although Aaron and Miriam were associated with each other at a very early stage, their futures turned out very different. Miriam all but disappears from the record. Only a few biblical texts mention her, and no biblical texts refer to or even imply a Miriamite priesthood. If such a tradition ever existed, it was buried in the Transjordan with its patron.
In the exodus story, Aaron is cast as Moses’ junior partner, and certainly receives more “airtime” than Miriam, but his greatest success is in his priestly legacy. The historical Aaron, if there was one, was a regional holy man in the southern Transjordan, perhaps a warrior priest like Moses and Miriam.
Those who carried his legacy across the Jordan, whether they were his biological descendants or individuals who adopted Aaron as their symbolic ancestor, eventually secured a place for themselves and their patron in the Jerusalem Temple. There, Aaron was destined to become not just the ancestor of a small group of local priests, but of all kohanim, a tradition that was destined to last for millennia.
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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.
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. Zev is also a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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