When we think of the Israelites wandering through the desert, we often picture God leading them by cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21). But God also appointed human leaders to govern, judge, and guide his people into the promised land.
God famously called to a man named Moses from a burning bush in Exodus chapter three. He summoned Moses to go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt, where they were enslaved (Exodus 3:10). When Moses protested that he wasn’t skilled in speech, God promised that Aaron, Moses’s brother, would go with him and speak to the people (Exodus 4:10–17).
These brothers led the Israelites away from Pharaoh and out of slavery, through the Red Sea, and eventually to Mount Sinai, as God commanded. Here, Moses climbed up to meet with God and left Aaron in charge of the camp below (Exodus 24:12–14). After just 40 days, Moses returned to a camp in chaos.
In Exodus 32, we see a failure of leadership, and the contrast between Aaron and Moses is stark.
While Moses was at the top of Mount Sinai with God, the people at the base camp grew restless. They demanded that Aaron make them “gods who shall go before us” (Exodus 32:1).
Aaron seemed eager to comply. He melted their jewelry into a golden calf. The people were enthralled; they threw Moses to the side and forgot the God who delivered them from Egypt (Exodus 32:1, 4; see also Psalm 106:19–23). They attributed God’s mighty saving acts to the idol.
When the people wanted to worship the calf, Aaron built an altar and proclaimed a feast day (Exodus 32:4–5). Aaron knew better; yet he even used God’s covenant name “YHWH” (v. 5) in his feast day proclamation.
Meanwhile, God told Moses of the rebellion (Exodus 32:7–8). God wanted to destroy the people, but Moses interceded and pleaded for mercy, which God granted (Exodus 32:9–14).
Moses then went down to the camp, and he was super upset. As he charges into camp and confronts the people, the contrasts between the brothers jump off the page.
Five Characteristics of Godly Leaders
Let’s observe the major differences between Aaron and Moses.
1. Godly leaders know God and are concerned for his glory.
When God told Moses about the people’s sin, Moses immediately took to prayer (Exodus 32:11–14). He reminded God that wiping out the nation would violate his purpose in delivering them (v. 11), expose him to slander from the Egyptians (v. 12), and stall his promises to Abraham (v. 13). Killing all the Israelites would contradict God’s purpose to glorify himself through his people.
Meanwhile, despite seeing God’s miraculous work up close, Aaron built an altar for the idol. “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:20). Had Aaron been jealous for God’s glory, he would have rebuked every attempt at false worship.
2. Godly leaders don’t tolerate sin; they work to eradicate it.
When Moses came into the Israelite camp, his “anger burned hot” (Exodus 32:19). He broke the tablets and destroyed the calf. “He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it” (Exodus 32:20).
Moses knew the evil of the idol. He saw the temptation it offered and eliminated every trace of it.
Aaron, on the other hand, formed the idol and made no attempt to point the people back to God.
3. Godly leaders fear the Lord.
Aaron caved to the people’s request, perhaps fearing they would harm him (see Exodus 32:1–2).
On the other hand, Moses took action against popular opinion. He destroyed the calf in quick order, and then addressed the people’s behavior. He sent the Levites through the camp with their swords drawn. “And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell” (Exodus 32:28).
While Moses feared God and honored him as holy, Aaron feared the people.
4. Godly leaders take responsibility for their flock.
Aaron was quick to make excuses when Moses confronted him. “You know the people, that they are set on evil” (Exodus 32:22). You can hear the contempt in Aaron’s words. He saw the people’s flaws and eagerly blamed them, rather than take responsibility for the sin he advanced.
But Moses worked for the people’s forgiveness. He didn’t minimize their sin, but sought the Lord on their behalf. He took on their burden as his own. “Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Exodus 32:30).
5. Godly leaders are sacrificial.
Moses wasn’t perfect. But the contrasts in this chapter culminate in a breathtaking example of sacrificial leadership.
When Moses spoke to the Lord about the people’s sin, he begged for their forgiveness. But he knew that sin had a cost, and his love for his people produced a shocking request:
So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” (Exodus 32:31–32)
While Aaron condemned the people to save himself, Moses was willing to be condemned to save his people. And in this request, Moses points to the Messiah.
At the cross, Jesus our great High Priest also appeared before God and confessed his people’s “great sin” (Hebrews 3:1-3). Like Moses, Jesus stood as a leader and mediator, knowing that a sacrifice was needed for the people to be saved.
And while God refused Moses’s proposal (Exodus 32:33–34), he planned and accepted Jesus’s offer of himself (Isaiah 53:10).
Learning from These Lessons
Godly leadership is of vital importance, and all of God’s people need to pray for, recognize, and encourage such leadership.
The contrast between Moses and Aaron is particularly arresting for those in or aspiring to leadership positions in the church. We would all benefit from considering these reflection questions that flow out of Exodus 32.
- Where have you made allowance for sin in your life? Are there idols you need to grind into powder?
- In what ways have you blamed others? Take note of your temptations toward gossip and resentment.
- Have you been concerned for your people’s holiness? Have you compromised God’s standards to satisfy your people?
- How is God calling you to sacrifice for your people? Are there unpopular steps you must take to help your people glorify their Savior?
If you find these questions convicting, don’t lose heart. The Savior who Moses foreshadowed is sufficient for leaders and followers alike. He always offers forgiveness, cleansing, and strength for those who come to him in faith.