Ragging on Aaron - Reflections on Exodus 32:1-14
by Dr. John Holbert on Thursday, October 12, 2023
Ragging on Aaron
I have written more than a few words on Ex.32 over the years, but never tire of reading it and reflecting on it. It is one of the Bible’s best written chapters, a veritable model of the artistry of the narrators of the Hebrew Bible. Its style is so subtle, and so rich, that one all-to-brief essay can scarcely do much justice to it, so typically I will choose some small bits and attempt to make it sing, however cracked my tune may turn out to be.
The plot is clear enough. Moses has gone up the mountain of Horeb/Sinai to confer with God, as Ex.24 announces. 40 days pass, and the ever-complaining Israelites “mob” up to Aaron (the verb used in Ex.32:1 may contain that connotation) and demands that he make them “gods who will go before us.” Now Aaron has been deputized by Moses to deal with any disputes that may arise in his absence, and this is certainly a dispute! The request for some “gods,” designed to displace the God YHWH “who has lead them up from the land of Egypt,” as the 1st Commandment plainly states (Ex.20:2), is nothing less than an atheistic jibe. We might expect Aaron to make short work of such a hideous demand, and say something like, “Just who do you think you are, you scum,” or “Let us pray” (he is after all some sort of priest), or anything to deflect them from this seeming short-sighted attempt to get some so-called gods to bow down to. They appear to believe what Frederick Buechner said so well: “A god in the hand is worth two in the bush!”
But Aaron does not reply in any overt religious terms. He instead demands from the roiling mob that they “take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of their wives, sons, and daughters, and bring it here.” They do, and he takes the gold—-despoiled from the Egyptians, you remember—and “shapes it in a mold,” as Robert Alter translates, assuming the word that normally means an “engraving tool” here has a different meaning. Whatever it may mean, Aaron takes considerable time in forming (the verb is always used for the work of an artisan) that gold into a molten calf. Immediately upon seeing the lovely little calf, the people exclaim, “These are your gods, Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Ex.32:4). The phrase is doubly atheistic, since not only have they rejected the real God who did in fact bring them out of Egypt, but have at the same time substituted this golden object for YHWH, and claimed, absurdly, that the calf has brought them out.
And Aaron’s answer to all that nonsensical talk? “A feast to YHWH tomorrow” (Ex.32:5)! He has unleashed the monster and now tries to make something of a very bad situation. Dutifully, the people gather in the morning, and are apparently led by priest Aaron in offering both whole burnt offerings and shalom offerings to YHWH (Ex.32:6), but then the text notes with rich subtlety that “the people sat down to eat and drink” (Aaron has retired to the manse for prayer?), and then, they got up to…” What they do after dinner on the grounds is “play” (RSV), or “revel” (NRSV). This is the same verb found in Gen. 26:8 where Isaac, like his father before him, claimed that Rebekah was his sister and not his wife. However, when Abimelech, king of the Philistines, catches the two of them “tschaching,” he concludes that these are not siblings at all! The narrator of Exodus leaves the creation of the scene of revelry at the base of the mountain up to us, and our own debauched minds!
Later in the tale, Moses confronts Aaron with his ridiculous acts for the people, asking “What did this people do to you that you brought on them a great sin” (Ex.32:21)? Aaron answers by first saying that who better than Moses knows just how terrible these particular people are; literally he says, “the people are with sin,” that is they live in sin, they swim in sin (Ex.32:22). “I asked them if they had any gold (no talk of his demanding quite specifically that they give him the Egyptian gold), and I tossed it in the fire and out popped this calf”(Ex.32:24)! This is of course one of the Bible’s greatest and most hilarious lies. The careful fashioning of the molten calf by Aaron is pushed aside by the so-called random act of the fire.
But why? Why is Aaron portrayed here as the enabler of human sin, as the purveyor of evil, as the maker of one of the Bible’s most notorious and memorable objects of sin? In other words, who wrote this story? On the one hand, that is a question we can never answer. On the other, a literary answer may be surmised. Aaron is drawn here as the foil to Moses. Aaron calls the people profoundly evil and attempts to weasel his way out of responsibility for the disaster he has promulgated. Moses, on the contrary, fully recognizes the shortcomings of the people—he agrees with Aaron in that way—but his answer to their obvious evil is profoundly different. Instead of trying to wash his hands of them, Moses heads back up the mountain to talk to YHWH, and in one of the Bible’s greatest scenes, either offers his life on their behalf, or simply refuses to live in a world where YHWH does not forgive sin; the text could be read either way (Ex.32:32). Though YHWH flatly refuses his offer, it takes nothing away from the magnificent offer it is. Aaron is reduced to conniving and a poor priest indeed, while Moses in the face of the people, Aaron, and a furious YHWH risks all for the sake of the people. That reality still cannot tell us just who wrote the story, but it can help us hear its value. The moral? Be like Moses, and not like Aaron. In that comparison, any preacher can find rich resources for a sermon.