Saturday, February 1, 2014

Aaron Was Not God's Choice


Aaron’s Call: A Divine Reluctance

            Aaron was not God’s choice.

            God’s initial intention was to use Moses alone to deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage.  No second fiddles allowed.  However, Moses was not confident he could contend as the superior power against Pharaoh.  Therefore, he insisted, over God’s objections and assurances, another should be chosen arguing his own unfitness for the task (Ex 3:11; 4:10-13).  “Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses,” [1] and in such agitation, God called Aaron (Ex. 4:14).

God’s frustration at having to concede to Moses’ insecurity seems apparent by the abruptness of His call to Aaron, “Go to meet Moses in the mountain” (Ex 4:27).  There are no explanations given and indications that God called him out politely.  No “Mighty man of valor.”  Not even, “Aaron, I need you.”  Just, “Go meet your brother!”  God angrily and reluctantly chose him.

Presenting themselves to the leaders of Israel.  Aaron, as spokesman for Moses, performs the miraculous signs as evidence of their commission and God’s ability to deliver (Ex 4:29-30).  Whatever importance one attaches to Aaron’s position, it needs to be remembered that God angrily and reluctantly chose him.

Aaron and Moses' Contest with Pharaoh

Their first challenge to Pharaoh is unsuccessful.  Pharaoh chides them for encouraging the people to laxity in their toil by making such a ridiculous request as to let the people go to worship their God and, in response, makes the effective performance of their imperial labors practically impossible (Ex 5:4-9).  The men of Israel angrily blame Moses and Aaron and, dejected, Moses goes to the Lord in prayer (Ex 5:20-22).  In response, God confirms Moses as deliverer, Aaron as his spokesman, His pledge to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, and commands Moses to resume his demand upon Pharaoh with Aaron handling the staff in demonstration of God’s power over the gods of Egypt (Ex 6:1-13; 7:1-8). 

As the contest ensues (Ex 6-14), God speaks to Moses and Aaron 5 times (Ex 6:13; 7:8; 9:8; 12:1, 43).  In contrast, God and Moses speak alone with each other 22 times (Ex 6:1-2, 10; 7:1, 14, 19; 8:1, 5, 16, 20; 9:1, 13, 22; 10:1, 12, 21, 11:1, 9; 13:1; 14:1, 15, 26).  Note, for example, Exodus 8:12-13: “After Moses and Aaron left Pharaoh, Moses cried to the Lord…And the Lord did what Moses asked[2] (See also v.30-31; 9:33; 10:18-19).  The texts make it clear that Aaron’s role is incidental.  Moses is divinely appointed.  Aaron was not in God’s original plan for Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.

Aaron’s Inconspicuous Leadership In the Wilderness

Finally, Israel is delivered out of Egypt (Ex 6:6; 14:30).  In Exodus, chapters 15 through 19, the narrative shows God speaking to Moses alone 13 times, while no mention is made of God talking with Aaron alone or together with Moses.  By reading Exodus 16:6 and 9, it is assumed that Moses instructs Aaron what to say to the congregation.  In any case, the text places little emphasis on Aaron’s role, distinguishing Moses as Israel’s chosen deliverer.

Aaron’s stature as spokesman dwindles further.  During Joshua’s battle with the Amalekites (Ex 17:8ff), Aaron stays back to support Moses’ hands.  Though Aaron’s role in the battle was no less important than Joshua’s commanding it, Joshua is the one receiving the honor of defeating the enemy (Ex 17:13).  Later, Joshua is given the privilege of accompanying Moses up Mt. Sinai.  Aaron takes a backseat below the mount (Ex 24:13-14).

Aaron and the Golden Calf

            Finally, Israel is delivered out of Egypt (Ex 6:6; 14:30) and this great company walks toward the promised land of Canaan.  In Ex 32, we see Israel’s first major crisis.  Here Aaron takes center stage with a flair for the dramatic and, with further glimpses in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, his character appears, unfortunately, in an utterly shameful light.           

The people complain because Moses delayed to return from the mountain he must be dead.  They clamor Aaron for a divine replacement (v. 1).  In explicit violation of the Decalogue (Ex 20:23), Aaron makes a “molten calf” and calls the people to an orgy of worship.  God tells Moses of their apostasy and intends to kill them all but Moses intercedes and God relents.  In hot displeasure Moses smashes the tablets of the Law on the ground.

To justify himself, Aaron blames the people, saying, they are “prone to evil” (v. 22).  However, Moses recognizes Aaron’s dishonesty determining it to be his fault they were “out of control”.  The Lord was angry enough with Aaron to kill him on the spot!  Only Moses’ intercession saved him (Deut 9:20). 
Returning to God in the mountain, Moses makes his famous plea: “…forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book…” (Ex 32:32).  However, God refuses to ignore their offense, demands punishment and strikes them with a plague “because of what they did with the calf, which Aaron had made.”  

From the above brief survey, note Aaron’s character showing his:
1.      Cowardice as a leader for God.  He is quick to appease the people (v.1-3).
2.      Duplicity as a worshipper of God.  He is quick to make an idol (v. 4a).
3.      Contempt towards God.  He is quick to equate God with creation (v. 4b).
4.      Debasement of God.  He is quick to organize an orgy (v. 5-6b)[i].
5.      Impudence against God.  He is quick to sacrifice to an idol (v. 6a).
6.      Impenitence before God.  He is quick to be glib with sin (v. 22 a).
7.      Sanctimoniousness with God.  He is quick to blame others (v. 22b-23).
8.      Dishonesty with God.  He is quick to play innocent (v. 24).

The gravity of Aaron’s sin in is shown with greater repugnance against the backdrop of Moses’ sympathy with God’s displeasure.   More revolting is Aaron’s attempt to blame the people when contrasted with Moses’ willingness to die for them as atonement for sin.

The narrative continues into Ex 33-34 where on Mt. Sinai, God reestablishes His favor and covenant to Israel.  Due to Aaron’s great failure, the next section (Ex 35-40) depicts Moses, without a spokesman, assembling Israel, rehearsing the Law, and building the tabernacle.  Once completed, the text does not read Moses and Aaron but only “Moses finished the work” (Ex 40:33).

Aaron’s Personal Tragedy

            In Leviticus 8-9, it is enlightening to note that allowing Aaron and his sons to “become high priest despite his sin in making the golden calf (and later trying to avoid responsibility for it) is testimony to the forgiving nature of God...”[4]

            Unfortunately, in chapter 10, despite God’s forgiving nature, Aaron’s character deteriorates further.  God kills two of Aaron’s sons for offering “unauthorized fire” (v. 1-2).  Moses told Aaron that such judgment is against those who do not approach the Lord with reverence consistent with His holiness (v. 3).  Some interpret Moses’ pronouncement as excessively harsh.  Penchansky contends that:

‘It serves them right’ we might imagine Moses saying.  ‘YHWH is perfectly justified in what he has done!’  To say such a thing to a parent whose children have just been destroyed before his eyes is insensitive to the extreme.[5]

            The Bible records Aaron’s response as silence.  Some view this silence as “bitter resignation or else active rebellion.”[6]  Salting the wound, Moses instructs Aaron to bury his sons without mourning (v. 6).  Sometime after, Moses finds out that Aaron and his sons did not eat from a certain sacrifice as proscribed.  Infuriated he rebukes them, arguing that such a violation incurs judgment against all Israel (vs. 16-20).  However,

Aaron’s response is a plea of moral uncleanness…Affected by his dead sons’ sinful deed and, in Hebr[rew] thought, a sharer in their guilt, he did not enjoy a state of holiness compatible with the sin offering repast.  The response appeases Moses’ anger.[7]

Aaron felt unworthy to eat the meal and, desiring to prevent further violation of God’s sacredness for fear of further acts of judgment against him and his family, he pleads with Moses for understanding and Moses complies with his wishes (v. 20). 

Interpreted in another interesting and viable way, Aaron’s response to Moses is “sharp in his bitter anger.”[8]  Fearing God may find such defilement[9] on him because of the death of his sons, rather than partake of the sacrifice, he burns it thoroughly.  He is not taking any chances.  “For Moses, all that YHWH does is good.  For Aaron, YHWH is dangerous, and the rules must be bent a bit to avoid further contact with YHWH.”[10]

In either case, Aaron is can be pictured as one who is:

1.      Afraid of God, not so much in reverence, as in dread.
2.      Bitter toward God for a seemingly harsh judgment and undeserved rebuke.
3.      In mute rebellion with a heart too bitter against One too strong. 

Aaron Sides with Miriam in Rebellion Against Moses

In Num 12, Aaron sides with his sister Miriam in rebellion against Moses.  The Lord is angry and punishes Miriam only.  Aaron prays for her healing but is denied.  Aaron continues to be seen in bad light, not only as one easily influenced into rebellion (because of bitterness?) but also as one unable to fulfill the office of a priest in failing to obtain forgiveness for another.

Aaron and the Spies: An Imperceptible Change

Aaron, in Num 13-14, makes a subtle change for the better.  The spies sent on reconnaissance into Canaan give Moses and Aaron an unfavorable report (13:26; 14:2).  As the congregation “grumbled against Moses and Aaron”, Moses and, surprisingly, Aaron “fell on their faces” in recognition of God’s displeasure.  God forgives in answer to both (though the latter was chosen in anger), nevertheless, punishes the people by forbidding their generation from entering Canaan.

In a separate instance, a man violates the Sabbath and is brought before Moses and Aaron.  Moses and, presumably Aaron, inquire of the Lord and He commands the congregation to put the man to death.

In both cases above, it seems as if Aaron in exemplifying humility by accompanying Moses when a crisis arises or wisdom is needed.

Korah’s Rebellion: Aaron Makes a Sudden Turnaround

Aaron is in a dramatically favorable light in Num 16.  Envious, Korah with 250 Israelites “oppose Moses and Aaron” (v. 3, 11)[11].  God is roused to kill the “entire assembly” (v. 21).  However, Moses and Aaron, “fell facedown” and intercede (v. (v. 4, 22, 19-22).  God answers both their prayers and spares the congregation but kills the ringleaders (v. 25-40).  Moses and Aaron (even though Aaron was not in God’s original plan) are vindicated as being God’s divinely appointed leaders in an unprecedented display of vengeful power.
However, “the whole Israelite community,” rose the very next day “against Moses and Aaron” because of the slaughter.  Again, Moses and Aaron both come before the Lord and, for the third time in two days “fell facedown” (v.  41-45).  But punishment had already begun.  Sensing God’s mind would not change as on the day before (v. 22)[12], Moses tells Aaron to quickly offer incense as atonement and the plague is checked but not before 14,700 had died (v. 46-49).

            In the midst of rebellion by all the leaders of Israel, Aaron is presented more as a hero rather than a weak, vacillating, bitterly angry and inept leader riding under the coattails of another’s strong leadership and sheltered by their intercession.  Though Moses still maintains the lead role in the narrative, Aaron is noticeably next to him and takes stunning dominance in the last eleven verses.  He displays the character and conduct fitted for priestly service.  Here Aaron shows characteristics of being:

1.      Humble.  Aaron recognizes his office as not deserved (remember, God was angry when He called him) but given from the hand of a merciful God.
2.      Compassionate.  Aaron’s concerns no longer lay in what the people desired and his reputation as leader, but in the people themselves as God’s people (v. 22).
3.      Awed not horrified.  Having experienced divine mercy, Aaron learned that though God is not to be trifled with, He is quicker to forgive than to punish.
4.      Dedication.  Aaron now displays a devotion to his office of mediation between God and the people.  Whereas, in the first case “the Lord struck the people with a plague, because of what they did with the calf which Aaron had made,” now Aaron “took his stand between the dead and the living so that the plague was checked.”  In the former instance, he was a mediator of death but in the latter he became mediator of life.

Transformed, Aaron Runs!

            Unlike a coward, Aaron fearlessly runs through the rising cries of death.  Without duplicity, Aaron is focused to do as instructed.  Without contempt, Aaron now expects God to act according to the revelation given: in mercy.  Rather than debase God, Aaron takes no thought for his own life except in terms of stopping the people from dying.  Scorning impudence in favor of obedience, Aaron makes haste to accomplish the work.  Discarding impenitence, Aaron sees the only hope against judgment is the atonement prescribed by God.  Rather than blame others, Aaron acknowledges his taking leisure means death to others and his failure means the complete destruction of Israel.  He does not play ignorant but demonstrates full knowledge of his responsibility and what the stakes are, and so he “ran into the midst of the assembly” (v. 47).

            With such a transformation of character, Aaron runs!


            What caused Aaron’s change?  The Bible gives no definite hint.  The only obvious point made is the fact that he did change.  It may upset one’s theology, yet scripture affirms two awkward truths in Aaron’s life: (1) he was not God’s choice, and (2) God was angry at having to include Aaron in His plan of deliverance. 

But that did not stop God from working in and through Aaron, granting him mercy despite the severity of his failures, disciplining him despite his seeming incorrigibility, molding him into a vessel fit for a work God had not intended for him to perform in the first place.  Only God can fit a square peg in a round hole.  It is God’s desire, even if His hand is somehow forced to use a person he had never intended for a specific task, to make it work.

[1]  All scripture quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted.
[2]  All scripture quotes in italics are mine.
[3]  For points number 3 and 4, see Romans 1:23-24.
[4]  F. LaGard Smith, The Narrated Bible (Eugene: Harvest House, 1984), 148.
[5]  David Penchansky, What Rough Beast? (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 62.
[6]  Ibid., 63.
[7]  Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Roland E. Murphy, eds., The Jerome Biblical Commentary, vol. 1 (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall 1968), 73.
[8]  Beast,63.
[9]  Cf. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, translated by James Martin, vol. 1 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1989), 356:  “For the judgment in question was so solemn a warning, as to the sin which still adhered to them even after the presentation of the sin offering, that they might properly feel ‘that they had not so strong and overpowering a holiness as was required for eating the general sin offering’ (M. Baumgarten).”
[10]  Beast, 63.
[11]  Emphasis mine.
[12]  Cf. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 112:  “All the motives which he had hitherto pleaded, in his repeated intercession that this evil congregation might be spared, were now exhausted.  He could not stake his life for the nation, as at Horeb (Ex. xxxii. 32), for the nation had rejected him…Still less could he pray to God that He would not be wrathful with all for the sake of one or a few sinners, as in chap. xvi. 22, seeing that the whole congregation had taken part with the rebels.”

Brown, Raymond E., Fitzmyer,  Joseph A., and  Murphy, Roland E. eds.  The Jerome Biblical Commentary.  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall 1968.

Keil and Delitzsch.  Commentary on the Old Testament, translated by James Martin.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 1989.

Penchansky, David.  What Rough Beast?  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

Smith, F. LaGard.  The Narrated Bible.  Eugene: Harvest House, 1984.

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