Exodus chapter 32 represents a key moment in the history of God's dealings with Israel. It is the moment where the children of Israel first face God's wrath. In preceding chapters of Exodus, it was the Egyptians who had plagues poured out on them because of Pharaoh's intransigence. But these plagues appear merciful in comparison with the utter destruction God threatens against the people of Israel in this chapter.
First, it's worth examining a few turns of phrase in the King James text that have dramatically colored the way in which this text has been read in American culture. In verse 6, the KJV reads, "and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play." Later, in verse 25, the KJV reads, "and when Moses saw that the people were naked; (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies)." If you've ever seen The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston, the portrayal of the events of this chapter as a kind of Bacchanalian sex orgy is pretty unforgettable. It gives the impression that when "the sons of Levi" rallied to Moses' call and slew "three thousand men," that they were being slain as much for their sexual licentiousness as for anything else. This translation/reading of the text has certainly cemented in the American religious imagination a connection between idolatry and sexuality. Better translations and a more careful reading of the text present a much different and, in my opinion, far more sobering picture of the relationship between God and his people.
The Jewish Publication Society translation of these texts (which is supported in the footnotes of the LDS edition) first of all reads away from the image of a sex orgy, and toward the establishment of a new (idolatrous) religion. In verse 6, JPS reads, "they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance." The contrast between the KJV and JPS translations of verse 25 are even more striking. JPS reads, "Moses saw that the people were out of control -- since Aaron had let them get out of control -- so that they were a menace to any who might oppose them." In other words, Moses finds in progress not a sex orgy, but an armed rebellion. And in that light, what is portrayed to ensue -- the quelling of the rebellion with armed force, resulting in the deaths of three thousand -- makes much more sense.
Read in context, we see that what is happening in this chapter is the establishment of a new religion without divine authorization. Moses, accompanied by Joshua, goes up into Mount Sinai to receive God's commandments. The people are distressed by his absence, which they feel has been long enough that they no longer know what's happened to him. At their urging, Aaron gathers gold from the people and fashions an idol. And here's where it gets interesting.
"This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt," he proclaims. He builds an altar for sacrifice, and then proclaims, "Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!" Exodus 32 proceeds to describe a standard religious festival, complete with sacrifices, sacraments (eating and drinking), hymns and liturgical dance. Not an orgy, but worship.
This is fascinating to me, because I had often read this text as a violation of the first commandment ("Thou shalt have no other gods before me" -- Exodus 20:3). In fact, it is a violation of the second commandment, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image."
The difference to me between these two commandments has always been kind of fuzzy, especially given the Christian culture I am accustomed to where portraits of God are common -- in stained glass windows or on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Mormons don't think twice about fashioning images of God when portraying Joseph Smith's theophany in the Sacred Grove. Such portraits in Sunday School manuals or films or in missionary flip charts is commonplace. To us that is not idolatry, that's missionary work. (Even though some of us have learned to squirm a bit about portrayals of God as a white guy with a beard.)
But the distinction between the first and second commandments is less fuzzy in the context of Jewish history and culture, where any visual portrayal of God is taboo, where even the writing or the careless speaking of God's name is considered off limits. I guess the Jews have stayed closer to the lessons of Exodus 32 (and Exodus 20:4-6) than Christians. Jews understand, as this text should make clear to any people who cherish the Bible, that false images of the one true God are just as dangerous as false gods. You don't have to worship Asherah or Beelzebul to have gone astray. You can worship something you have persuaded yourself to be the one true God but is actually a mere false image.
When Aaron stood before the golden calf and proclaimed, "This is your God... who brought you out of the land of Egypt," he intended to point toward the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Perhaps he hoped that this form of devotion was better than the lawlessness the people seemed to be careening toward in Moses' absence. Perhaps he reasoned, it is easier for people to stay focused if they have something concrete to worship.
The problem, of course, was once they had latched onto their own image -- their own idol -- of God, they became fixed upon it to the exclusion of any true revelation from God. When Moses reappeared in the camp with a bonafide revelation, they rejected it in favor of the one they had fashioned for themselves, and the result was violent rebellion, "a menace to any who might oppose them."
This is far more disquieting in my mind, than the image of the children of Israel engaging in orgiastic revelry so often presented to us from this chapter. A more accurate reading of this text reveals the children of Israel actually engaging in orderly worship, in devotion that looks not too different from the devotion demanded by the One True God. In the chapters just preceding Exodus 32, we have revelations in which the Lord spells out what kind of altar to build for the purpose of the sacrifices he requires (see particularly Exodus 30), and in Exodus 32 we see Aaron building an altar for sacrifice to "the Lord."
Idolatry, it seems, is a far graver sin than revelry; and it seems a much easier sin to mistake for the kind of worship God demands of us.
For what it's worth, what ensues in the story is revealing about the fundamental nature of idolatry versus true worship.
An idol is problematic because it is "graven," it is fixed. And so it seems all the more significant that the description of God presented in this text is of a being who is not fixed.
In verses 9-14 of the same chapter, the Lord clearly states his intention to utterly annihilate the children of Israel, to wipe the slate clean and start over with Moses. And Moses enters into a kind of pleading or bargaining with the Lord that is reminiscent of the bargaining that Abraham engages in on behalf of the city of Sodom (Genesis 18: 23-35). Moses actually, remarkably, puts himself on the line for the children of Israel. Moses pleads with the Lord, in verse 32, "Now, if You will forgive their sin well and good; but if not, erase me from the record which you have written." Moses was willing to go down with the sinking ship if necessary; and greater love hath no man. God accepted Moses' pleading, Moses' sacrifice of love, and made a different, more merciful, arrangement.
Idols can't do that. An idol is fixed. And a fixed idol can be an idea as much as a statue or a picture.
God preserve us from that.