The Consecration of Aaron (detail from the Holman Bible, 1890). See that cow’s head in the background? That’s a hint!
Sometimes a piece of art is more insightful than it first appears. Above is an etching from the Holman Bible of 1890, an edition known for its illustrations. It depicts the ordination of Aaron and his sons, which is the beginning of the priesthood and an all around good event. But in the crowd there looms behind Aaron’s finest moment, a cow. What is he doing there? It’s not accidental or incidental that the artist put it there. It’s a reminder, even at Aaron’s great moment, of his greatest sin.
What did Aaron do? He made a golden calf for God’s people to worship. In Exodus 32 we see the famous story:
…the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us [gods] who shall go before us…”
So Aaron said to them, “Take off your rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”
And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf.
Aaron had the responsibility to help the people towards the True God. That’s what makes his act all the more terrible. He was supposed to represent God well to them, lead, and proclaim accurately. But instead, he gave them something lesser. He gave into the temptation to portray a lesser god. In a sense, he gave the people what they wanted instead of what they needed.
What were they asking for? What were they seeking to worship? There is ambiguity as to what Israel was asking Aaron for. Were they wanting brand new, different, pagan gods? Or were they wanting to worship YHWH, the True God of Israel, but just in a way they had been commanded against? (the Hebrew word Elohim is both God and gods, only context tells us which) But what is not ambiguous is what Aaron offers. He does not claim to give them a new god. He even invokes God’s name. Tomorrow shall be feast to the LORD… He is claiming to give them the God they believe they know and already believe in. This is far more subtle than an outright choice of a different religion. They believe they are staying with God. What Aaron does is far more than offer them a new god; he gives them a domesticated idol which he lets them believe is the True God.
Is this still a temptation? As a pastor/preacher I must say that it is perennial. It is often easier to explain, offer, proclaim a far more palatable and (wrongly) appealing god than the Only God. So, when we preach (for those who are preachers) of God, do we proclaim Him as He is? Or when we share about Him with others (which everybody can do), do we tell accurately of Him? Do we shape Him to be most appealing to our audience at the expense of accuracy? Do we lessen His demands? Do we make Him less severe? Do we make Him less wonderful? Less radically gracious? Do we change or hide anything about Him?
Do we give into the Temptation of Aaron?