Exodus 32 (NASB)
Q: Consider the meaning of God’s calling upon a person’s life. What was God’s calling on Aaron’s life? In the incident of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32, what was Aaron’s greatest failure and why did he do what he did? What was his response to Moses? What about Moses’ calling? What do his actions in this incident reveal about calling and leadership? How are we to carry out these principles in our lives today?
With the incident of the Golden Calf in 32:1-29, bear in mind that chapters 32 – 34 continue the narrative after 24:18, while chapters 25 – 31 go in detail on the proper authorized worship of God. It is done so to contrast true worship versus fabricated human worship of the golden calf. Another contrast that the text shows is what is taking place on the mountain and what is happening on the desert floor; namely, between the presence of God and the people’s sin. And here we see that without proper visible leadership, people fail. Sometimes even the holiest of men, such as Aaron, can be persuaded to do things contrary to their testimony.
In the beginning of chapter 24, Moses presented the freed people of Israel the laws and covenant of Yahweh by replying “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” (v. 4, and then reiterated again in v. 7). Moses’ long absence created an air of tension, fear, and uncertainty among the Israelites, so they sought reassurance through the construction of an image that would represent God’s presence in their midst which was an act of disobedience and a break from their previous promise to obey everything in the covenant. Turning to Aaron, who was placed in charge during Moses’ absence, the pleaded with him to make a god who would go before them. As is often the case time and time again, people will follow the lead of an authority figure. In general, (psychologically, and even spiritually) people will choose to adopt the beliefs of people who they consider to be authorities; for instance, we trust what our doctors tell us because we believe that he is an authority figure in medicine or in illnesses, likewise we trust what pastors tell us or what he or she says in the pulpit about God because we believe that he is an authority on the topic of the Bible, God, or other spiritual matters. We will consciously, or unconsciously, adopt and inculcate his or her beliefs and theologies into our own. Belief systems normally arise on who or which authority figure you decide to trust in.
So wherever the authority figure leads, the people will follow.
What should Aaron have said to them?
He probably should have reminded them of their promise to obey the covenant stipulations and be fearful of what they were asking or face God’s punishment.
But he didn’t. It’s a far cry from the humble and strong qualities he exhibited when God had called Aaron to speak in behalf of Moses in front of pharaoh and in effect be “God’s mouthpiece”. Also remember that it was he who wielded the rod which became a serpent that swallowed up the rod-serpents of the Egyptian magicians (Ex. 7:8) and also, it was he, not Moses, who stretched out his staff and turned the Nile into blood. (Ex. 7:19-20) Furthermore, it was through Aaron’s actions that the plagues of frogs and gnats were accomplished. (Ex. 8:5, 16). So we cannot view him as just Moses’ sidekick – he was a very, very important person who played a key role in the Israelite exodus out of Egypt. Perhaps he too panicked and felt afraid, and ultimately succumbed to the wiles of public pressure and opinion. One of the difficult hallmarks of true leadership is deciding to do what is right instead of doing what is popular.
Images of bulls or calves were widely used in Ancient Near East worship, usually as symbols of virility. Although the Israelites did not consciously reject the ‘the LORD’ as their God, their attempt to portray him as a golden calf was a major breach of the covenant stipulations which they had earlier accepted. It wasn’t so much that the Israelites were asking for a new god, but that they wanted a graven image of Yahweh in the form of a bull – a direct violation of the second commandment that they Israelites agreed upon earlier.) In laying out detailed instructions to Moses during his time up the mountain for constructing the tabernacle, Yahweh expressed his desire to be amongst his people. The tabernacle, with all its golden furnishings, portrayed God as a royal personage, but in portraying God as a bull, it represented him as a mere beast. Although the people offered appropriate sacrifices, their worship of the calf degraded the one who had freed them from slavery in Egypt. Worship, to be true, must be based on a right perception of God. The entire book of Exodus emphasizes the importance of knowing God as he truly is, and not as we imagine him to be.
To top off Aaron’s failure, he built an altar in front of the idol and declares to the Israelites, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” (v. 5)
To add insult to injury, when Moses finally comes down and sees the people’s sinfulness, Aaron blames the people instead of taking the responsibility for his lack of leadership by saying, “you know how prone these people are to evil”; “they said to me”; “we don’t know what has happened to Moses”; and “out came this calf!” (vv. 22 – 24) He cares more about his own self-preservation and image, than he does about the people he is put in charge of. It is like the captain of a sinking ship being the first one on a life-boat instead of being the last person to board, or perishing with the rest of the people. Society heavily looks down upon and punishes such acts of selfishness, irresponsibility, and cowardice when captains do this.
In stark contrast with Aaron’s failure of leadership, we see how God had mercifully prepared Moses for such an occasion as this. Moses, fearing God’s wrath and judgment upon his people, exercises his calling as a divinely raised-up mediator by appealing to the LORD on their behalf. He reminded the LORD of his special covenant relationship with the people and more importantly, the need to keep his name holy and trustworthy. (In other words, he was like God’s press secretary of some sorts – it’s simply bad PR to completely wipe out your constituents.) God relents and changes his mind. When he comes down from the mountain he dispenses God’s judgment upon the people, but offers them a choice to either follow Yahweh or the golden calf. Those who choose the calf have their fate sealed. In verse 30, even though the people had repented, atonement for sin was still needed. Moses would attempt to ransom or deliver the people from the certain judgment of their sin by offering a substitute- himself. When he goes up the mountain to meet with God again, he proceeded to intercede for them for the second time. He implores God to blot his name out from the book of life by taking full responsibility for the sins committed against God. This is in stark contrast with Aaron’s actions.
In the concluding chapters (33:7 – 11 through 34:34 – 35) of this part of the narrative, God renews his covenant with the Israelites. Where before, the narrative was dominated by rebellion and God’s punishment, the attention now shifts to Moses, God’s faithful servant and friend. Moses’ relationship with God provided the opportunity for him to intercede on behalf of the people and as a result the covenant was renewed. It is important to know that this was not attributed to some dramatic change of heart on the part of the people but to God’s compassion and mercy. Whereas Aaron’s fear, irresponsibility and his instinct for self-preservation almost cost the people their lives, it was because of Moses’ leadership, boldness in front of God, his responsibility for taking the blame (though undeserved) for others, and his willingness to take upon God’s punishment on their behalf, that God’s anger was quelled and the Israelites were spared. These verses even show how strong and bold leadership can make a strong impact even to God, and that he takes notice of this. Something to think about as we are called upon various leadership positions in our jobs, our church, our small groups, our families (as in Felicia’s case as a mother of two kids), or anywhere else God calls us to be leaders.