A Pepper Grinder Post

The Art of Compromise - Part 2

In the , we looked at a sad attempt at compromise on the part of Aaron, in Exodus, chapter 32. We saw Aaron trying, ever so subtly, to steer the people toward the worship of Yahweh, while never telling them that their desire to replace worship of the Living God with idolatry was dead wrong. I mentioned the outcome of the people's sin, and Aaron's failure to lead. What Aaron had intended as a festival to Yahweh turned into a pagan celebration and an orgy. Moses was only able to stop God from destroying the people by pleading with him, and Moses, in fury at what the people had done, threw the stone tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments to the ground and broke them. Then he ground the golden bull Aaron had made to powder, dumped the powder in a brook, and made the people drink from that brook. At this point, Moses turned his attention to Aaron.

Today I want to focus on the brief conversation Moses and Aaron had immediately after the events I just described. Here is what we read in Exodus 32:21-24 (my translation):

Moses said to Aaron, "What did these people do to you that you led them into such a terrible sin?"

Aaron said, "Don't be angry, my lord. You know how bad these people are. They said to me, 'Make us gods to lead us. We don't know what's happened to this Moses who led us up out of Egypt.' So I told them, 'Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off and give it to me.' And I threw the gold into the fire, and out came this bull!"

*Translation note: The Hebrew word that I’ve translated as “bull” is probably best translated as a young bull or a bull calf. Many translations bring out the youth of the animal by referring to it as a calf, I chose to highlight the sex by translating it as a bull. Take your pick.

turtle pulled into shellThe first thing which jumps out at me is that Moses looked at what happened as Aaron LEADING the people into sin. As we saw last time, a big part of the problem was that Aaron was NOT leading, but rather, was just reacting to what the people said with a few timid attempts to steer them in a better direction. And yet, even though what Moses said makes it clear he knew that Aaron was pressured by the people ("What did these people do to you..."), Moses still described what happened as Aaron leading them into sin. This is a sobering thought for those of us who are fathers, or bosses, or church leaders. If we are in a leadership position and are passive, God is still going to see what happens as our responsibility.

The main thing I want to look at, however, is what Aaron said. You see, there's this thing about compromise. When you have done the kind of dishonest and cowardly compromising that Aaron did, it is very often not the end of the story. When the truth starts to come out, most people who have made this kind of compromise don't want to stand up and say, "Yup, I made that gold bull for them, even though I knew they'd worship it. Truth is, I was scared to death of those people." Since the truth is not very palatable, there are two options. The simplest is to lie outright. The problem with this is that all it takes to bring your house of cards tumbling down is for someone to catch you in the lie.

The other, more sophisticated, way to cover up a lie or a cowardly compromise is to "spin" things. This particular term may be a modern one, but it is not a modern invention. Yes, it is true that modern politicians and corporations have elevated this almost to an art form, but Adam and Eve did it in their first encounter with God after eating the forbidden fruit, and we see from the passage above that Aaron did it masterfully. Here are the keys to a successful spin job, as demonstrated by a spin master: Aaron.

  1. Deflect the blame. After his plea for Moses not to be angry, the first words out of Aaron's mouth were, "You know how bad these people are." The implication is that Aaron was doing the best he could, but look what he had to work with! He wanted to take the responsibility spotlight off himself and put it on the people.
  2. Incorporate as much of the truth as you can. This is what separates the spin masters from the novices. If much of what you are saying is true, people will tend to assume that all of it is true. Even if something you said is found to be incorrect, it is easier to think you were simply mistaken if people know that much of what you said was right. When Aaron told Moses what the people said to him, he left off the starting command to "Get up!" This isn't surprising, because it certainly makes Aaron sound like a passive and weak leader. Then, however, he quoted EXACTLY what the people said to him. This both bolstered Aaron's claim that it was all the fault of those bad Israelites, and it lent a strong element of truth to Aaron's story.
  3. Admit some small fault. Aaron reported accurately (though in abbreviated fashion) what he said to the people. Yes, he did ask the people to give him some gold jewelry. If Aaron were a twenty-first century politician, I can imagine his speechwriter coming up with a phrase like, "In hindsight, I can see that I should have adopted a different course of action." Aaron admitted some blame, but he made it sound like it really wouldn't have been such a bad thing, if things hadn't gone so unexpectedly wrong.
  4. When you have to lie, lie boldly and convincingly. Looking at it from a modern perspective, this is the part of the spin process that Aaron did least well. His lie certainly sounds bold ("I threw the gold into the fire, and out came this bull!") but convincing? Not so much. We need to remember that the people of Exodus had seen some pretty amazing supernatural things. Gold forming itself into the shape of a bull doesn't sound so astonishing when you compare it to God creating a path through the sea or feeding a nation in the desert. In general, what does or does not sound ludicrous to us is often culturally conditioned. To people back then, the idea that the universe, the earth, and all life on it could just come to be with no divine intervention would sound (for good reason, in my humble opinion) absolutely crazy. An unseen force shaping molten gold into a bull shape probably wasn't too hard to accept for the people of that time.

So how did it all work out for Aaron? If the goal was to convince Moses that Aaron was not at fault, I don't think it worked so well. Moses is not even recorded as making a response to Aaron, but the Bible says:

Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. (Exodus 32:25 NIV)

We aren't told whether or not Moses believed Aaron's story about how the gold bull came to be, but it is obvious that he clearly grasped the central problem: Aaron had failed as a leader, and now the people were running wild. Restoring control required drastic action on the part of a Levite death squad. Even after that, God executed his own punishment, by killing many of the people with a plague.

On the other hand, it is important to note that Aaron was NOT one of the people who was killed, either by the Levites or by the plague. He lived until he died a natural death and was succeeded by one of his sons. It is even recorded that he was mourned by the nation of Israel for thirty days (see Numbers 20:22-29). I would argue, however, that Aaron continuing to live and to remain in his position as High Priest was in spite of his performance in Exodus 32, rather than because of it. The Bible does not say this, but I find it hard to imagine that Moses ever trusted Aaron fully, at least in his leadership abilities, after these occurrences.

buck stops here

So what if you are someone who is prone to make bad compromises and then try to cover them with "spin?" I have two words for you (and for myself, incidentally)--one challenging and one encouraging.

  • Take Responsibility. This is what Aaron was not doing when he failed to lead the people and when he bowed to their demands. This is also what he failed to do when he spoke to Moses. If we want to start to move in the right direction, this is what we have GOT to do. Often this will be small things. Make a decision, instead of hemming and hawing and procrastinating until someone else or circumstances make it for you. Admit when you are wrong, without trying to excuse yourself, and without blaming someone or something else. If you want to be less like Aaron in Exodus 32, you've got to start having a "The buck stops here" attitude. Each little victory will move you farther along the path. You probably will not instantly stop being an Aaron, but every move in that direction is a good thing.
  • Aaron didn't go to hell. Okay, I really don't know that, but I see no indications in Scripture that make me think he did not attain salvation. He is not held up as a hero of the faith, but neither did God have the ground swallow him up or have him die by a plague in punishment for his sin. He was weak, and that's not a good thing, but I firmly believe that if we love and want to please God, he will never abandon us, even if we're wimps. Not that this is an excuse not to try to change. I believe that if we truly love God, we will want to get stronger. We have to watch out for the all-or-nothing thinking that tells us that unless we can instantly become a spiritual Arnold Schwarzenegger, there's no point trying to change at all.

Aaron is not an example we should follow. He made compromises when he should have been firm, and he lied to cover up his weakness. With God's help, we can do better.

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