A Pepper Grinder Post

The Art of Compromise - Part 1

I do not think all compromise is bad. If people were never willing to make some compromises, it seems doubtful that societies, towns, states, or nations could exist at all. The Bible itself shows us some examples of compromise which, from the context, don't appear to be frowned on by God. For example, in the book of Acts, as more and more Gentiles came to be followers of Christ, there arose tension between the believers who felt that Gentile converts must obey all the Law of Moses, and those who felt they need not. Acts 15 recounts a gathering in Jerusalem where this thorny issue was discussed. Peter made a strong statement in favor of NOT making the new believers obey all the Old Testament Law, and Barnabas and Paul told stories of the miracles God had done among the Gentiles. It is at this point that James got up. James was not a wimp. If you have doubts about that, read the New Testament book that bears his name. In that book, he tells it like it is and is not afraid to skewer rich people. However, listen to what he said to the divided gathering in Jerusalem.

Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has explained how God first concerned himself to select from among the Gentiles a people for his name. The words of the prophets agree with this, as it is written, "After this I will return, and I will rebuild the fallen tent of David; I will rebuild its ruins and restore it, so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord, namely, all the Gentiles I have called to be my own," says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago.

Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we should write them a letter telling them to abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood. For Moses has had those who proclaim him in every town from ancient times, because he is read aloud in the synagogues every Sabbath. (Acts 15:13-21 NET)

swampNotice what James does. He makes the camp of the non-Judaizers happy by not requiring very much of the Gentile converts. Instead of the hundreds of commandments found in the Old Testament Law, the Gentiles are given four. James zeroed in on some of the things that Jewish believers found most offensive. But then, James dropped in the fact that the Gentiles had the Law of Moses read in their towns from ancient times. He gave those who wanted the Gentiles to obey the Law the idea that the Gentiles would have heard the Law and so might turn into good messianic Jews, while not forcing the Gentiles to obey the Law. He managed to strike a balance that wouldn't discourage the Gentiles, but also wouldn't offend the zealous Jews. Neither camp was probably completely happy, but a major split in the early church was avoided. This, I think, is an example of good compromise.

What I want to talk about today is NOT good compromise. Today I want to study the first of two lessons from a master in the art of BAD compromise--Aaron. You remember Aaron, right? He was the older brother of Moses. Here is what happened leading up to the passage I want to look at today:

  • After God struck the Egyptians with ten horrible plagues, Pharaoh allowed the Israelites, whom the Egyptians had been using as slave labor, to leave Egypt.
  • Once the Jews left, the Egyptians had second thoughts and pursued them. God came to the rescue of the Israelites by allowing them to pass through a body of water (perhaps the Gulf of Aqabah) on dry land, but drowning the Egyptians when they tried to follow.
  • After some time journeying in the desert, Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, and God called Moses up the mountain. God gave Moses all sorts of instructions about how his people should live and worship. Much of the emphasis was on how the Jews could be holy. Being holy means being different and set apart for God's use. They were commanded to do all sorts of things differently from the people they would be living near, so that they would remember that they were God's special, chosen people. Moses was up on the mountain with God for forty days. At the end of that time, he came back down the mountain with two stone tablets, on which God himself had inscribed the Ten Commandments.

Now we need to flash back to day 39 of Moses's meeting with God. While Moses was still up in the clouds, the Israelites were getting restless down below. I can understand their feelings of nervousness. They saw their leader go up a mountain that looked like an active volcano (Exodus 19:18). After five and a half weeks of him being up there with no food or water, it isn't surprising that the Israelites would start wondering if he was still alive. Here is what happened, as told in Exodus 32:1-5 (my translation).

golden calfWhen the people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, "Get up and make us gods to lead us. We don't know what's happened to this Moses who led us up out of Egypt."

Aaron said, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons, and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me."

So all the people took off their gold earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took them and used a tool to shape them into the image of a bull.

Then they said, "These are your gods, Israel--the ones that brought you up from the land of Egypt."

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of it and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh."

Notice how the people talked to Aaron. They didn't say, "Will you please lead us and tell us what to do?" They told him what to do. First they told him to get up, which paints a picture in my mind of Aaron just sitting or lying around passively. Certainly it seems clear that Aaron was not proactively working to keep the people following Yahweh in a scary situation, but was just reacting to what the people said.

Then they commanded him to make gods to lead them. In Hebrew, there is a small word or sound, which might have sounded like "nah," which, when paired with a command, made the command less like an order and more like a polite request. Adding "nah" to the command "get me a glass of water" would make it something more like, "Say, could you please get me a glass of water?" The Israelites did NOT use "nah" when they told Aaron to get up and make gods for them. They clearly thought of themselves as the bosses in this situation.

And how did Aaron respond? He didn't rebuke the people for turning so quickly away from Yahweh because their leader seemed to have disappeared. He didn't even point out that the food which was keeping them alive was supplied each day by the very God they were planning to ditch in favor of man-made idols. Instead, he just told them to bring him a bunch of gold jewelry--exactly what was needed to comply with their request. I hate to get too much into psychoanalyzing, but Aaron certainly seems to have acted like someone who was afraid of the people he was supposed to be leading.

And what did Aaron do? He got to work and created the image of a young bull from the gold. Note that there is nothing accidental about this; he shaped the gold with a tool. This will be important when we get to The Art of Compromise - Part 2. Up until now, Aaron has done nothing that involved overt rebellion against the Lord, but now he appears to have crossed the line. He has created an idol. There is one odd detail, though. The people specifically told him to make them gods (plural), but Aaron made a single bull. Was it too much work to make more than one? Was there not enough gold?

a god standing on a bullI think something else was going on in Aaron's crafty brain. I have been told by an Old Testament professor that it was not uncommon in the Middle-East of Moses and Aaron's day to depict a god standing on the back of a bull. Perhaps the most striking example of this for us is the Syrian storm god. This god was believed to be invisible, but rode on the back of a bull. I believe that Aaron, in his subtle, fearful way, was trying to steer the people back to worship of the one true, invisible God, Yahweh. They wanted idols. He made something that might look like an idol (for example, the commonly-worshipped Canaanite god Ba'al was believed to be able to take the shape of a bull), but in Aaron's mind, he was just creating Yahweh's ride. The people were supposed to look at the bull and imagine the true, invisible God standing on its back.

That might sound plausible, except for the next line, where we read, "These are your gods, Israel--the ones that brought you up from the land of Egypt." True, but who said that? They said it, not Aaron. Obviously, Aaron's subtle attempt to nudge people back toward the one true God didn't connect with the people. They wanted gods they could see and touch, and this bull was a good start.

In Aaron's next recorded words, he got even plainer. After building an altar in front of the bull, Aaron made an announcement: "Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh." Now he has really spelled it out. "See, guys, you don't really want to worship some idol, do you? You want to worship Yahweh, right? Of course you do."

And how did Aaron's attempt at compromise and subtle redirection work? Not so well. We are told that the "festival" the next day turned into a wild party--something a whole lot more like what might happen as part of a Canaanite fertility cult than what Moses allowed. God was so angry with his people that it took the pleading of Moses to keep him from destroying them. Moses was angry enough that he threw the tablets with the Ten Commandments down and broke them, and then he ground the golden bull to powder, dumped the powder in a brook, and made the people drink the water.

So what is the difference between the compromise of Aaron that turned out so badly, and something like the compromise we read about in the book of Acts? To me, it seems that there are two big problems with the compromise made by Aaron.

  1. It was based on fear. The people’s initial demand for idols to replace Yahweh was just plain, flat-out wrong. The only appropriate response would have been a rebuke from Aaron. Aaron tried to take an easier, safer path.
  2. It was untruthful. I am not even convinced that Aaron was truthful with himself. I think he wanted to believe that he could make the calf and the altar and proclaim a festival to Yahweh, and the people would do the right thing. But I think anyone objective, who had any familiarity with Israel's track record, would know that this was not how things were going to turn out. Aaron also effectively lied to the people, by acting as though he was doing what they demanded, while actually trying to edge them toward the right thing.

I am a person who is tempted to compromise, because I like everyone to be happy. As I said at the beginning, compromise can be a good thing, but too often I end up telling myself a story that, deep down, I don't believe.

Here are some questions I want to ask myself the next time I am tempted to compromise.

  1. Is the thing I am allowing through my compromise something the Bible forbids?
  2. Do I have to tell myself a story about how things will turn out to justify the compromise? Do I even believe the story, deep down?
  3. How will I feel if the compromise doesn't work out?
  4. Is fear my motivation?

If I can ask myself those questions honestly, and honestly feel good about the answers, then it may very well be the good kind of compromise. If I can't, it should be a red flag. I may be taking the path tried so disastrously by Aaron.

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*Photo Credits: golden calf from ; god standing on a bull from .