Aaron and the Golden Calf

The episode concerning Aaron and the golden calf (see Exodus 32-34) comes as quite a shock. Even its position in the Scripture record adds to the sense of disbelief as the narrative could be entirely removed without disturbing the flow, with Exodus 31 merging almost seamlessly into Exodus chapter 35. Only days before, the Children of Israel vowed: “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord” (Exodus 19:8). Now they were involved in wild debauchery. Aaron, brother and companion of the God-fearing Moses, was indulging in gross idolatry. So serious were the issues that the whole sorry story is referred to in several other parts of Scripture.

Why did it happen? What went wrong? There are so many behavioural issues that are hard to understand, so many questions, some being very difficult to answer. But we will examine some of these disturbing elements to see what we can learn for ourselves. The Apostle Paul invites us to do just that for, “all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

Why the public uprising?

Moses had disappeared into the cloud-enveloped heights of Mount Sinai. Forty days and nights would elapse before his return. At some unspecified time before that, the congregation became restless. Perhaps it was sudden fear as they felt leaderless and vulnerable in the wilderness. Faith can be very short-lived! The people craved for visible signs of worship and leadership, just as years later, the nation desired a king like the other nations. A large deputation was sent to Aaron to demand that he should make them gods. Stephen when speaking of Moses said: “This is he, that was in the church (Greek, ecclesia or assembly) in the wilderness … who received the lively oracles … to whom our fathers would not obey, but thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt, saying unto Aaron, Make us gods to go before us: for as for this Moses, which brought us out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him” (Acts 7:38-40).

What of our faith? Our Master and the captain of our salvation is invisible to us while at the right hand of the Father in heaven. Are we beginning to question his return? Are we growing restless and turning to the idols of this world? Are our hearts lusting for the things from which we have been called? Let us beware; our Lord will return and if we have lapsed and turned back, we will be judged and punished.

What was Aaron’s role?

Should we feel sympathy for Aaron? Was he bullied and coerced against his will and better judgement? Is there evidence that he was stalling for time to avert disaster? At first sight there are factors to support this view. He was asking the people to sacrifice their new-found wealth and perhaps even experience physical pain: “Break off (or tear off) the golden earrings” (Exodus 32:2). Instead of being deterred, to a man they complied and brought an abundance of gold to Aaron. Later, Isaiah would speak of the same sort of enthusiasm for god-making: “They lavish gold … and hire a goldsmith; he maketh it a god: they fall down, yea, they worship” (Isaiah 46:6).

The idea that Aaron was pushed into this action comes from Moses’ response upon his return from the mountain. In disbelief he asked Aaron: “What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them?” But Aaron could only feebly reply by blaming others: “Thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief” (Exodus 32:21,22). So he really had no excuse. But was he still stalling for time? Having made the calf and erecting an altar, he put off any worship of it until the next day, perhaps hoping that Moses would be back by then to prevent it happening. Stephen in his apology does slightly shift the emphasis away from Aaron when he says: “And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands” (Acts 7:41). But ultimately Aaron had responsibility for what happened, which raises questions as to the apparent lack of punishment, which we consider later.

Why a golden calf?

“They made a calf in Horeb, and worshipped the molten image. Thus they changed their glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass” (Psalm 106:19,20). The children of Israel had lived for four hundred years among the Egyptians. They would have been familiar with their superstitions and religious practices. Yet despite having seen so many of the plagues directed against the gods of Egypt, there was a belief that they still had power and should be worshipped. The god in mind on this occasion is uncertain, but is most likely the cow-goddess Hathor. She was depicted either as a calf adorned with the plumes of Re, the sun god, or as a woman with the horns of a cow or calf. She was the goddess of love, happiness, dance and music, which might explain the activities that followed the creation of the idol.

Calf worship was prevalent among the biblical nations, and much later, Jeroboam became infamous for introducing calf worship in the northern kingdom: “Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan. And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan” (1 Kings 12:28-30).

What did the calf represent?

It might have lessened the burden of guilt upon Aaron for him to have considered the calf merely as a simple representation of Yahweh. It was announced with the phrase: “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4), words which were closely copied by Jeroboam as we have just read. It appears that this statement was made by the multitude and not by Aaron. The terms “gods”, which is singular in many recent translations, is simply elohim, which in ninety percent of occurrences is used of God Himself. We may give the benefit of doubt and presume that this was a misguided attempt to worship Yahweh. Indeed, Aaron took control by making a proclamation that the next day was to be a feast day to Yahweh. The day started with the people bringing burnt sacrifices and peace offerings, but soon degenerated into an opportunity for sexual immorality. Here was an extreme amalgamation of true and heathen religious worship. How careful we must be that ungodly elements do not creep into our worship. The religious world about us is full of examples to varying degrees,

Why did Aaron escape unpunished?

There are many examples in Scripture of the immediate judgement of God, often resulting in the death of the sinner. Sometimes these seem unfair to our natural way of thinking. For example, we feel sympathy for Uzzah, who in an involuntary action shot out his hand to steady the ark to prevent it toppling from the cart that was carrying it. He died for his presumption (see 2 Samuel 6:6,7).

Aaron after his gross sin went on to become high priest. Jeroboam who committed a similar trespass, went on to reign over Israel for 22 years. In the case under consideration, God’s intention was to destroy the people, including Aaron. But Moses, before he left the mountain to see the awful scene below, interceded on their behalf (see Exodus 32:11-13). The outcome was that “the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people” (verse 14). A limited slaughter did take place, but only after an opportunity for repentance following the rallying cry, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Let him come unto me” (verse 26).

However, Aaron suffered in seeing the death of two of his four sons: “And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron … offered strange fire before the Lord … And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1,2). A similar fate befell Jeroboam: “At that time Abijah the son of Jeroboam fell sick. And Jeroboam said to his wife … get thee to Shiloh: behold, there is Ahijah the prophet … When Ahijah heard the sound of her feet … he said, Come in, thou wife of Jeroboam; … for I am sent to thee with heavy tidings. Go, tell Jeroboam … the child shall die” (1 Kings 14:1-12). Again, David, after his sin with Bathsheba, confessed: “I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die” (2 Samuel 12:13,14). The sons of Aaron were of a responsible age, but the slaying of innocent children, sons of David and Jeroboam, raises questions for which there are no easy answers. But beware – although our sinful deeds may be forgiven, the results of our actions can have far-reaching consequences for others.

Perhaps that sobering thought provides a fitting conclusion to our study. We must remain faithful to our calling, and strive to follow our Master the Lord Jesus, not just for our own wellbeing, but that we might be an influence for good and not evil on those about us.

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