Exodus 32 and Deuteronomy 9 document the profound leadership failure that allowed the Golden Calf incident to be the horrific event that it was. God wants all believers to be warned from this incident so that they will not sin the way Aaron and the people did on that occasion.1
Aaron’s Failure to Repulse the People
In the absence of Moses, Aaron was the top leader of God’s people present with them when the Golden Calf incident took place. As an aged saint who was even older than Moses was (cf. Exod. 7:7), he no doubt commanded respect even by virtue of his advanced age.
Prior to the Golden Calf incident taking place, God had already appointed Aaron to be the first high priest of His people (Exod. 28:1-2; cf. Heb. 5:1-4)—whose foremost calling would be to minister to God Himself (Exod. 28:1, 3, 4, 41; 29:1, 44; 40:13). Secondarily, he would minister for the spiritual wellbeing of the people (Exod. 28:12, 29, 30, 38; Heb. 5:1).
When the people congregated to request that he make an idol for them (Exod. 32:1), Aaron failed profoundly in both respects. His recent unique appointment to future divine service should have caused him to repulse them vehemently.
Instead, he failed the Lord and brought very great sin upon the people (Exod. 32:21) by instructing them about what materials they should provide him with to make the idol (Exod. 32:2-3) and by fashioning the idol for them (Exod. 32:4). The people then proclaimed that the calf was their god who had successfully brought about their departure from Egypt (Exod. 32:4).
Aaron also built an altar before the calf (Exod. 32:5) and proclaimed that there would be a feast to the Lord tomorrow (Exod. 32:5). He thus greatly facilitated their great sinfulness at this time.
Aaron’s Failure to Restrain the People
On the next day, the people worshiped the calf, offered sacrifices to it, sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play (Exod. 32:6, 8). Their playing included singing (Exod. 32:18) and dancing (Exod. 32:19) in such an unrestrained manner that they were brought into shame among their enemies (Exod. 32:25). They shamefully rejoiced in the works of their own hands (Acts 7:41) instead of rejoicing in the Lord and in all that He had done for them.
Moses held Aaron responsible for their shameful, unrestrained idolatrous activities (Exod. 32:25). Aaron should have restrained them but instead failed both God and His people by not doing so.
Aaron’s Failure to Acknowledge His Responsibility for What Happened
When Moses confronted Aaron about what had taken place (Exod. 32:21), Aaron blamed the people instead of acknowledging his own failures (Exod. 32:22-24). He even ridiculously asserted that the calf somehow just came out of the fire after he had thrown the gold into the fire (Exod. 32:24b).
Because of his great sinfulness on this occasion, God was prepared to destroy both the people (Deut. 9:19) and Aaron (Deut. 9:20). Only Moses’ intercession spared them (Exod. 32:11-13; Deut. 9:19; Ps. 106:23) and Aaron (Deut. 9:20).
Learning from Aaron’s Leadership Failures
When Moses was away, Aaron and the people sinned horrifically against God. Both Testaments record Aaron’s sin (Exod. 32; Acts 7:40), which underscores its enormity.
Learning from what happened in the Golden Calf incident, churches and other Christian institutions must beware that the times when their top leaders are away are potentially very dangerous times. Top leaders who must be away from their people should pray fervently that their people not stray from God and His ways in their absence.
Subordinate leaders should be very alert at such times that they not fail God and His people profoundly while the top leader is away. Unlike what Aaron did, they must value the glory of God and the spiritual wellbeing of His people enough to repulse any sinful developments that may take place among the people at such times.
Moreover, if they make some bad decisions at such times, they must take proper responsibility for their failures. They must also diligently seek to restrain as much as possible any sinful aftermath that may result in such situations.
God has provided us with the accounts of the Golden Calf incident so that we may learn from them and so that we may be warned about certain aspects of leadership failure and their potentially horrific consequences. Let us diligently take these truths to heart and not allow any such leadership failures or incidents to take place among God’s people in our day.
1If you have not done so, you should read the previous articles in this series before reading this article:
(See the rest of the articles in this series under point 11 here)