It hit me as I prepared this message that it’s kind of funny talking about some of these Famous Bad People of the Bible, because one day I’m going to meet some of them. It’s going to be kind of weird meeting them, and them saying, “Oh, you were a preacher. Did you ever preach on me?” What am I going to say in reply? “Yeah, you were part of a series on bad people in the Bible.” Despite that problem that I will face one day, it’s refreshing to look at people in the Bible and to know that it isn’t because of their character that God chose to use them, but it was because of his own character that God can use any of us – that God can use somebody even like me.
Today we’re going to look at Aaron. Aaron’s one of those people that we tend to overlook, because he has a supporting role in the Bible. He’s not the main figure in his stories. He’s usually with Moses, his brother. Despite his supporting role, he’s a pretty significant figure: he served as the first high priest in Israel. He was articulate and played a major role in the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. I’m always surprised when I read Aaron’s life how much he failed. Most of the characters we’re going to look at in this series had one trait that affected their entire lives, or else one or two really bad slips, but Aaron seems to have had three unrelated incidents in which he really didn’t do too well.
Let’s look at these three episodes to see if there is any underlying cause for his failures, and then we’ll see if there’s anything that we can apply to our lives.
The Golden Calf – Exodus 32
This first story falls under the “What were you thinking?” category. If you’ve ever read through the Bible, you’re reading through Exodus about God giving instructions to Moses about his laws and the Tabernacle, and all of a sudden, without any warning, you come to chapter 32 (page 100) and read:
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)
In Aaron’s defense, this doesn’t look like a friendly group that’s coming. The people gathered against Aaron. You get the impression, reading between the lines, that it was almost like a mob scene. There’s going to be a lot of reading in between the lines, because we just don’t know what was going through Aaron’s mind at this point. If I were Aaron, I might have been thinking, “Wait a minute. I’m not the leader here. I’m just the spokesperson. I didn’t sign up for this.”
Here’s what Aaron decided to do. “So Aaron said, ‘Tell your wives and sons and daughters to take off their gold earrings, and then bring them to me'” (Exodus 32:2). This may have been a case of Aaron giving into the crowd. Some people have suggested that Aaron was obeying the crowd to show them how foolish they were being – sort of like saying, “Okay, good idea, let’s see what happens when we try that.” Still others guess that Aaron gathered gold as a delaying tactic, waiting to see if Moses was coming down before it was too late. We don’t know, and I’d like to think that I would put everybody right and save the day, but picture the scene. No Moses – he might even be dead. An angry mob. A request to build some gods to lead them. I’d like to think I’d do better, but who knows?
“All the people obeyed Aaron and brought him their gold earrings. 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!'” (Exodus 32:3-4). It’s not hard to see why Aaron built a calf. It was a common idol image in the ancient Near East. Most scholars tend to think that Aaron wasn’t really building a new god for the people to worship. What Aaron was trying to do was to provide a concrete point of contact between the people and god. He wasn’t saying that the golden calf brought them out of Egypt, but that it represented the God who brought them out of Egypt. Back then, they thought that calves were like pedestals that gods sat on or stood over. In essence, while God was giving Moses instructions on building a Tabernacle that would be the place where God would dwell, a point of contact between the people and God, Aaron was building his own for the people. The people weren’t saying that the calf was the true God; they were saying that it represented and was associated with God.
“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!'” (Exodus 32:5). You can see how this is getting out of control. Verse 6 continues, “So the people got up early the next morning to sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings. After this, they celebrated with feasting and drinking, and indulged themselves in pagan revelry.”
Well, God didn’t take this too well. We won’t read all that happened, but God sent Moses back down to deal with the situation. This is the part that really blows my mind. Listen to what Aaron said to Moses when he was confronted with the situation:
“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!” (Exodus 32:22-24)
You can almost the wheels turning. “I’ve got a good excuse, sir…wait just a minute while I decide what my excuse is. It’s the people’s fault. No, wait, it’s a miracle. It just popped out of the fire.” We don’t read it in this passage, but God was very angry with Aaron. In Deuteronomy 9:20, Moses says, “The LORD was so angry with Aaron that he wanted to destroy him. But I prayed for Aaron, and the LORD spared him.”
This was Aaron’s first test as a leader, and he failed. I don’t want to be too hard on Aaron. What he did was wrong – I just don’t know if I would have done any better. I hope so, and certainly in hindsight, I’m sure Aaron would have said so too. Let’s look at the second major failure that Aaron encountered in his life – one that is seemingly unrelated. Let’s see what happened and then begin to see if there’s any common thread.
Betrayal – Numbers 12
The next story’s found in Numbers 12 (page 164). It’s hard to believe as well. Miriam is Moses’ big sister – the one who approached watched Moses float down the Nile River in a waterproof basket, and who thought quickly enough to allow Moses to be raised by his mother. Aaron, as we’ve already seen, is Moses’ brother. Somehow the two of them got jealous of Moses. “While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because he had married a Cushite woman. They said, ‘Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?'” (Numbers 12:1-2).
We need to read between the lines a little bit again. In the original language, it says that she spoke, meaning Miriam. This isn’t to put Miriam down overall. She had an important role in the Bible too – rescuing Moses, singing the first psalm that’s recorded in the Bible. She’s the instigator, but Aaron joins her. The real issue wasn’t Moses’ wife – that was just a smokescreen. The real issue was Moses’ special relationship with God. Miriam and Aaron thought that they should be recognized too.
“But the LORD heard them” (Numbers 12:2). Oh no. Miriam and Aaron knew that God hears everything, but they hadn’t taken it into account. We read what happens next. God summoned the three of them into the Tabernacle – with a little trace of anger too – and confronted them. Let’s pick up what happened at verse 9:
The LORD was furious with them, and he departed. As the cloud moved from above the Tabernacle, Miriam suddenly became white as snow with leprosy. When Aaron saw what had happened, he cried out to Moses, “Oh, my lord! Please don’t punish us for this sin we have so foolishly committed. Don’t let her be like a stillborn baby, already decayed at birth.” (Numbers 12:9-12)
Moses also prayed for her, and God responded with both grace and firmness. Aaron seems to have gone unpunished, beyond being rebuked by God. Another test; another failure.
We’re beginning to see a pattern here. Aaron’s been in trouble twice. Aaron wasn’t the instigator in either case; he just went along. In both cases, Aaron could have resisted the course of action that was taken, but he just chose to go along. Aaron seems to be easily influenced by those around him.
Striking the Rock – Numbers 20
What we don’t see too easily as we move to the third incident is how much time has elapsed since the first two mistakes. We don’t see it too easily, but 37 years have elapsed between the last mistake and this one. You’d think that there would be some credit for good behavior, but it didn’t work that way in this case. The people failed, and Aaron joined along. Miriam failed, and Aaron joined along. Now Moses fails, and Aaron joins along. Read what the people say in Numbers 20:2 (page 174):
There was no water for the people to drink at that place, so they rebelled against Moses and Aaron. The people blamed Moses and said, “We wish we had died in the LORD’S presence with our brothers! Did you bring the LORD’S people into this wilderness to die, along with all our livestock? Why did you make us leave Egypt and bring us here to this terrible place? This land has no grain, figs, grapes, or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” (Numbers 20:2-5)
I can imagine how frustrating this would have been for Moses and Aaron. What was even more frustrating was that they were at the very spot of Israel’s worst rebellion ever, almost forty years previously – the site of the first scouting mission that had ended in disaster. Moses probably had a sense of despair. I’d be thinking, “Haven’t these people learned anything? Can’t they pull themselves together? We’re almost there!”
Moses and Aaron did exactly what they were told. They went to the Tabernacle and got instructions from God to speak to some rock, which would start to flow with water. What we read next starts out okay. “So Moses did as he was told. He took the staff from the place where it was kept before the LORD” (Numbers 20:9). But what we see next is the accumulation of forty years of frustration.
Then he and Aaron summoned the people to come and gather at the rock. “Listen, you rebels!” he shouted. “Must we bring you water from this rock?” Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with the staff, and water gushed out. So all the people and their livestock drank their fill. (Numbers 20:10-11)
Was Moses wrong? Absolutely. Would I have done the same thing? Who knows? But I’m sympathetic. I can see why Moses did. God’s judgment on Moses and Aaron was immediate. Verse 12 says, “But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel, you will not lead them into the land I am giving them!'” Moses dishonored God and his holiness by making God appear to be capricious and hostile – even human. Aaron, who seems to have been more or less a bystander in this incident, stands condemned along with Moses.
So we come to the end of Aaron’s life. God says to Moses in Numbers 20:24:
“The time has come for Aaron to join his ancestors in death. He will not enter the land I am giving the people of Israel, because the two of you rebelled against my instructions concerning the waters of Meribah. Now take Aaron and his son Eleazar up Mount Hor. There you will remove Aaron’s priestly garments and put them on Eleazar, his son. Aaron will die there and join his ancestors.”
So Moses did as the LORD commanded. The three of them went up Mount Hor together as the whole community watched. At the summit, Moses removed the priestly garments from Aaron and put them on Eleazar, Aaron’s son. Then Aaron died there on top of the mountain, and Moses and Eleazar went back down. When the people realized that Aaron had died, all Israel mourned for him thirty days. (Numbers 20:24-29)
Aaron’s life comes to an end. Three people went up the mountain; two came down. I was thinking about what we could learn from Aaron’s life and the mistakes that he made. What lessons does Aaron’s life have for us today?
1. Guard against others leading you to disobey God
One of the strongest lessons from Aaron’s life is that we’ve always got to be careful how we’re being influenced. With some of us, it’s not a problem. There are some very strong people around, who quite frankly, don’t get influenced. They influence others; others don’t influence them. But for most of us, the greatest influence on what we do and what we believe and how we act is what others around us say. The real danger is what happens when others lead us to disobey God.
It’s like when we were kids. Isn’t it true that you got into more trouble hanging around certain kids than when you were alone? Just hanging around a certain individual made it twice as likely that you were going to get into trouble. It doesn’t change when you’re an adult. One of the lessons for us is that we’ve got to figure out what to do when our friends, our coworkers, our marriage partners – whoever – influence us to disobey God.
You’ve got to feel a little bit sorry for Aaron. He wasn’t the instigator anytime that he got in trouble. But he still got in trouble. God was so angry with him one time that he wanted to kill him. Eventually, his mistakes cost him his life, and prevented him from seeing the Promised Land.
I also feel sorry for Aaron because of who influenced him. The people – well, Aaron should have known better. Miriam – well, it’s hard to resist a sister sometimes, but he should have known better. But Moses? I thought Moses was one of the good guys. The biggest mistake of Aaron’s life was following the lead of somebody who was his own spiritual leader. You’ve got to feel sorry for Aaron.
You and I are going to be influenced a lot in our lives, but we’re still ultimately responsible to God. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Bad company corrupts good character.” Let me ask you: who is influencing your life? What people – even good people – may be leading you away from obedience to God? What steps do you need to take to make sure that even if you’re a follower-type personality, you don’t end up following others away from God?
2. A few mistakes can undo years of faithfulness
Remember Survivor? I don’t know if it was just me, but the challenges seemed a bit lame the last time. Flying kites. I don’t know. That just doesn’t cut it for me. The challenges that really get me are the endurance challenges. Hold on to a pole or stand on something, and the last one still doing it wins. One slip – one brief moment – can undo hours of effort.
Aaron teaches us the same thing. He served for some forty years. Most of the time, he did really well. He played an important role. He did a lot of good things. But mostly, when we talk about him, we talk about the mistakes he made. There weren’t a lot of them, but they were big enough that they marked his entire life.
I look around me and realize the same thing. I can live my entire life well and mess everything up near the end by one indiscretion, one really bad mistake. It’s really not how well we start the race. It’s how we finish that matters.
I guess this should make us humble. I used to think that I was invulnerable to certain temptations. I used to think that I would never mess up in certain areas of my life. I think my attitude has changed. I’m not so sure anymore. I’m not so confident that I’m not going to mess up my life by one or two really bad decisions. Remember the hymn? “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” The guy who wrote those words did slip away. I’m capable of the same. It doesn’t take a lot to undo years of faithfulness. This should keep us humble, depending on God. “If you think you are standing strong, be careful, for you, too, may fall into the same sin” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
3. God’s grace is always bigger than any of my mistakes
Despite Aaron’s failings, God still used Aaron. God continued to use his descendents, right down to the time that Jesus came. The man that God sent to prepare the way for Jesus, John the Baptist, was a direct descendent of Aaron (Luke 1:5). Even when Aaron died, the people entered into a period of mourning for thirty days. God’s grace is always bigger than our mistakes.
Once in a while I wonder what would be written about me if my life was recorded in the Bible. I can think of times that I’ve failed God, in big ways and in small ways. I can think of times that I’ve been influenced away from obedience to do something wrong, very wrong. I’d be too embarrassed to share some of these with you. They haven’t been my best moments. I’m pretty sure that I’m capable of making serious errors in my life, so bad that the mistakes would undo most of the good in my life. But God says that his grace is always greater than sin. Where sin increases, God’s grace can increase all the more.
I invite you to pray with me.
What would be written about your life? What people tend to influence you in the wrong direction? What failures have marred your record? God’s grace is always bigger.
Father, I pray that you would help us to remain loyal to you, even when others – even good people, maybe even pastors – influence us away from obedience to you. I pray today that you would make us aware that no matter how secure we may feel now, we are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love. I pray most of all that everyone here would experience the grace of Jesus Christ which is greater than all of our sins. If there’s somebody here who hasn’t received that grace, along with the forgiveness and restored relationship with you, that they would receive it today.
We love you and praise you, in the name of your son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.