There are many layers to the pivotal narrative of Exodus 32. The chapter starts out, "When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, 'Up, make us gods...'" I've often thought that this reflected early church history. When Jesus did not return immediately, the church headed off to the idol-worship in which we now see Rome firmly embedded.
But let us focus on Aaron's response to the situation. As Moses' second-in-command and designated High Priest, it fell to him to lead the people in Moses' absence. He is faced with a crisis. He must respond; and respond he does. In so doing, Aaron gives us a virtual How-to manual in bad leadership.
So if you want to lead like Aaron led — well, God help you, and God help those you lead. But here's how to do it:
- Give the people what they want, regardless (vv. 2ff.). Or, we could word it this way: "Allow your leadership to be driven by the people's felt needs." Now, as we discussed earlier over at my blog, Aaron had already seen that the masses could be flat-out dead wrong. He knew they'd already been as fickle as a presidential candidate. But they were there, visible, loud, and right in front of him. At the moment, God was none of those things. So Aaron went with the loud and visible.
- Give yourself "cover" (v. 4). Aaron is slicker than a pig in a Vaseline factory here. Translators and interpreters ever since have puzzled over whether they said "These are your gods" (ESV), meaning the golden calf; or "this is your God" (CSB, NAS), meaning that Yahweh was riding invisibly upon the calf. Because of the regular use of the plural-form 'elohim to indicate God, 'elleh 'eloheyka could equally mean "These are your gods," or "This is your God."
And who's to say that Aaron didn't embrace the ambiguity? It all depends on what the meaning of 'elohim is. Given the cowardice Aaron shows throughout, isn't that even more natural? He doesn't argue with them, per se. He may well have thought, "Well, I'm not saying this calf is a god. I know God is invisible. I can't help it if they do something wicked with this." And if they plunge themselves into spiritual ruin (as a result of his caving in)—what of it? That's on them, right? Aaronic thinking.
- Par-tay (v. 5)! Aaron has just caved in to the people's idolatrous cravings... and now he proclaims a feast to Yahweh! Had Yahweh authorized this feast? In no way. (I wonder: is this where Nadab and Abihu got the idea that it's okay to "make it up as we go along" [Leviticus 10] in worshiping Yahweh?) Everyone likes a party. Plus, this further mollifies Aaron's conscience ("See? I never said idolatry was okay. I called for a feast to Yahweh!")
- When it goes bad, blame everyone and everything but yourself (vv. 22-24). This little speech of Aaron's has to go right up there with Adam hiding behind a bush from the Creator of the bush, and the blame-shifting that followed ("It was the woman You gave me!" — "It was the snake!"). First, Aaron blames the people (v. 22). Yes, that would be the people whose lead he, the leader, just followed. It's their fault. Second, Aaron implicitly blames Moses for staying away so long—and, in so doing, blames the people for blaming Moses (v. 23)! Got to give him this: the guy's slick.
"I did not have idolatry with those people, the nation of Israel. I never told anyone to commit idolatry, not a single time, never. These allegations are false and I need to go back to work for the Israelite people."Hmm.... Well, anyway, Third, Aaron blames the calf (24)! Well, he blames the calf, the fire, the gold; it's hard to tell. "I threw it in the fire, and, darnedest thing, out came this calf. Shazam."
- Overall, give a selective narrative (v. 24). "Out came this calf." In a sense, that's true. A very, very tortured sense. Moses obviously wasn't buying, since his history had already observed that Aaron "received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf" (v. 4). Oopsie. Aaron left that part out. "But I didn't deny it!" he might have said, when confronted. (Slick.)
But Aaron didn't. He panicked. He gave in, unctuously working out a way to see himself as not responsible, every step of the way. "I'm not the bad guy here." Did Aaron care about Yahweh? Did he care about the people? Maybe. But not nearly enough.
Now, many modern applications are jostling about in my mind. I think many of them are fairly obvious. Every church movement, every fad born primarily of "felt needs" gained by polling (i.e. the lust to be popular), rather than eternal truths and principles gained by Biblical study (i.e the passion for God and His glory), has Aaron as its forefather. I'll leave it to our very sharp readers to comment further on specific applications.
But before leaving off, let me point out something. In every type, every foreshadowing of the person and work of the Lord Jesus, there are designed connections, and designed disconnections.
For instance, consider the sacrificial system. The sacrifice was physically perfect, vicarious, and bloody; these are connections. But they were animal sacrifices, they did not purchase full forgiveness, they had to be repeated; these are disconnections. Both connections and disconnections point forward to the immeasurably greater glory of Christ.
So Aaron stands as High Priest, representing the people before God. Even while Aaron is preparing to defect so miserably, up in the mountain, God dictates to Moses a design for a garment which twice depicts the fact that he carries the people on his heart and shoulders before Yahweh (Exodus 28:9ff; 39:14). That is Aaron's priestly duty. It is a point of connection to Christ. It all points forward to the Lord Jesus, who also carries His people's names on His heart before the Father in Heaven (Hebrews 7:25).
Yet Aaron failed miserably in this office. Aaron cared about Aaron. He did not care, above all, for Yahweh and His people. He could not bear that burden himself. He was not sufficient. And in this, too, Aaron points forward to Christ, who never failed those He led by giving over to their shifting will (Matthew 16:21-23), and who did not allow the most Hellacious torment in history to drive Him from performing every last work that His priestly care for them required (John 12:27-28; 13:1; 17; Hebrews 2:14-15; etc.).
Aaron's personal example would point us one way. Christ's entire character, life and ministry would point us in the opposite direction.
Which shall we choose to emulate?