(Lectionary for October 15, 2017)
Once again we face perhaps the single best written narrative in the Hebrew Bible. This classic of biblical storytelling has a rich cast of characters, a stunning plot line, hilarious scenes of a lying weasel, and an all-too-familiar connection with modern life as we see it today. One short article can never hope to encompass all the wonders of this tale, a story that must include all of chapter 32, but can at best focus attention on one of the threads that make up the full tapestry the pericope presents. I choose today to hone in on Aaron, Moses’ deputized agent (or in other traditions the lawgiver’s brother), and to watch him as his machinations threaten to wreck the march of Israel to the land promised by YHWH. In fact, Aaron’s reprehensible actions at the base of the sacred mountain force YHWH nearly to destroy the chosen people once and for all. His duplicity and cowardice set Israel on the road of confrontation with the God whose hopes for this people are nothing less than universal salvation for the entire world, as Genesis 12:3 had promised so long before.
At Ex. 24:14 Moses announces to the elders of Israel that he and Joshua have been summoned to attend YHWH on the sacred mountain and that “Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” In other words, Aaron and Hur are Moses’s appointed agents to address any problems in the community that may arise while the lawgiver is absent.
A problem very quickly arises. “When the people saw that Moses was shamefully delayed to descend the mountain, the people mobbed against Aaron, and said to him, ‘Get up! Make gods for us who will walk before us! About this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what it is with him’” (Ex.32:1)! This line is filled with delightful and dangerous misrepresentations. First, the people are rude; they do not greet Aaron at all but begin their conversation with demands. Second, I have added the word “shamefully” to the usual translations, because the Hebrew verb’s usual meaning is shame. In other words, in the eyes of the people Moses has delayed his return to them for some sorts of shameful, though unstated, reasons. Third, the people demand that Aaron make “gods” for them, thereby rejecting the God, YHWH, who led them out of Egypt (the very first of the Ten Commandments, we remember—Ex.20:2). Fourth, they name Moses “the man who brought us out of Egypt,” avoiding the name of God altogether and accusing Moses of taking them away from the safety of Egypt to the dangers of the wilderness. Fifth, they claim that they “do not know what it is with him” (a literal reading), though they have been told that he is on the sacred mountain to talk with YHWH.
Aaron, if he has listened at all carefully, to the mob’s whining demands, should have more than enough ammunition to adjudicate this rather pathetic dispute. He does not. Rather he acts in ways that at first seem very peculiar. He demands from them all the gold they have, gold given to them by the terrified Egyptians in their escape from that land after YHWH has sent the monstrous plagues upon the Egyptians. Once Aaron has received the gold, he melts it all in a mold and carefully shapes the molten gold into a lovely molten calf. The people take one look at the calf and immediately shout, “These are you gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Ex.32:4)! When Aaron saw that, he built a YHWH altar in front of the calf and shouted over the din, “Tomorrow will be a festival for YHWH” (Ex.32:5)! So the next day, they all “rose early and offered whole burnt offerings and brought peace offering sacrifices,” Aaron presumably leading the people in these traditional acts of Hebrew worship.
But then something peculiar happens. “The people sat down to eat and drink,” we are told, a delightful dinner on the grounds after worship which seems innocent enough. The fact that it is the “people” who join in this repast implies that Aaron is no longer among them. He apparently has retired to the manse for prayer or perhaps has simply washed his soiled hands of the whole thing. In any event, Aaronless and godless, “the people rose up to laugh” (Ex.32:6). The verb that is used is the same one used to form the name Isaac, hence my translation “laugh.” Laughter was healing and cleansing for the ancient couple Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 21, but at Genesis 26:8, this same verb is often translated “fondling,” suggesting an act of sexual intimacy. Surely, it has that meaning here. The people are now engaged in lewd acts at the base of the mountain, cavorting before their beloved calf; Aaron has left the scene entirely.
But, of course, all of this began with Aaron’s refusal or inability to handle the dispute of the people in the first place. He had every chance to confront the ridiculous demands of the people at the beginning of the scene, but failed utterly to do so. In any number of ways, he might have reminded them of where the great Moses was, might have recited for them the First Commandment, might have shown them the multiple errors of their opening speech, might have done anything but shape a molten calf. In short, Aaron was the worst possible choice that Moses could have made for a solver of disputes. But Aaron, of course, did not die a long time ago. He is alive and well and living in me and perhaps in you.
I have spent too much of my life running from disputes. I would rather do anything than confront speeches or actions that will create anger and chaos in any community of which I am a part. I see myself fully in Aaron. Let’s smooth it over, I say; let’s all calm down, let’s all just relax and get along. But angry words and actions are often means whereby serious disagreement surfaces, and makes possible genuine adjudication of problems. To run from anger, to avoid conflict, is to allow it to fester, to grow, and to make progress toward healing impossible. In Aaron’s case, his fear of conflict led directly to a serious breach with God, with Moses, and the people. Without Moses’ later offer to give himself to YHWH for the sin of the people (Ex.32:32), there was every possibility that YHWH would have destroyed the calf-builders and calf- worshippers root and branch and started over with Moses and a clean slate (Ex.32:7-10). Conflict can be the cauldron out of which true understanding and genuine justice may appear.
Aaron’s actions and words put Israel on a road to disaster. It is said that the chief personality type that is called into ministry is that person who wants to be loved and who desires thereby to avoid all conflict. Yet, all of you pastors know well that the church is a
hot house of conflict. Unless you are able and willing to confront those conflicts, your ministry will be a source of anguish and frustration, rather than a place of fruitful joy and peace. Aaron cannot be your model for ministry. Look carefully at the origins of conflicts as they present themselves and confront it with hardheaded love. And know always that God is with you in the fray.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)