Question: "Why wasn't Aaron punished for making the golden calf?"
Answer: When Aaron built a golden calf for the Israelites to worship in Exodus 32, much judgment came upon the people. Yet Aaron went on to serve as high priest. It hardly seems fair that he should escape punishment—he was the one who made the idol, after all—while others were judged.
There are two possible responses. First, one could make a strong case that Aaron was punished for making the golden calf. Though he was not punished at that exact time, he would later die in the wilderness and would never enter the Promised Land. Aaron also endured the loss of two of his adult sons in a judgment from God. Aaron’s time after the golden calf incident included many difficulties that could be seen as a punishment.
A second response is that God did not punish Aaron concerning the golden calf because he had already been chosen as high priest of Israel. Despite Aaron’s sin, his role in leading worship in the tabernacle remained vital. Exodus 28 reveals the important role Aaron and his sons would play in the worship rituals of Israel. The position of high priest was promised before the molding of the golden calf in Exodus 32.
It is safe to say that God used an unlikely person to serve in an important role. The man who led the Israelites astray to worship an idol was the same man God chose to lead Israel in worship of the Lord. This pattern is often observed in Scripture. Many times, God uses those who are least likely to accomplish tasks for His glory. Other examples include David, a shepherd boy turned king; Paul, a church persecutor who became a martyr and missionary leader; Peter, a fisherman-turned-evangelist; Mary Magdalene, a demon-possessed woman who became the first to see the resurrected Jesus; and many others. “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
Two other factors are also important to consider. First, Aaron would have been among those who repented of sin. Verse 26 says, “Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, ‘Who is on the LORD's side? Come to me.’ And all the sons of Levi gathered around him.” As a son of Levi, Aaron was one of these men. Aaron repented, and God forgave. Second, verse 30 notes that Moses interceded for the people: “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”
The example of Aaron’s life is relevant still today. Despite our sinful actions, the Lord calls us to repent, to receive His forgiveness, and to use our lives to serve Him.