Israel must have been quite a sight as they were leaving Egypt. On their shoulders they carried their kneading troughs full of unleavened dough wrapped with clothing to keep the sand out (12: 34). They were also loaded down with parting gifts from the Egyptians consisting of gold, silver, and clothing (v. 35-36). They had just been witness to the most spectacular deliverance ever known to man in the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. And now, Egypt was finally in their rear view mirror.
With Moses in the lead, they sang out, “Who among the gods is like you, Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (15:11). Two months and three days later, they received the law at Sinai telling them among other things, not to make an image for worship (20:4-5). Forty days after that, they cajole Aaron into making the image of a calf so they can worship it as part of a “festival to the Lord,” (32:5). (Isn’t it amazing how they managed to work God into what they were doing?) There are many painful points to their rebellion (aren’t there always?), but one is that they used the golden jewelry God had graciously given them to defy Him! After that, “they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry,” (v. 6). What exactly were they doing? Well, it wasn’t the Harlem Shake. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:7-8 that it was sexual immorality. From what we know of the practices of the day, the calf was regarded in nearly all cultures as a symbol of power and fertility (I haven’t read anyone who can explain exactly how this started). Anyway, sexual activity among humans (fertility rites), was thought to excite the gods to similar activity which in turn brought fruitfulness to the earth.
Soon the passing pleasure of sin is over and its time for judgment. Death comes through the sword and the plague (v. 27ff,35), and 23,000 lose their lives (1 Corinthians 10:8). Despite this, they seem to understand something of their need for God (or at least His protection), so when He threatens to not be with them, they begin to mourn and remove their jewelry as He had commanded (33:4-6). What started off as a gift and was used in rebellion, have now become ornaments of death.
But that’s not the last word on the matter. A little later when materials are needed for the construction of the tabernacle, the people are asked to contribute (35:4ff). They bring out everything they have until Moses finally has to tell them to bring no more (36:6-7). The ornaments of death are transformed into items used for the worship of God. The material that started off in Egypt, was misused by the Israelites, ends up in service to the Almighty. Isn’t it interesting how things just somehow manage to work out like that?