Apostasy, Restoration, Completion and Consecration
It is interesting to note that the essential purpose for this Tabernacle, the priestly family, the Levites, and the sacrificial system was to be clearly demonstrated by Aaron, Moses' brother who had been chosen by God to serve as the first High Priest.
God made a covenant with the Israelites. He would provide them with land, security and prosperity if they would obey and worship Him. The problem, of course, was that even though God was willing and able to keep His covenant promises – the Israelites were not. This was made painfully clear as the people and their High Priest, Aaron, fell into sin as soon as the commandments, plan for the Tabernacle and sacrificial system were given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai.
Knowing that the Israelites would not be able to keep their part of the covenant promise, God designed and gave them a system to deal with sin so they could actually remain in the covenant despite their weakness and disposition as human beings to disobey God and sin against Him.
Aaron's story occurs between the giving of the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle and the actual building and consecration of it, to highlight this most important point.
I. The Apostasy – Exodus 32:1-35
A. Aaron – The First High Priest – Summary
Aaron was a great servant of God and the first man chosen to serve the nation as a whole in the capacity of High Priest with his sons as priests. Like his younger brother, Moses, he would not live to enter the Promised Land (Moses – Number 20:10-13; Aaron – Numbers 20:23-26). Aaron was much loved by the people as they wept and mourned him for 30 days when he died (Numbers 20:27-29).
B. Aaron's Failure – Exodus 32:1-6
Let's set the scene that led to Aaron's great failure. The people have been miraculously delivered from Egyptian bondage and are now camped at Mt. Sinai in the Sinai wilderness. God has miraculously led them (pillar of fire, cloud of smoke); miraculously fed them (water from a rock, quail, and manna). He has also communicated with the people through signs and awesome wonders and has spoken to the people concerning His instructions and Laws. The people have been given general instructions about their worship, place of worship and that Aaron and his sons will serve as priests. There is now great activity in the camp as the people begin to collect the elements that will be necessary to actually build the Tabernacle.
During this time God calls Moses to come up to Mt. Sinai where He will be given the tablets upon which God will inscribe the Ten Commandments and Moses will also receive detailed plans for building the Tabernacle and instructions concerning the sacrificial system. Moses has been gone 40 days, a period of time the people find too long. It is during his critical absence that Aaron fails in his leadership and priestly roles.
1Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, "Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." 2Aaron said to them, "Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." 3Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt." 5Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord." 6So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.
- Exodus 32:1-6
Note carefully what happens here: The people, having nothing to do, become restless. All this talk of God and worship, but nothing happening while Moses was gone – they wanted a religious festival, a religious activity much like they had in Egypt and wanted Aaron (the priest) to provide one.
Of course, the Tabernacle and all the elements and system of worship had not yet been given to the people – Moses had been receiving these from God on the mountain for the last 40 days. But the people wanted to celebrate now – they saw no reason to wait for Moses or instructions from God about what they wanted to do – and anyways they had Aaron – wasn't he supposed to be their priest?
So, Aaron, who was raised in Egypt, knowing Egyptian ways about religion and festivals, tries to pacify a seeming revolt by giving into their demands:
- Remember, however, that he's the spokesman, but Moses is the leader.
- God speaks and instructs Moses, not Aaron.
- Aaron may not have known how to hurry along the completion of the work but knew who the divinely appointed leader was – and he knew enough about God's ways to know that he (and the people) should wait!
Instead, he collects gold from the people and creates a statue of a calf (better word is young bull) that represented Apis – a familiar image representing fertility, prosperity and strength. Note, in verse 4 that the people say, "This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt." The people were acknowledging that it was God who saved them, but in their ignorance and spiritual immaturity they broke the second commandment and assigned the Lord's identity to one of their Egyptian deities (Apis) and its image of a young ox. In the next verse, Aaron carried along by the enthusiasm of the moment built an altar (upon, which he, as a priest, would have offered sacrifices) and declared the next day to be the festival they had asked for – he was just doing his job!
Now, as far as pagan gods were concerned, this was a creative masterpiece, in no way meant to offend God – it was man's idea of what God wanted. The intention was to quiet the people and give them a legitimate and satisfying worship experience. Of course, things go wrong quickly – the people revert back to their pagan ways learned in Egypt where they often mixed immoral sexual activities along with their religious practices. The situation degenerates as the people go from idolatry to excess in indecent conduct and eventually to rebellion.
C. Moses' Intervention – Exodus 32:7-29
7Then the Lord spoke to Moses, "Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, 'This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!'" 9The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. 10Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation."
- Exodus 32:7-10
The scene switches back to the mountain where God informs Moses that the people have reverted back to their idolatrous ways learned in Egypt and condemns them as obstinate (stiff-necked= like animals refusing to wear a yoke or bridal = humans who refuse to yield or to obey God). As a result, God threatens to destroy them all and start the plan over again, this time with Moses taking the role of Abraham – after all, time is of no concern to God, He's never in a hurry.
In Exodus 32:11-18 we see Moses interceding with God on behalf of the people, arguing that to do so would cause the pagan nations to doubt God's ability to fulfill His promise to the patriarchs. God relented, meaning He changed His course of action in response to Moses' prayer. God can and has changed His mind and will change His course of action based on prayer – that's why we pray! For example:
- Hezekiah is healed after being told he was going to die. After his prayer, God gave him fourteen additional years – II Kings 20:1-11.
- God was going to totally destroy Sodom and Gomorrah – but relented and saved Lot's family after Abraham appealed to Him – Genesis 16:1.
And so, in the same way God does not destroy the people for their sins but sends Moses back to camp to stop the fast destruction of order among the people.
19It came about, as soon as Moses came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses' anger burned, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. 20He took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water and made the sons of Israel drink it.
21Then Moses said to Aaron, "What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?" 22Aaron said, "Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. 23For they 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.' 24I 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."
- Exodus 32:19-24
Moses returns, shatters the tablets with the Ten Commandments, in his anger, destroys the idol and confronts his brother. Note how Aaron, this great man, given great honor and responsibility, responds to his great failure – to begin with, he doesn't even have the courage to own up to his sin! His excuses are weak and multiply his sins:
- They forced me to do this. You know how they are! He is manipulative in suggesting Moses would have done the same, would not have resisted either.
- It's not my fault, I just threw the gold in the fire and out popped the statue. A bald faced lie – verse 4 says that Aaron took a graving tool and fashioned it into a molten calf.
- You were gone and I had to do something! Shifting blame – it was really Moses' fault.
Because of his weakness, failure, and sins we read further on about the consequences of this episode in Aaron's life:
- The people committed a great sin in violating the covenant they so enthusiastically agreed to, barely a month before this incident – and true to the covenant's terms they were punished for it.
- Three thousand men lost their lives that day as a counter measure was begun by Moses to stop the spread of the religious rebellion which grew out of the disorder brought about by the pagan worship practiced in the camp. Moses called on faithful men to step up and the tribe of Levi stepped forward to answer the call. They put down the rebellion and were rewarded by God in that future priests and servants of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, would exclusively come from their tribe
(Levi – Levites – Levitical).
- In addition to these consequences, Aaron's own reputation and standing before God, before Moses and the people was seriously compromised.
He was the one chosen to be a minister unto God on behalf of the people but had disgraced himself with this terrible and very public failure. Of course, we know that Aaron's story does not end here, and we will pick up again further on, but first we need to switch the scene back to Moses, as he struggles to re-organize the people in order to carry out the plans given to him by God on Mt. Sinai.
D. Restoration – Exodus 32:30-35
Once order has been restored, Moses returns to God and confesses the sin of the people and accepts the fact that if God were to condemn them, He should include Moses as well (probably accepting his responsibility of blame as the people's leader – i.e. the buck stops here).
God reassures Moses that He knows who is guilty of sin and His punishment of removing them from His Book of Life will take place eventually. So far, He has punished them in three ways for this sin:
- Moses made the people drink water corrupted with the ashes of the burned idol, as a symbol of their combined guilt – Exodus 32:20.
- The Levites had killed 3,000 of the people's leaders who had fomented the start of a rebellion among the people – Exodus 32:28.
- God sent an unspecified plague on the people of which we have no details – Exodus 32:35.
II. The Journey Resumes – Exodus 33:1-35:3
Once God has punished the people, He instructs Moses to resume the journey to the land He has originally promised them, however, He threatens not to go with them because they are so stubborn, He might destroy them on the way, and upon hearing this the people show remorse (Exodus 33:1-6).
A. Moses Intercedes – Exodus 33:7-23
Previously Moses would speak with God in a special tent outside the camp. God's presence in the tent was signified by a pillar of cloud. Moses meets with the Lord to ask Him once again to relent and accompany the people on their journey – realizing that without Him, to go forward would be futile and arguing that without His presence among them they would be like every other nation – they would lose their distinctiveness.
Once again, God relents and agrees to remain among them, at which point Moses asks for and receives special viewing of God as He passes by him and Moses sees His back, but not His face. In explaining this passage, one commentator wrote, "In vivid pictorial language, the passage says that man may see only where God has passed by and so know Him by His past doing and acts." P. 549 – Cole
B. Moses Receives Renewed Instructions – Exodus 34:1-35:3
At this point God gives Moses a new set of tablets with the commandments and renews His intention to remain with His people, but to perform mighty works among them as well. He also renews the covenant with them and adds other conditions and warnings about mixing with pagan nations which would lead the Israelites into idolatry. He finishes by giving Moses instructions concerning various feasts, the Sabbath and offering of sacrifices. Moses then returns to the people to relay these instructions and the text says that as a result of his time with God, his face was shining – so much that he would cover it when he spoke to the people.
C. The Tabernacle is Built – Exodus 35:4-40:11
For detailed information about the Tabernacle, please watch the BibleTalk.tv series The Tabernacle by Robert G. Chilton Jr.
In the last chapters of Exodus Moses provides the details concerning the actual Tabernacle. It is a repeat of the instructions already given except now these plans are being used to construct and assemble the Tabernacle for the purpose it was created – to worship God and deal with the sins of the people. Ironically, the very first person to have his sins cleansed will be Aaron, the High Priest.
So, we pick up Aaron's story as we fast forward to the completion of the Tabernacle in chapter 40.
Aaron's Consecration – Exodus 40:12-38
After all is built and set into place, the following instructions were given to Moses.
12Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the doorway of the tent of meeting and wash them with water. 13You shall put the holy garments on Aaron and anoint him and consecrate him, that he may minister as a priest to Me. 14You shall bring his sons and put tunics on them; 15and you shall anoint them even as you have anointed their father, that they may minister as priests to Me; and their anointing will qualify them for a perpetual priesthood throughout their generations." 16Thus Moses did; according to all that the Lord had commanded him, so he did.
- Exodus 40:12-16
Here is this man, Aaron, this miserable failure, who fell short of doing the very thing he was chosen to do (serve as a minister to offer sacrifices for the sins of the people) became the one who led them into sin and nearly caused their destruction. This same man will eventually offer sacrifice for his own sins and then begin his task of offering sacrifices to God on behalf of the people.
After Aaron is prepared to serve, Moses summarizes the assembling of the Tabernacle complex and finishes the book of Exodus by describing how God communicated with the people.
34Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 36Throughout all their journeys whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would set out; 37but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day when it was taken up. 38For throughout all their journeys, the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and there was fire in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel.
- Exodus 40:34-38
This completes our study of the book of Exodus, but before we finish, I'd like to draw a few lessons from Aaron's experience of failure – then the series will be yours.
1. Even Great People Fall
Aaron was chosen by God, given power and position but this didn't guarantee a life without failure. God can use us to serve Him, not because we're great, but because He is great! A-types, overachievers, those who have succeeded in many areas need to understand that they too can fail and fail very badly. When they do, they need to realize that God can still use them, even after they have failed, because His love is greater than any of our past successes or failures.
2. Our Failures are Never Forgotten, but they are Forgiven.
Poor Aaron, his failure is forever recorded in the Bible for all to see. But Aaron would go on with his life and ministry because God forgave him his stumble. Some people think that so long as they can remember their own or somebody else's mistakes, there's no real forgiveness.
Aaron's story reminds us that we need to focus more on God's forgiveness instead of our failures if we wish to regain our confidence for the future as well as the ability and desire to forgive others. People who don't forgive themselves have a hard time forgiving others – even if they want to. If you dwell mainly on your or someone else's failures, you will never succeed at forgiveness and receive the healing that comes with it.
3. Failure Lays the Groundwork for Improvement
Aaron learned a hard lesson from the episode with the golden calf. It was a lesson that prepared him for the rigorous ministry of the priesthood. His failure improved his capacity for understanding and compassion. Despite the splendor of the Tabernacle and the divine mysteries of the sacrificial system, aside from the beauty and commanding presence of the High Priest's garments, Aaron never lost sight of the fact that, like the people he represented, he too was only a frail human being in need of God's mercy. This lesson had been indelibly stamped on his heart through failure, and he was a more effective minister and compassionate man because of it.
From start to finish the Bible tells and re-tells the story of man's continued failure at keeping God's commands. It also recounts God's continued effort at forgiving and restoring a failed humanity. This should give us confidence to approach Him the next time we think we've failed too badly to ask for forgiveness.
Whether it's for the first time in repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38) or the 50th time a sinful Christian offers a sincere prayer for pardon (I John 1:7-9), God is always faithful to forgive and have mercy on us – for every failure.