Leaders demonstrate their character more clearly in adversity than in prosperity. Contrast the vacillation of Aaron with the faithfulness of Moses during Israel’s delayed expectations.
When Moses failed to come back down the mountain right away, the people went to Aaron. “Look,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. This man Moses, who brought us here from Egypt, has disappeared. We don’t know what has happened to him” (Exodus 32:1).
Fed up with waiting, the people demanded immediate action. Moses was out of sight and they were out of faith. Unfortunately, when he should have stood strong, Aaron caved to their demands for visible, multiple gods and collected their offerings.
Then Aaron took the gold, melted it down, and molded and tooled it into the shape of a calf. The people exclaimed, O Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt (vs 4). Although he would later claim that a miraculous occurrence produced the golden calf, Scripture describes Aaron actively fashioning the idol and, subsequently, leading the congregation in false worship. When Aaron saw how excited the people were about it, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the people got up early the next morning to sacrifice . . . After this, they celebrated with feasting and drinking, and indulged themselves in pagan revelry (vs. 5-6).
Heaven, however, was not caught unaware by their rebellion. Then the Lord told Moses, “Quick! Go down the mountain! The people you brought from Egypt have defiled themselves. They have already turned from the way I commanded them to live. They have made an idol shaped like a calf, and they have worshiped and sacrificed to it. They are saying, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.’” Then the Lord said, “I have seen how stubborn and rebellious these people are. Now leave me alone so my anger can blaze against them and destroy them all. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation instead of them” (vs 7-10).
The wages of sin is death and God was fully prepared to penalize Israel for their rebellion, a sin He declares equal to witchcraft. But as a true pastor, Moses began to intercede, asking that his own life be cut off if God could not spare the people. Moses even urged God’s own reputation as reason to spare the people. But Moses pleaded with the Lord his God not to do it . . . “The Egyptians will say, ‘God tricked them into coming to the mountains so he could kill them and wipe them from the face of the earth.’ Turn away from your fierce anger. Change your mind about this terrible disaster you are planning against your people! Remember your covenant.” So the Lord withdrew His threat (vs. 11-14).
Just as God had previously responded to Abraham’s entreaties for Sodom, He now extended mercy in response to Moses’ plea. Mercy did not avert judgement, however. Moses saw the calf and the dancing. In terrible anger, he threw the stone tablets to the ground, smashing them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf they had made and melted it in the fire. And when the metal had cooled, he ground it into powder and mixed it with water. Then he made the people drink it (vs. 19-20).
Notice their radically different leadership styles as Moses demands accountability from Aaron who tries to shift the blame for his own behavior to the people. “What did the people do to you?” he demanded. “How did they ever make you bring such terrible sin upon them?” (vs. 21).
“Don’t get upset, sir,” Aaron replied. “You yourself know these people and what a wicked bunch they are. They said to me, ‘Make us some gods to lead us, for something has happened to this man Moses, who led us out of Egypt.’ So I told them, Bring me your gold earrings. When they brought them to me, I threw them into the fire and out came this calf!” (vs. 22-24). Imagine! Aaron’s apostasy is so bound up with the rebellion that he declares his own efforts (the basis of every false religion is salvation by works) to be a miraculous consequence.
Aaron’s leadership failure coupled with the nation’s rebellion demanded a call for repentance and reformation, especially in light of the scandal their behavior had brought upon God’s name and reputation in full view of nonbelieving enemies.
So Moses confronted the issue directly. When Moses saw that Aaron had let the people get completely out of control and much to the amusement of their enemies, he stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, “All of you who are on the Lord’s side, come over here and join me.” And all the Levites came (vs 25-26).
Today, when our Lord’s return appears delayed, God still seeks leaders who will discern the truth, stand for right, and call for radical faithfulness to God’s plan. How will you and I lead?
James A. Cress General Conference Ministerial Association Secretary