IN PART 1 we examined the biblical account of Moses and the Golden Calf affair. In this account, room was left for Aaron’s guilt in failing to prevent the People of Israel from falling into idolatry during the absence of Moses on Mount Sinai. Only a slight hint seems to exonerate Moses.
Who were the “Sons of Levi,” and Who were their Most Illustrious Members?
Aaron and Moses were sons of ‘Amran (ʿImrân), who in turn was a son of Levi (Exodus 6:16, 18, 20, 23, 25, 26). Thus Aaron and Moses were descendants of Levi and thus to be counted as among the “sons of Levi,” or, “the Levites.”
Recall, by the way, that in the Quran, the “Family of ʿImrân” is honored—along with the “Family of Abraham”—as elevated above all people [Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:33]. And be aware, too, that Mary (Maryam) and thus her son, Jesus (ʿÎsa), as well as Zechariah (Zakarîya), and his son John (Yaḥya), all are descendants of the priestly family of ‘Amram (ʿImrân) [Sûrat Âl-ʿImrân, 3:35-50; Bible: Luke 1:5, 36]—along with Aaron and Moses.
Furthermore, the mother of John was also of the Levitical line of descent (Bible, Luke 1:36) but Joseph, the betrothed husband of Mary, was not (Luke 1:27). Since Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus (Matthew 1:16, 25), Jesus belongs biologically to the priestly family of his biological mother Mary; thus Mary is correctly described in the Quran as female child of the wife of ʿImrân [Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:35-36] as well as sister of Aaron [Sûrat Maryam, 19:28] due to her Levitical line of descent.
Going further back in the biblical genealogical record, Levi was one of the many sons of Jacob (Yaʿkûb) and a brother of Joseph (Yûsuf) (Genesis 46::8-11) who left Palestine and went to Egypt with Jacob due to a command of God (Genesis 46:1-4).
Exoneration of the Sons of Levi
Now, let us return to the Gold Calf narrative and focus on two biblical statements:
- When Moses asked the Israelites to gather on the Lord’s side, “All the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him.” (Ex 32:26)
- While he ordered them to kill the sinners, “The sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses” (Ex 32:28). Thus they proved themselves worthy of being consecrated as the priestly class (ex. 29:1) of the Israelites and God blessed them in this way (Ex. 32: 29).
Furthermore, it is notable that the biblical statement “All the sons of Levi” would include Aaron as a son of Levy among those who stood in the gathering of the Lord Side’s people and who joined in the killing of the sinners. If he was not included there, the Bible should have told us ‘All the sons of Levi except Aaron.’
Doubt Raised from Biblical Scholarship
Let us inject some considerations from Biblical scholarship. The “Documentary Hypothesis” proposed (1877) by Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), a German Christian theologian and biblical scholar, gives us challenging information on the formation of the biblical text, and thus on the golden-calf affair. It proposes that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) were pieced together from four sources: the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Deuteronomist, and the Priestly sources. Each source is characterized by a tendency to distinctive textual features and evidence of originating from distinctive historical periods.
In the process of laying out evidence for the various sources, one author notes that the Golden-Calf affair is not recorded in the Yahwist source (written c. 950 BCE in the southern Kingdom of Judah) which presents Aaron as a devout, God-fearing individual, who was founder of the priestly tradition. In contrast, he notes that the Elohist source (written c. 850 BCE in the northern Kingdom of Israel), does include the story, alleging that this source has invented elements of the story and has thus painted Aaron as an idol-maker, idol-worshiper and even facilitating or inviting the People of Israel to idol-worship in a weak moment. (Coogan, M., A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in its Context. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2009, Friedman, Richard Elliott, Who Wrote the Bible? 1987).
This input from Bible scholarship, if correctly representing sources of the biblical text, therefore makes us question whether Aaron was really to be implicated in the golden-calf affair? Or, did the Elohist source “invent” Aaron as a maker, worshipper and promoter of idols? And if this was true of Aaron, how did he manage to survive deserved punishment?
Looking to the Quran for Clarification
In contrast, the Gracious Quran, as revealed to Muhammad ﷺ by God, describes the incident of the Golden Calf without leaving a shred of doubt as to its cause. The Quran addresses the above-referenced doubt on the part of biblical scholarship regarding Aaron’s participation in facilitating the incident, excuses his inability to act, and deliberately mentions by name the mastermind and his intentional flouting of God’s purposes:
- The Quran informs us that Aaron was entrusted with the leadership of Israel during the 40 days and nights when Moses was up on Mount Sinai [Sûrat Al-Aʿrâf, 7: 142].
- Before the return of Moses, Aaron had already warned the waiting people not to participate in the making and worshiping of any idol: O my people, you are only being tested by this, and indeed, your Lord is the Most Merciful, so follow me and obey my order [Sûrat Țâ Ḥâ, 20:90]. The people had other ideas, however: We will not abandon this cult, but we will devote ourselves to it until Moses returns to us [Sûrah Țâ Ḥâ, 20:91].
- And God informed Moses that someone(s) called “Al-Sâmiri” had led the people of Israel into the rebellion of pursuing the golden-calf idol, saying: The Al-Sâmiri has led them astray [Sûrat Țâ Ḥâ, 20: 85].
- After coming from Sinai, Moses rebuked and accused the people and they confessed their guilt pointing out Al-Sâmiri as its instigator. As the Quran states: They said, “We did not break our promise to you by our will, but we were made to carry burdens from the ornaments of the people [of Pharaoh], so we threw them [into the fire], and thus did the Al-Sâmiri throw” [Sûrah Țâ Ḥâ, 20: 87]. Here it is noteworthy that the people never did mention Aaron, but rather put full blame on the Al-Sâmiri.
- While interrogated about the affair—why he had not held back the desire toward the cult of idolatry—Aaron explicitly denied his assent and pleaded his inability to resist such a blasphemous act and its consequence, saying: O son of my mother, indeed the people oppressed me and were about to kill me, so let not the enemies rejoice over me and do not place me among the wrongdoing people [Sûrat Al-Aʿrâf, 7: 142].
- Moses accepts his brother’s reasons for not intervening:
Truly I feared lest thou shouldst say, ‘Thou has caused a division among the Children of Israel, and thou didst not respect my word!‘ [Sûrat Țâ Ḥâ, 20:90]
To him, Aaron said: ‘Son of my mother! The people did indeed reckon me as naught, and went nert to slaying me! Make not the enemies rejoice over my misfortune, nor count thou me amongst the people of sin.” [Sûrat Al-Aʿrâf, 7: 150]
- Then Moses caught Al-Sâmiri and asked him what he had to say for himself; thereupon, he confessed that he had defiantly made the idol—flouting the explicit orders of Moses. The following verses also give more details on the idol-maker and his disobedience:
[Moses] said, “And what is your case, O Sâmiri?” He said, “I saw what they did not see, so I took a handful [of dust] from the track of the messenger and threw it, and thus did my soul entice me.” [Moses] said, “Then go. And indeed, it is [decreed] for you in [this] life to say, ‘No contact.’ And indeed, you have an appointment [in the Hereafter] you will not fail to keep. And look at your ‘god’ to which you remained devoted. We will surely burn it and blow it into the sea with a blast. [Sûrat Țâ Ḥâ, 20:95-97]
Needless to say, Islam does not believe that any prophet can fall into a great sin like idol-worshiping or rebelling against God. The Quran mentions Aaron as a prophet and praises him repeatedly, calling him a believing servant [Sûrat Al- Ṣâffât, 37:122], as well as one who was guided [Sûrat Al-‘Anʿâm, 6:84], and one of the victors [Sûrat Al- Ṣâffât 37:114].