21 Then Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?”22 Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. 23 Forthey said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”
Why Aaron isn’t to blame for being “prone to evil” seems like an obvious oversight for Moses, but Aaron didn’t encourage the behavior; the people did this among themselves. Aaron’s merely the gatekeeper, and a rather poor one at that (Douglas Wilson said something to the effect that Aaron is like the person who prevents conflict in a rough neighborhood by unlocking all the doors and windows – theoretically, it solves one problem, but it brings up another one). It shouldn’t surprise you that idol worship became synonmous with sexual perversion and orgies as a form of temple worship – God did not wish for worship of Himself to consist in that form or way, to the point of condemning many such behaviors to a judgment of death in Levitical law. This is the sweeping of ecstasy, the rushing of the mob towards evil and letting feelings take hold of thoughts, not the other way around. In other words, it is the modern mob that lets whims and impulses guide them.
Now, you’d imagine that this tale/story/morality play might end with a little slap on the wrist and God would simply say “don’t do that again!” Everyone would move on after sin and we’d all live happier lives learning from our mistakes. But YHWH set His people apart for a purpose – His holy name besmirched by the same people He made a nation, only one thing could happen, and that thing ain’t pretty:
25 Now when Moses saw that the people were out of control—for Aaron had let them get out of control to be a derision among their enemies— 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered together to him. 27 He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.’” 28 So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day. 29 Then Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves today to the Lord—for every man has been against his son and against his brother—in order that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.”
So yes, Moses takes members of the Levticial priesthood, gives them weapons, and orders them to go slaughter their own kinsmen for the sake of God’s name and holiness. Or, in this case, obedience. You’ll notice why only the Golden Calf part gets a mention most time: because this particular portions should frighten you. Remember when Jesus says that he will turn blood families against each other? Say, in Matthew 10?
34 “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. 37 “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39 He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.
If you think Jesus wasn’t referencing something to this effect, please give me a better explanation. Jesus spoke to Pharisees, and He knew that they knew their Scripture. How could they not? Yet they preached obedience, and followed it not – but they certainly didn’t go out killing their kinsmen for the disobedience, now, did they? Obedience to God and obedience to the world require two very different things. It is, in a sense, a dualism: you’re either in or you’re out. You’re either obeying or not, and you’re either hot or cold, for we spit the lukewarm out (Revelation 3:16). When it comes to God, there isn’t a compromise. Especially when it comes to Scripture, which is God’s Word, we cannot compromise on that either. If you want the name “Israelite”, you need to follow that Law; so too, if you want the name “Christian”, you can’t start fashioning idols of your own making. It’s the whole point here: where do your allegiances lie?
Even Paul saw the comparisons: idol worship of any kind looks akin to shifting your loyalties in 1 Corinthians 10:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and alldrank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.
6 Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” 8 Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. 9 Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. 10 Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.
14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.
How clear can we get? Yet we still do this. I do this, and I know I do this. Our response to committing sin shouldn’t be “I did it, oh well, better luck next time”, but “this is a grave mistake and I’m grateful and blessed that God won’t smite me for it”. It’s the difference between apathy and repentance – and Christians cannot EVER be apathetic. If the God of the Old Testament is the same as the New, can you come to any other conclusion? Unless you want to become a Marcionite or heretic, in which case change the name of your religion. So we reach the end of Exodus 32:
30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the Lord, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 Then Moses returned to the Lord, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. 32 But now, if You will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!” 33 The Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book. 34 But go now, lead the people where I told you. Behold, My angel shall go before you; nevertheless in the day when I punish, I will punish them for their sin.” 35 Then the Lord smote the people, because of what they did with the calf which Aaron had made.
We all have our golden calves somewhere; now’s the time to melt it and drink it (stick that phrase somewhere and see how people react).