It seems that Israel’s intent wasn’t to create another god but to use the calf to represent the One who brought them out of Egypt (v. 4 and 8 can be translated in the singular). Aaron apparently understands it that way as it will be part of a festival to the Lord (v. 5). If that is so, then this is not about making an idol to another god—it’s about making God into something that is more palatable and pleasing, someone they can control and manipulate.
This distinction may not seem terribly important, and in the sense that it’s all idolatry and is offensive to God, it’s not. But it is the difference between the first and second commandment. The first forbids worship of any other god, while the second forbids worship of images of other gods, or even images of God Himself.
That’s important because idolatry can cover a broad spectrum of behaviors. It can be believing in a god other than Yahweh (like the Philistine’s worship of Dagon in 1 Samuel 5). It can be believing in some other god in addition to Yahweh (Solomon embracing all of the gods of his wives so that his heart was not fully devoted to Lord his God — 1 Kings 11:4). Or, it can be trying to make Yahweh into something He is not, in this case, a golden calf. It is this last form of idolatry that can be subtle, nuanced, and quite deceiving because the idolater is under the impression that they are worshiping Yahweh when in actuality they are worshiping whatever it is they have attached to Him. Under this rubric, God absorbs whatever the dominant cultural values might be (in Israel’s case it was appropriating a deity, Apis, they were already familiar and comfortable with), so that in the end—Yahweh turns out to be someone we’re quite cozy with. He thinks like we do—liking what we like (in Israel’s case it was the carnality so often associated with pagan worship—Exodus 32:6), and disapproving what we don’t like (for Israel that would be anyone who didn’t approve of how their conscience told them to “worship” Yahweh). Since we’re already so much like Him, we don’t have to stretch or challenge ourselves personally; our main task is to get everyone to think like us (and Him). And the good news is that we are so intimate with Him that we can confidently tell others exactly how He looks at everything!
There are a couple of major problems with this. One is that it’s far too flattering understanding of ourselves. Anytime we’re having trouble differentiating between us and God, we’re badly out of touch with our sinfulness. The other difficulty is that it humanizes God. When we can’t tell the difference between Him and us, then He is obviously way too small. This is why when we read the gospels Jesus is constantly surprising us. Being perfect, He’s not like us so His attitudes and actions catch us off guard. Then they make us think and hopefully convict us. But His thoughts and deeds are so far removed from what ours would be because He is not like us. We must take these two things to heart so we don’t drift into our own form of idolatry where we attempt to make God into our image.
Time to go to Bible class and point our fingers at those ignorant Israelites who wanted to worship a calf rather than the God who brought them out of Egypt—we’d never do anything like that. I was just telling God this morning . . .