Eventually, a covenant is formed with Abraham, the child of promise is born, and through his grandchildren the nation of Israel is born. Through the time of history, much happens to them, yet they are rescued and delivered from Egypt by Moses. Once again, all appears to be well with the people of God. Yet once again, it would only seem that way. Once the Israelites are freed from Egypt, they begin their path to the land that God had promised Abraham. God, being faithful, seeks to fulfill His promise. Along the way, He once again establishes a covenant with the people. Just like the covenants with Abraham and Noah, God’s plan of salvation is slowly revealed. Unfortunately, due to our sins, the lists also become larger of that which we should not do. Man needed more and more reminders that he was not God, and those previous attempts proved to the contrary, ending in disaster.
By this time, the worship of God had advanced quite a bit from Enoch, to include great solemnity. For this reason, Moses goes to the top of the mountain to understand how to worship God as God wills. While he seeks to formulate the right worship of Yahweh, the people have something quite different in mind:
And the people seeing that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, gathering together against Aaron, said: Arise, make us gods, that may go before us: For as to this Moses, the man that brought us out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has befallen him. And Aaron said to them: Take the golden earrings from the ears of your wives, and your sons and daughters, and bring them to me. And the people did what he had commanded, bringing the earrings to Aaron. And when he had received them, he fashioned them by founders' work, and made of them a molten calf. And they said: These are your gods, O Israel, that have brought you out of the land of Egypt. And when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and made proclamation by a crier's voice, saying: Tomorrow is the solemnity of the Lord. And rising in the morning, they offered holocausts, and peace victims, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play. (Exodus 32:1-6)
We must unpack this most supreme of insults. We know from reading earlier in Exodus that God provided for their every need upon the journey. He made Himself known to them through the shekinah (glory cloud) and the giving of the law. He took care of their every need by giving them food when they were hungry (the manna from heaven) and water from the rock when they were thirsty. So that they know how to properly worship Him, He was in the very process of giving those instructions.
The people had different ideas. They grew afraid. Without Moses, they would not know how to serve God. (Think of how darkened man’s eyes have become to God by this point!) Rather than trusting in God (who would not allow His people to remain ignorant), they instead decided to once again, try and do things themselves. If one can detect a certain pattern in this series, this won’t end well. They decide to make for themselves a golden calf, and to worship the being as the god who rescued them.
We see once again man perverting by sin that which God had given them. The gold the people had, that gold very well may have been used for the service of Yahweh. Instead, it was used to set up something in opposition to God. The fact that an animal was chosen could be seen as an even further insult and rebellion against God. Originally, God had given man control and dominion over all the beasts of the earth. They were a creation, given to man. Man messes up the entire order. Not only does he pretend to make a created thing, but he then proclaims the created thing the creator! Even worse, this created thing resembles a beast of the earth, whom man was supposed to have dominion over! They were essentially celebrating their own prowess, worshipping their own ability in escaping Egypt.
This rebellion is even further inferred when Moses witnesses the golden calf and the people. Rather than worshipping the true God with solemnity, they worship a false idol drunk. Rather than offering sacrifice with reverence, they do so with irreverence. In short, not only are they engaging in idolatry, but they have completely lost the sense of anything sacred. Aaron, so disgusted by this (and realizing that maybe it was a horrible idea to originally build that calf!) orders the people engaging in such behavior stripped naked, as a symbol of their ultimate shame for what they have done. No wonder God wished to destroy the entire people!
Yet once again, there are innocents. Besides of course Moses, there are the sons of Levi, who refused to partake in the sacrilege. They in turn avenge the profanation by slaying those who partook of the idolatry. For the sake of those righteous individuals (and of their ancestors) Israel is preserved. Later, when the people again attempt to profane the worship of God (by sexualizing sacrifice, mixing the cult prostitutes of the nations with Israel) Phinehas slays the two engaged in the act, and God states his singular action saved Israel from judgment.