One of the most memorable events in the whole Bible is recorded in Exodus 32 – the Israelites worshipping a golden calf at Mount Sinai. When you think about it, what Israel did on that occasion really was incredible. Why? Because of where it took place – at a site that God had consecrated (Exodus 19:23). Why was it incredible? Because of what Israel already knew – that it was wrong to worship idols (Exodus 20:1-4). It was also amazing because of what Moses was doing at the time – he was on Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments in written form from Jehovah (Exodus 31:18). Perhaps what made it most incredible was who it was that led Israel in making the golden calf – Aaron, Israel’s first high priest.
When Aaron helped the Israelites make and worship a golden calf, he failed both his brethren and the God of heaven. On this occasion, Aaron failed in the kind of leadership that he offered. Through Aaron’s influence, the Israelites “corrupted themselves” and “turned aside quickly out of the way” that God commanded them (Exodus 32:7,8). In fact, the Bible indicates that Aaron not only played a role in the making of the idol, but he himself was the one who was ultimately responsible for the sin of Israel in this instance. Aaron is the one that told the people to bring their gold to him, then “he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf” (Exodus 32:4). What were the consequences? “So the Lord plagued the people because of what they did with the calf which Aaron made” (Exodus 32:35). Who made it? Aaron did.
What kind of leadership did Israel deserve to receive from Aaron? Godly leadership that stood committed to guiding the nation in adhering to God’s law. Instead, what they got from Aaron was spiritually weak guidance that helped take them into sin. As a leader, Aaron should have stood against any sinful proposal that the people presented. The people appealed to him, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us . . .” (Exodus 32:1). Let’s face it: Aaron compromised the truth.
In order to stand against error or sinful practices, leaders of God’s people must have knowledge of His word (Isaiah 5:20). Beyond that, God’s leaders must seek to please Him instead of men (Acts 5:29). Why did Aaron make the golden calf? Because the people wanted it! We must ask, “Aaron, what were you thinking?!” God’s faithful servants seek to please Him and not humans (Galatians 1:10). Furthermore, leaders of God’s nation must have the courage to make the choices that are in the best spiritual interest of the Lord’s Cause. Having knowledge about the proper course of action is essential, but not sufficient. The Lord’s leaders must not allow the spirit of fear to prevent them from doing what is right in the Lord’s sight (2 Timothy 1:7). Aaron had the opportunity to stop Israel from even beginning the disastrous process of worshipping a false god. When he failed to step up and speak out, he failed: he failed both his people and his Lord. Sometimes the leaders of God’s people must declare boldly to those who want to bring in unscriptural practices, “We are going to do what the Bible teaches, and we are not going to add anything to it. And, it does not matter who opposes us, who gets mad, or how many people threaten to leave the congregation. We are going to stick with God’s way because it is right.” Aaron could have done that, too, but he chose not to.
In the golden calf fiasco, Aaron also failed the test of honesty. When Aaron tried to explain to his brother, Moses, about what took place, part of what he said was accurate: “For they said to me, Make us gods that shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:23). On the other hand, Aaron was not totally honest in what he said. He told Moses, “And I said to them, Whoever has any gold, let them break it off. So they gave it to me, and I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out” (Exodus 32:24). So, presto, poof, magic, the calf just came out of the fire. Did Aaron really expect Moses and God to believe such a fairy tale? Here is a lesson to remember. God’s people must have total confidence in the integrity of their leaders. When leaders lose the reputation of being honest, they lose their influence and lose their followship. At times it seems that the devil turns up the pressure on us to lie, but we must not give in to the temptation to do so. Jehovah is a God of truth, and He expects us to be truthful, too (Deuteronomy 32:4).
Aaron failed in another way by not taking responsibility for his actions. He blamed the Israelites for making and worshipping the golden calf, saying, “You know the people, that they are set on evil” (Exodus 32:22). The people? What about you, Mr. Leader? You are the one that told them what to do and then you carved the idol yourself. The people? Aaron, you sound like Adam and Eve trying to blame their sin on others (Genesis 3). Yes, it is easier to point an accusing finger at others, but God’s leaders must be brave enough to admit their faults. God’s people have a lot more respect for leaders that admit their failures than they do for those who deny them or try to hide them. Let us all remember that we personally are responsible for what we do, and the God of heaven holds us accountable for our actions (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Aaron had some real bright spots in his life. His role in the golden calf debacle was not one of them. Let us not forget that this was all recorded in the Bible for our benefit (1 Corinthians 10:7,11).
— Roger D. Campbell
TRUTH is published monthly by the Klang church of Christ in order to help educate, edify, encourage, and equip the saints of God.