Leadership 101

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What’s the most pathetic / head-scratching / cringe-worthy verse in the Bible?

There are numerous candidates.  But one of the finalists has to be Exodus 32:24, where Aaron, Israel’s first high priest, abandons all leadership responsibility and accountability before his brother Moses.

Moses has been up on Mt. Sinai for 40 days – receiving, among other things, the Ten Commandments.  Aaron has remained with the rest of the people, who, having recently escaped slavery in Exodus, are apparently competing to see how fast they can break all ten.

The crowd approaches Aaron and begins to whine.  They’re tired of being stuck in the wilderness. “Make us gods who will go before us…”  It’s time to get somewhere.  It’s time to switch gods.  The Israelites beg Aaron to invent a god that they can control.

Aaron caves.  “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons, and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.”  Aaron promptly fashions an idol cast in the shape of a calf.

Why a calf?  In all likelihood this idol represents a bull in rut – an ancient symbol of vitality, strength, and potency.  As historian Thomas Cahill observes in his book The Gifts ofthe Jews, this is something the people can relate to and understand.  Exodus 32:6 reports: “The next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings.  Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.”

“Revelry” is a gentle translation.  This is something several orders of magnitude beyond the average frat party.  Even worse is what Aaron had said to the people the night before:  “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD!” 

The Hebrew word for “LORD” in this verse is Yahweh.  That’s God’s special covenant name.  Not only is Aaron complicit in idolatry, but it’s all being done in God’s name.

It’s one thing to flat out disobey God by lying or stealing or cheating.  But it is far worse to say that God endorses my lying on my taxes, or that Jesus sympathizes with my emotional need to continue a secret relationship outside of marriage.

As a pastor, I know that it’s not easy being Aaron. Every spiritual leader is tempted to back away from the boundaries that God has clearly drawn in both Old and New Testaments.

I know how susceptible I am to this temptation.  If you come to me for spiritual guidance, I genuinely want to tell you something that will make you happy.  Then I want you to post something right away on social media: “You da pastor!  You lifted my burdens and solved every one of my problems.”

The easiest way for me to accomplish this, by the way, is to ruin both your life and mine at the same time by lowering God’s standards – and then by lying to you that that is what God wants us to do.

When Moses comes down Mt. Sinai, he cannot believe that his big brother, in just 40 days, has collapsed so completely.  He says to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?”  Did they threaten you?  Did they torture you by forcing you to binge-watch all four seasons of Saved by the Bell? 

Which brings us to Aaron’s explanation for his behavior.  “Do not be angry,” he says to Moses.  “You know how prone these people are to evil.”

Leadership lesson #1:  No matter how needy, irrational, or cranky those we serve might be on a given day, it is always our responsibility to do what is right.  Blaming those we are called to love is a non-starter.

Aaron goes on:  “I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’  Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (Exodus 32:24)

Leadership lesson #2:  Own up.  Take responsibility.  Everybody, Aaron, knows that there’s a golden calf in the middle of the camp because you, and not somebody else, made it.

All of us are called to leadership in the things of God, even if we don’t hold a special title.  And leaders must choose to pursue the mission that God has set before us, even if the crowd is begging us to settle for something less.

We don’t want to end up as finalists in the competition for Most Pathetic Verse.