Moses, Aaron, and the golden calf

Hi all!
In the church I’m attending, we’re in a series looking at the Israelites in the wilderness in Exodus. Yesterday, we were looking at Ex. 32, which is the infamous incident with the golden calf. In my reflection time after the service, I was stuck that there was A LOT going on in that passage, but I found myself being drawn to Aaron. I began to wonder about him and found myself sympathizing with him, as he has the unenviable job of holding the ‘stiff-necked’ Israelites while Moses goes up to God.

Mostly, I’m wondering if it’s fair to condemn him for his actions? It’s certainly easy to do, but I’m wondering what you all think of him in this instance?

1 Like

Oooo love it! Yes, I have often thought that poor Aaron was stuck between a rock and a hard place and that it was so unfair that he had to take so much from both the Israelites and from God! Possibly the golden calf was his attempt of saying “here’s an image of Yahweh so that technically we’re still worshipping the true God” and hoping that this would hold up in front of Moses and Yahweh. Unfortunately for him, Yahweh had just outlined up Sinai that true worship of God means no image being made. :woman_facepalming: Poor Aaron! It also doesn’t explain his language straight after when he says “these are your gods who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Ex 32:4). The other small problem was that the Israelites then “sat down to eat and drink and got up to party” (Ex 32:6) which basically in Egyptian and Canaanite language means sexual defilement. So really, any attempt to justify his actions falls flat.

So one of the things I’ve been learning about reading OT narrative recently is the typology and repeated themes at play in any slice of narrative. So if we start at Genesis 3, the key players are:

  • God (the godly authority/truth),
  • the woman (the deceived/rebel),
  • the snake (the deceiver),
  • the tree (the forbidden item/action/person)
  • and the man (the enabler/partaker).

Just to be clear, the Bible isn’t saying all women are deceived and all men are enablers etc!! What it is showing are that these roles are then in play throughout the entire of the OT. Sometimes characters might move between these roles within the same narrative. At any point, the narrative is highlighting some key issues at play.

So for example in Exodus 32:1-6 we have Yahweh fulfilling his own role, the Israelites who fulfil both the snake’s role (demands and complaints that aren’t far from “did God really say…?”) and Eve’s role, and Aaron who to me looks like very much like Adam because he’s enabling the sin to proceed, and even aids in its fruition. And as we see in Romans 5:12, the finger is pointed at Adam “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin…”. As Adam is held responsible ultimately, so is Aaron. (I’m partly thinking Moses is a bit Adamesque by his absence during the rebellion, but perhaps that’s not the main message here).

These blatant and frustrating gaps in the narrative that leave us wondering things such as “what was Aaron thinking at this time”, “why did he concede so easily?”, “why did he direct his comments to the gods?”, “where’s his backbone??”, “doesn’t he have any integrity”, “I’m SO disappointed in him right now!” Etc, is purposely done. Robert Alter refers to this as the ‘Art of Reticence’ in his book, The Art of Biblical Narrative. He says,

The underlying biblical conception of people’s character is that they’re unpredictable, constantly emerging from and slipping back into ambiguity. Thus, biblical narrative style is marked by the art of reticence’.

We are forced to fill in the gaps ourselves as we read, and often find ourselves in the narrative with our own human tendencies being reflected to us. From this, we learn that God is both indiscriminate in his judgement and his mercy. So in answer to your question, I wonder if the Bible is getting us to ask about the fairness, how would we have judged in that instance, would we have fallen in the same way, what is God showing us about his nature of absolute grace, especially later in verse 14 when he relents from wiping them out. I’m amazed by the fact that God knows exactly what’s been going on down there and still releases Moses to take the tablets of the covenant down the mountain to the people. God hands over the gift, the privilege of the covenant to a people are at that very moment turning their backs on him. I find it overwhelming, because I see myself as Aaron and the Israelites, and I see God reaching out with his covenant of grace despite me!

1 Like

@alison @kathleen very thorough look at this passage about the graven image Aaron made. I find it interesting that though Aaron gave in to the people God did not chastise him for it and still became the high priest.

Aaron was what we call a people pleaser and caved to their demands which is why God chose Moses the younger brother.

So should we condemn him for his actions in creating that Idol?

Our instincts say yes he is just as guilty as those who provoked him, but we are not God who juges all things perfectly despite what we think should happen.

In conclusion thank you for asking for input I appreciate it.



Thank you both for your replies!

So true! And I do agree that he bears some responsibility for what transpired, even if he was intimidated or coerced into it all. He is a pleaser, sure, but what I also see him doing, though to little avail, is trying to keep the people from going off the rails completely. He makes compromises in hopes (it seems) that they would eventually see sense.

Interestingly, in Ex. 32:4 ESV “he” [Aaron] took the gold and fashioned it into an idol, but they declared “Israel, these are your gods!” Aaron may have been a part of the “they”; he may not have. But he is certainly guilty by association and participation.

And, @alison, thank you for your reflections on typology, reticence, and enabling. I now have a new lens through which to read the OT! :smile:

What I was noticing in my reading (after having reflected on the notion of “mediated messages” in another post!) were the degrees of relational separation from God of each character. Though God sometimes does speak directly to the people, he most often speaks directly to Moses. Or as the following chapter puts it, “…face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” (Ex. 33:11 ESV) And the people, for their part, mostly speak with Aaron. So the relational thread runs a bit like this:

people <-> Aaron <-> Moses <-> the LORD

Furthermore, way back when God was calling Moses to return to Egypt and set the Israelites free (and Moses was not having it), it was Aaron who was appointed to speak to the people on behalf of Moses and God because he could “speak well” (Ex. 4:14).

Ex. 4:15-16 You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him.

Ex. 4:30 Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people.

What an odd space for Aaron to be in! He’s not with Moses while Moses was in the tent of meeting or up on Sinai (that was Joshua’s role), he’s with the people. He’s in the dark in may ways like everyone else. I could really feel it when the people say, “As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Neither did Aaron! He must feel the terror (and perhaps anger?) of abandonment along with them.

So, even though Moses does speak directly to the people at the latter stages, Aaron will always be the primary figure for the people. Again, none of this excuses Aaron’s actions, but his relative relational remoteness (compared to Moses) from God makes it easier to him to “err on the side of grace” with (or, perhaps, enable?) the people. His role comes into being because of Moses’ own terror of the people.

At any rate, I’m sure there are lessons for us here, but, as @michael reminded, I am glad I am not the ultimate judge!

1 Like

Such interesting reflections, thank you! What struck me here is the truth in what you say: Moses was terrified and so Aaron was God’s personal provision and grace to Moses for speaking to Pharaoh and the people. Aaron was clearly gifted in this manner, and God utilised him according to this gifting. However, Aaron’s role wasn’t just spokesman to the Israelites on behalf of Moses; he was also to become spokesman on behalf of all Israel to God, aka the High Priest. I’m not sure he needed to be excelling in public oration in order to speak to God. So in fulfilling this half of his role, he is not doing so because Moses was too terrified. He was chosen by God directly and consecrated to serve him:

Have your brother Aaron, with his sons, come to you from the Israelites to serve me as priest - Aaron, his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. Make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for glory and beauty. You are to instruct all the skilled artisans, whom i have filled with a spirit of wisdom, to make Aaron’s garments for consecrating him to serve me as priest. Ex 28:1-3 CSB

Of course, at this moment in the story, he hasn’t yet been consecrated as High Priest.

It seems like Aaron is in his own private wilderness before stepping into the promised role as High Priest. In the book Bearing God’s Name by Carmen Imes, she refers a lot to the idea of being in a liminal space - a space of transition to a new identity/location but where it’s not actually begun to take place yet e.g. a wedding before the vicar has pronounced you man and wife, or an airport before you get to your destination. She writes of the Israelites,

If [the Israelite’s] response surprises us, it’s because we underestimate the disorientating effect of liminal spaces and because we overestimate our own stability.

She goes on to say,

Trust is not automatic, and God does not expect it to be. He patiently works on Israel’s behalf until they can see that he is worthy of their confidence… The wildnerness is his classroom. He has work to do in the Israelites that can only be done in a state of dislocation, in liminal space.

I wonder if what we see going on in Aaron in the Golden Calf debacle is a miniature scale of what we see happening with the whole of Israel during the 40 years. It’s like a snap-shot, or zoom in close of the bigger narrative. Perhaps we’re asking similar questions of Aaron - he’s not in one place, nor in another…he’s being kept in the dark…he makes wrong choices…he’s called to a greater role but hasn’t stepped into it yet… - just like we ask of the Israelites.

Maybe he needs to have experienced his own personal liminality between Moses/God and Israel so that he can more effectively mediate later on as High Priest?

1 Like