The Painful Process of Purging

21 And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. 23 For they said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”

25 And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’” 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. 29 And Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.” – Exodus 32:21-29 ESV

As soon as Moses and Joshua arrived back in the Israelite camp, Moses made a beeline for Aaron. He must have been beside himself with confusion and consternation as he considered how his brother had let this happen. While Moses had been up on the mountain, he had left Aaron in charge, and had told the elders of Israel, “Wait here for us until we return to you. And behold, Aaron and Hur are with you. Whoever has a dispute, let him go to them” (Exodus 24:14 ESV). Now, Moses had practically run back down the mountain after hearing God’s report of all that had happened in his absence.

“Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it…” – Exodus 32:7-8 ESV

God never implicated Aaron, but Moses needed to know how any of this could have happened without his brother’s knowledge or consent. So, as soon as he saw Aaron, Moses demanded an explanation.

“What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” – Exodus 32:21 ESV

Moses didn’t pull any punches or give his brother the benefit of the doubt. He seemed to know that Aaron was responsible for what had happened, and Aaron’s response speaks volumes.

“Don’t get so upset, my lord,” Aaron replied. “You yourself know how evil these people are. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has gold jewelry, take it off.’ When they brought it to me, I simply threw it into the fire—and out came this calf!” – Exodus 32:23-24 NLT

Aaron didn’t deny complicity but he did try to absolve himself of any responsibility. He admitted that he played a role in the debacle, but painted himself as an unwilling and unwitting participant. He claimed to be an innocent victim of mob rule. These “evil people” pressured him into taking part in their wicked scheme. He had no other choice.

Aaron appealed to his brother’s own history of dealing with the Israelites. If anyone could understand what it was like to deal with these stubborn people, it would be Moses. After all, they had given him a run for his money on more than one occasion. Aaron somehow believed that Moses would excuse his actions by placing all the burden of guilt on the people. Surely Moses would absolve his own brother of any responsibility once he recognized that Aaron had been forcefully coerced by the unruly Israelites.

But Aaron’s excuse lacked any hint of transparency or believability. It was filled with half-truths and cleverly worded alibis designed to mitigate responsibility and avoid judgment. Aaron was fairly accurate when detailing the people’s demand that he make them an idol, and he made sure to place part of the blame on Moses for having been AWOL for 40 days. In a sense, he was saying that none of this would have happened if Moses had simply stayed in the camp.

This whole exchange between Aaron and his brother is a classic example of passing the buck. Aaron knew he was guilty, but he was desperate to transfer as much of the blame as possible onto the people. And since there were far too many witnesses who could corroborate his role in fashioning the golden calf, Aaron decided to fabricate a far-fetched tale to explain its sudden appearance. He admitted to taking up the collection of gold from the people but made it sound like he did so as some kind of tax or penalty for their unjust demand. When Aaron tossed their gold into the fire to destroy it, the golden calf miraculously came out of the flames. In other words, it just appeared – like magic.

This wild claim stood in direct contradiction to the facts. When the people demanded that Aaron make them a god to replace Yahweh, he responded, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me” (Exodus 32:2 ESV). And when they had done so, he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf” (Exodus 32:4 ESV).

In an effort to protect himself, Aaron lied to his brother and to God. He blatantly misrepresented the facts in an effort to paint himself in the best possible light. But Moses saw through his brother’s subterfuge.

Moses saw that Aaron had let the people get completely out of control, much to the amusement of their enemies. – Exodus 32:25 NLT

This statement stresses the fact that, even with the idol destroyed, the people were still running around in a state of wild abandon. Their “revelry” had not abated, even after Moses melted down their idol, pulverized the gold, mixed it with water, and forced them to drink it. The moral mayhem continued and Moses held his brother completely responsible for it. To make matters worse, news of Israel’s debauchery spread to the other nations in the area. Reports of this party in the wilderness of Sinai circulated far and wide, leaving Israel a veritable laughing stock among their enemies. The so-called people of Yahweh had abandoned their great deity for a golden calf, and now there were dancing around in the wilderness like a bunch of drunk adolescents who gained access to their parent’s liquor cabinet. Even their pagan neighbors saw their actions as reprehensible and unacceptable.

But Moses had seen enough. He knew something had to be done, so he called for reinforcements. At this point in the narrative, Moses displays a holy vengeance for the Lord’s reputation. Having seen the extent of the wickedness that had taken place in his absence, Moses knew that he had to intervene. God had been justly angry about the situation in the camp and now Moses shared that anger.

Moses called on all those who remained faithful to the Lord to join him, and the tribe of Levi stepped forward. Then Moses commissioned them for the purging and purifying work that God had in store for them.

“Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’” – Exodus 32:27 ESV

While Aaron had tried to make light of what had happened, Moses knew that this situation was going to require drastic measures. God had given him a plan for mitigating the damage done by the people’s actions and it was going to be painful and permanent in nature. The guilty were going to pay for their sins with their lives.

When men of the tribe of Levi stepped forward when Moses issued his call, they had no idea what was going to be required of them. They had demonstrated their zeal for the Lord by answering Moses’ call, but now they were going to have to prove their faithfulness by striking down all those within the camp who had played a role in the rebellion. And, as a result of their efforts, more than 3,000 men of Israel paid for their apostasy with their lives.

It would seem that God called for the deaths of all those who had played a leadership role in the uprising. Many more were guilty of participating in the idolatry and immorality that accompanied it. But God was interested in dealing with those who had instigated the whole affair. And for their role in the purging, the tribe of Levi was given a special commendation.

“Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.” – Exodus 32:29 ESV

Because they had declared their allegiance to God and were willing to do the dirty work of protecting the integrity of His name, God rewarded them with the honor of serving as priests and servants. The Levites had stood by their kinsman, Moses, and had taken up arms against all those who dared to abandon their God. They were honored for their commitment to God by being given the privilege of serving Him as shepherds over the people. By executing the 3,000 ringleaders, they had actually spared God’s people from further apostasy. They had purged the evil from their midst. But God was not yet done. The instigators had paid for their crime with their lives, but all those who had gladly followed their lead would also face God’s judgment.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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