Why wasn’t Aaron punished for making the golden calf?

Q.  I have some questions about the golden calf episode.

First, when Moses asked who was “for the Lord” and the Levites came to him, he told them to “slay each his brother, his companion, and his neighbor.”  He said, “Consecrate yourselves each upon his son and brother that the Lord may bestow upon you a blessing.” I gather they were slaying fellow Levites as a consecration.  This is hard to understand.

I’m also wondering why Aaron wasn’t punished for his part in the episode. Moses asked him, “What did these people to to you that you caused them to commit such a great sin?”  And Aaron reported correctly, “They asked me to make gods for them because they did not know what had become of you.”  However, Aaron was not removed from his priesthood or slain. He just went on being the respected associate of Moses.

I find all this mysterious and hard to understand.

Nicolas Poussin, “The Adoration of the Golden Calf”

I think it helps to realize, to begin with, that in this episode the Israelites didn’t believe they were worshiping a god other than Yahweh.  Rather, they thought they were still worshiping Yahweh, but they were now doing this as if He were a god like the ones the Egyptians and Canaanites worshiped.  Such gods had physical representations in the form of idols, and they were worshiped through immoral revelry.

The episode reveals that to this point the Israelites had been regarding Moses as the physical representation of Yahweh.  That’s why they spoke of him as the one who had “brought them up out of Egypt.” So when he was delayed on the mountain and the people didn’t know what had become of him, they wanted something else to represent Yahweh for them physically.  They “assembled against” Aaron (not just “gathered around” him) and told him to make them a god.  (The Hebrew word is ‘elohim, a plural form that most English versions translate as “gods,” but it should likely be taken as a “plural of excellence” meaning “God,” as the context seems to call for; see the translation note in the NIV.)

Under this pressure, Aaron makes a golden calf, and when the people see the finished product, they exclaim, “This is your God, Israel, who brought you up from Egypt!”  Going along with this identification, Aaron announces, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh!”

Unfortunately, if Yahweh were indeed the kind of god who could be represented by a golden calf, then such a festival would involve immoral revelry.  Traditional English versions tend to translate the terms “play” and “dance” in the account with discreet literalism, but the NIV’s “revelry” and “running wild” capture the meaning well.

The people were so “out of control,” in fact, that “they mocked anyone who opposed them,” as a footnoted alternative rendering in the New Living Translation puts it.  Most versions say something like “they were a laughingstock to their enemies,” but as there were no enemies present to observe the incident, I think this NLT alternative captures the sense of the Hebrew term well, which refers literally to those who “stood against” them.

So the people were being recklessly indulgent and they would not listen to their leaders when they tried to restrain them.  it was a near-riot, and desperate measures were called for to prevent the situation from disintegrating completely.  (Otherwise the people might have turned violently against Moses and even killed him.)

And so Moses called out, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.”  In other words, “Whoever still respects my leadership and my revelation about what Yahweh is really like, I need your help right away!”  When the Levites rallied to Moses, he told them, ““This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’”

This is actually characteristic language referring to all Israelites, not just Levites.  And it was only after the Levites did this to stop the situation from spinning completely out of control that Moses told them, ““You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”  In other words—in response to your first concern—Moses didn’t say to them, “God will bless you if you slay your fellow Levites.”  He said, after the fact, “Because you were willing to take the Lord’s side, even though this meant killing your fellow Israelites because they were rioting against Him, you have been set apart to the Lord.”  And that was the blessing—being set apart.  The blessing wasn’t something material that was promised in advance as a reward or incentive for taking up the sword.

In response to your second concern, I would suggest that Aaron was not punished for making the golden calf because he did this only when he was pressured by the people.  He may even have feared for his own safety and life if he refused.  He still should not have made the idol, but the responsibility was much more with the people than with him.  (This was a case similar to the one in which Miriam instigated a revolt against Moses’ leadership and enlisted Aaron to support her; she was punished but he was not, as I discuss in this post.)  The law of Moses would later distinguish between cases in which a leader sins and cases in which “the whole Israelite community” sins, and I think this was one of those latter cases.  In fact, the community was punished for their sin on this occasion not just by the Levites’ swords, but also through a plague that God struck them with afterwards.

I hope this explanation helps address your concerns.  But many aspects of the episode, including as the methodical slaughter of Israelites at God’s command, may still remain troubling and difficult to understand for thoughtful readers today.

A reader comments: Note that Moses says in Deuteronomy 9:20 that he had to pray 40 days snd 40 night for all that sinned, but the first he prayed for was Aaron his brother.