Over and over in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim Moses promises the Israelites prosperous lives and their own nation if they obey God’s laws, death if they do not obey. He drives home his point with reminders of what happened to them during the 40 years since they left Egypt.
Some of these recollections in Moses’ farewell speech match the stories in the books of Exodus/Shemot and Numbers/Bemidbar. Some do not.1
Moses retells the story of the golden calf worship in this week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“on the heels of”). In this version he claims that he prayed twice to change God’s mind about a death penalty: once for all the Israelites and once for Aaron, who made the calf.
Va-etpaleil to God, and I said: “My lord God, do not wipe out your people and your heritage that you ransomed by your greatness, that you rescued from Egypt by a strong hand!” (Deuteronomy 9:26)
va-etpaleil (וָאֶתְפַּלֵּל) = And I prayed, and I interceded. (This is the hitpael form of the verb palal, פָּלַל = sat in judgment; arbitrated. The hitpael form is used only when a human begs God to change a divine judgement.)
Earlier in his rambling narrative Moses says:
For I was terrified in the face of the fury and the venom with which God became angry at you, [enough] to exterminate you. And God listened to me that time, too. And God felt angry enough at Aaron to exterminate him. Va-etpaleil also on behalf of Aaron at that time. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 9:19-20)
An obvious reason why God might be angry at Aaron appears in the book of Exodus. When the Israelites give up waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai, they tell Aaron:
“Get up, make us a god who will go before us!” (Exodus 32:1)
Aaron obliges by collecting the people’s gold earrings, melting them down, and making a golden calf. He even builds an altar in front of it and declares that the next day will be a festival for God—as if the God of Israel would manifest inside or above the golden calf.
Yet he, of all people, should remember God’s second commandment, which bans the manufacture or worship of images.
After Moses returns and halts the celebration by smashing the stone tablets inscribed with God’s commandments, he asks Aaron:
“What did this people do to you that you brought upon them a great sin?” (Exodus/Shemot 32:21)
Even as he criticizes his brother for fulfilling the people’s desire for an idol, Moses gives Aaron an excuse: he must have done wrong because the people forced him to. What did they do to him?
Aaron waffles. He starts by saying the people are evil, then reports that all he did was ask them to remove any gold they were wearing.
“And they gave it to me and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf!” (Exodus 32:24)
Moses ignores Aaron’s disingenuous answer. He orders the other Levites to kill the calf-worshippers by the sword, not sparing “… his brother or his neighbor or his close kin.” (Exodus 32:27) They kill 3,000 men, but they do not kill their brother Levite Aaron. Moses does nothing to punish Aaron. Neither does God. Both Moses and God continue with God’s plan to elevate Aaron to the position of high priest in their new religion.
Yet Aaron violated the second commandment just as much as the calf-worshipers.
You shall not make yourself a carved idol or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters below the earth. (Exodus 20:4)
Aaron molded an idol in the shape of a calf, an animal on the earth below. (Exodus 32:4)
You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them. (Exodus 20:5)
Aaron built an altar in front of the golden calf and told the people to bring offerings. (Exodus 32:5-6)
His guilt is clear. Yet at the time, God ignores Aaron, while Moses asks one question and then lets the subject drop.
Ignoring Aaron’s violation is a disservice to the Israelites, to God, to Aaron, and to Moses.
The Israelites would conclude that Aaron escaped punishment only because of nepotism. Now that they know God and Moses play favorites, they have an extra reason to conclude that conquering Canaan for them is not worthwhile.
God wants the Israelites to become his “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), but now the Israelites would view God as unjust, to be followed only out of fear rather than love.
Aaron would feel guilty the rest of his life. He wears the high priest’s vestments, but he would know that inside he is unworthy.
Moses would be nagged by the memory of his own failure to bring his brother to justice, or even acknowledge that Aaron was guilty.
So 39 years later, Moses rewrites the conclusion of the golden calf fiasco. Nobody else knows whether God was angry with Aaron, or whether Moses spoke to God about it. So Moses tells the Israelites how it should have been instead of how it was.
In his speech on the bank of the Jordan, Moses declares:
And God felt anger against Aaron, enough to exterminate him. Va-etpaleil also on behalf of Aaron at that time. (Deuteronomy 9:20)
Moses’ prayer must have changed God’s mind, since Aaron survived and became the high priest. And for Moses’ audience, this new story confirms that God is just, and also that God listens to prayer.
Rewriting history is rarely a virtue. But neither is ignoring a person’s misdeeds. As I reflect on Moses’ story in Deuteronomy, I pray that when I notice someone doing wrong, I find a safe and private way to communicate it to them. And if I was one of the victims, and the wrongdoer apologizes and tries to remedy the situation, I pray that I will forgive them.
- See my post Devarim: In God We Trust?