AARON (HÂRÛN), THE elder brother of Moses (Mûsa) (peace be upon them both), is a prominent and respected figure in the world of the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. God had selected him as a prophet–one who is chosen for spreading and implementing the divine rule and law; God had made him an assistant to Moses who rescued the Israelites from the oppression of the Egyptian Pharaoh, whose story is found in the Biblical book of Exodus.
Aaron was also the executor of the will of God revealed through his brother. The Almighty was so pleased with him that Aaron was permitted to use the miraculous “rod of God” and received a monopoly over the priesthood for himself and his male descendants. And he became a high priest to perform the rituals of God’s law—the divine ordinances of the Torah—over the Israelites. It is said at least fifteen times in the Bible that “The Lord said (spoke) to Moses and Aaron.”
But it is seen in the Bible that even a devoted and chosen person such as Aaron was pressured into rebelling against God in that he organized the people of Israeli to make an idol—the golden calf—and to serve it as their god.
But under Israelite law, the making and worshiping of any idol was strongly and strictly prohibited and such blasphemous act was punishable by death. Yet, after having committed such a blasphemous act, Hârûn was still alive and did not get any punishment, rebuke or threat from God.
Accordingly, the question is raised as to whether Aaron was really an idol-maker and blasphemer? Or did God show partiality to him sparing him the punishment set for the sin of idolatry? Or did the Bible twist the narration of the affair?
These are big questions for readers of the Bible. Before getting the answers to these questions, we look into the Bible and observe the narration as narrated.
The Golden Calf Story in the Bible
The story of the Golden Calf is narrated in Chapter 32 of the Book of Exodus. In the absence of Moses, Aaron, bullied with insistence on the part of the Israelite people, collected the peoples’ gold earrings, “and fashioned [the idol] with a graving tool, and made a molten calf” (Bible, Revised Standard Version, Exodus 32:4).
Later, “He built an altar before it; and made a proclamation, saying: ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.’” (Ex 32:5) Now, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he became angry and interrogated his brother about the calf. Aaron had to confess his leadership in making the idol. (Ex 32:24)
Here the Bible clearly portrays Aaron as complicit with the Israelite people in Egypt as an idol-maker and facilitator in idol-worshiping.
Now let us examine the narration and see the types of punishment enacted for this sin. When the people worshiped the idol and offered sacrifices to it—on the model of the pagan peoples around them—God became so angry that he told Moses that he would destroy all the people of Israel except those by whom He would create a great nation. Later on, at the pleading of Moses for God’s forgiveness, He changed his mind.
But Moses enacted a program to punish those who had sinned by their participation in the blasphemous and heinous incident.
- As part of the punishment program, firstly, he melted down the golden calf idol and ground it into fine powder, mixing it with water. Then he made the sinners drink it.
- Secondly, Moses charged his brother Aaron with guilt and rebuked him, then divided the people into two parts—those who were on the Lord’s side and those who were not. Addressing the people on the Lord’s side and quoting the commands of God, he ordered them to get ready to fight and to kill the sinners.When the fighting and killing had been finished, and some sinners were still alive, Moses begged pardon for the great sin, but God clearly and strongly announced “Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.” (Ex 32:33)
- Thirdly, and in an ultimate stage, ignoring Moses’ pledge of responsibility for his people’s sin, God made a rule: “Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them” (Ex 32: 34). In His own time, God sent a plague on the people and killed the rest of the sinners because they had forced Aaron to make the gold bull (Ex 32: 35).
So, in the steps of the punishment mentioned above all the people involved in the calf affair were punished and killed as God so decreed, and as carried out by Moses. But Aaron was neither killed nor punished. Why? Was he not the chief facilitator in the idol-making and idol-worship? If he really was guilty of committing those sins, wouldn’t he have been killed in the fighting commanded by Moses, or, wouldn’t he have died of the plague sent by God?
A Suggested Answer
Regarding this case, some Jewish and Christian scholars and religious personalities assume that although Aaron was really the guilty culprit responsible for allowing the people to go out of control and go astray, his brother Moses saved him from God’s anger, showing nepotism.
According to the Biblical text, this claim and argument is totally baseless. Because it was God’s decision that the sinners should be punished and none would be allowed to escape from his anger and wrath; these people would be “blotted out from his book” (Ex. 32:33). In fact, it was God who commanded the punishment, and Moses was only executor of that command.
Despite Moses’ actions against the sinners (drinking the molten gold and giving the order for the priests to fight), still, some sinners remained alive. But God was not yet satisfied with the punishment on those. Moses asked God’s forgiveness for his sinning people, accepting the blame for their sin, and asking God to punish himself by “blotting out his own name from God’s book” in which “He had written the names of His people” (Ex. 33: 32). Instead, God responded by insisting to wipe out the sinners’ names from His book; in time He sent a plague on the rest of them who still had not been killed.
Accordingly, it can be said that God fulfilled His promise to punish severely this blatant sin of idolatry. This means that there is no option to explain the non-punishment of Aaron by hypothesizing nepotism on the part of Moses. If Moses had been guilty of nepotism—to cover for his brother’s guilt—then we can assume that he himself would have been punished by God. After all, neither the people of Israel—who often rebelled against Moses, time and again, on various issues—nor God accused Moses of showing nepotism or partiality to Aaron in this case.
Exoneration of Aaron?
If it is true that God is above all partiality, bias, preference, favor, prejudice, favoritism and inequity, shouldn’t Aaron have been punished? Is it logical and a case of divine justice that God kept not his promise to punish the criminal and instead rewarded the mastermind of this blatant idolatry with continuing the Israelite priesthood for himself and all his male descendants (Ex. 29)?
The answer is negative: Of course, it is not divine justice to reward a mastermind for the major sin of blatant idolatry, even if he happens to be a brother of Prophet Moses. So, the biblical narration implying the non-punishment of Aaron assures us that he was innocent of instigating the golden-calf outrage. The Exodus narrative actually suggests that Aaron is clear of the sin of idolatry itself:
So the LORD sent a disease on the people, because they had forced Aaron to make the gold bull. (Exodus 32:35)
It is worth mentioning that Aaron previously had been commanded specifically not to do such a thing as making an idol. (Ex 20:4) He along with his people had witnessed miracles from God, like the plagues in Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. But is Aaron truly exonerated and without guilt?
To be continued, Inshâ’Allah.