The first is the priest Aaron, the purported brother of Moses, though all traditions of the Hebrew Bible do not see him as such. Nevertheless, in Exodus 32 he makes perhaps the biggest lie in the Bible. At the beginning of this rich scene, at the instigation of the restless people at the base of the sacred mountain of Sinai, Aaron makes with great care a molten calf, after he has demanded from the people all the gold they possess. Later, after the calf’s creation, and the subsequent wild ruckus that ensues around the object, Moses, upon completion of his brief chat with YHWH on the mountain’s top, heads down the mountain with the Ten Commandments in hand. Upon witnessing the chaotic picture at the mountain’s base, he hurls the tablets of the Torah onto the ground, shattering them in pieces, and then confronts Aaron, whom he had deputized to take care of any problems while he was gone, demanding to know what the people had done to him to cause him to lead them to sin so egregiously. Aaron’s reply to Moses’s fury is a superb and overt series of falsehoods. He first assures Moses that he knows these terrible people all too well; they are “in evil,” he says, meaning they are rotten to their core. He then reports that he had politely asked the people whether they had any gold; in fact he had demanded gold from them. And finally he says that when they brought their gold to him he just tossed it in the fire and, surprise, surprise, out popped this calf!
The source of Aaron’s whopper appears to be fear in the face of the enraged Moses, fresh from his confrontation with the fiery YHWH. However, the richness of his lies also, I suggest, stem from his desire for power over the people of Israel, his genuine belief that they are just no good and need direction. However, his manufacture of the calf, a fact he tidily does not admit, led to disaster; his search for power resulted in idolatry and denial of YHWH altogether. Aaron’s web of lies was a tissue of thin excuses and trumped-up inventions designed to deny his power desires and to assuage Moses’s fury. Lies often do that; they disguise deeper designs that once unraveled lead only to harsher problems for everyone involved.
Peter’s terrible lies in the Gospel of Mark are born of fear and a final unwillingness to follow Jesus in the terrifying way he has chosen to go. While Jesus is being questioned by a council of religious authorities, Peter, Jesus’s first and most loquacious disciple, is warming himself by a fire in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. Suddenly, one of the priest’s servant girls notices him and says, “You were with Jesus, that man from Nazareth.” But Peter does not simply deny Jesus; he actually says, “I neither know or understand what you are talking about” (Mark 14:68). Note he does not mention Jesus’s name. Instead, he claims complete ignorance of the entire conversation. “What are you going on about, woman,” might be a good summary of what Peter implies with his words. We of course remember that he had earlier avowed that he would never deny Jesus.
After leaving the fire and moving toward a gateway (deeper into the shadows?), the same woman proclaims to some people standing near, “This man is one of them” (Mark 14:69)! This time Peter says nothing; he merely denies that he is one of them, perhaps with a shrug of the shoulders or a scornful drop of spittle. At last, those bystanders who heard the woman’s claims about Peter, now say, “You certainly are one of them, because you are a Galilean” (Mark 14:70). How they conclude that is not clear, but either Peter’s accent or his clothes give him away. However they know, this time Peter loudly curses, and then swears an oath, a deeply solemn act in an oral culture: “I do not know this man you are talking about” (Mark 14:71)! This direct denial, this infamous lie, is followed by the fateful second crowing of a cock, and when he hears that, Peter “broke down and wept” (Mark 14:72). Here is one of history’s most memorable lies, a lie that reveals Peter’s deep fears of the tenuous future and his terror at what may be happening to the man he has supposedly offered his life to. This is a lie of disappointment in self, a self-revelation of weakness and inability actually to do what one has promised and vowed to do. I suggest that Peter’s lies, and his subsequent tears at his denial of Jesus, is an honest reflection of who Peter finally is, as Jesus said, a man whose “spirit is willing but whose flesh is weak.” This lie becomes a very richly human one, for it speaks to many of us who feel as Peter does as we attempt to follow the way of Jesus.