When Aaron built a golden calf for the Israelites to worship in Exodus 32, severe 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, Aaron would later die in the wilderness and never enter the Promised Land. Aaron also endured the loss of two of his adult sons in a judgment from God. After Aaron made the golden calf, his life included many difficulties that could be seen as a punishment.
A second response is that God did not punish Aaron for making the golden calf because Aaron 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 in Exodus 28 before Aaron’s 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. Aaron, the man who led the Israelites astray to worship a golden calf, was the very man God chose to lead Israel in worship of the Lord. This pattern is often observed in Scripture. Many times, God uses the 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 concerning Aaron and the golden calf are also important to consider. First, Aaron would have been among those who repented of sin. Exodus 32:26 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 those who 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 and the golden calf is relevant still today. When we sin, the Lord calls us to repent and receive His forgiveness, based on the intercession of our Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). When we are restored, God can use our lives in His service.