The account of the first golden calf is well-known within Christianity (or at least I'm under the impression that this is the case). But it is poorly understood. And this is no coincidence as Satan wants to keep people away from God. A proper understanding of this account is necessary to understand just how successful the enemy has been at keeping Christians away from God.
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” [Exodus 32:1; NIV]
An interesting thing to note about the Hebrew word that is translated as "god" or "gods" is that it's almost always in the plural form. This word is "elohim". In fact, this word appears 2,606 times in the Old Testament. The singular form appears only 57 times. One of the times that the plural form of the word is found is in Exodus 20:2, where the literal translation is "I (singular) am Yahweh your gods (plural)." The word "elohim" literally means "mighty one(s)", not "god(s)". Though it's often used to refer to god(s) and the One, True, and Living God.
Notice in Exodus 32:1, the "gods" that they asked Aaron to make are to replace Moses. In their mind, they were not replacing God, just the mediator between them and God (which would be Moses in this case). The passage can just as easily be translated as them saying "make us a god who will go before us." In their mind, they were still serving the God that brought them out of Egypt. But Christians are taught that the Israelites openly went after other gods. And this is the misunderstanding of the incident that blinds Christians from the truth about idolatry!
2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. [Exodus 32:2-6; NIV]
In verse 4, we again have a situation where the words can be translated in either their singular or plural form. In this case, we have two words, not just one. The first one is "elle", which can mean either "this" or "these" (as well as a number of other things). The verse can easily be translated as "This is your god". Again, the word "god" in this case refers to the mediator between God and men. And in verse 6, the word translated as "Lord" is actually the name of God, Yahweh. So not only did they replace their mediator with a golden calf, but they also decided to make their own feast to God! Again, in their eyes, they were worshiping God, not the calf.
7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ [Exodus 32:7-8; NIV]
Now the Bible reveals God's perspective of what the Israelites were doing. Again, the phrase "these are your gods" can also be translated as "this is your god". Notice that in God's mind, the people were sacrificing to the calf they built. The people are sincere in their worship of Yahweh, but they don't realize that they are actually worshiping the calf. Unfortunately, most read this account from the perspective of God and don't even realize that there are two perspectives here. God's perspective and man's perspective. The Bible reveals both perspectives, but it's God's perspective that matters.
Have you noticed how frequently I mention Deuteronomy 13 in these types of posts? There is a reason for that. And really, I should be mentioning Deuteronomy 12 more often, since it also deals with idolatry. Deuteronomy 12:32 warns us to be careful to keep God's commands, and not to add to or diminish from it. And Deuteronomy 13 defines idolatry as rebellion against God's Law by how it contrasts obedience against serving other gods. And Exodus 32 should serve as a reminder of what it means to God when we try to worship him our own way.
Now: About that second golden calf incident. By the way, there was a second incident involving golden calves. The first king of the northern kingdom of Israel (Jeroboam I) set up two of those: One in the north and one in the south. Let's analyze that one as well.
25 Then Jeroboam fortified Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. From there he went out and built up Peniel.
26 Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. 27 If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.”
28 After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 29 One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. 30 And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other.
31 Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites. 32 He instituted a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. This he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made. And at Bethel he also installed priests at the high places he had made. 33 On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing, he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings. [1 Kings 12:25-33; NIV]
The NIV for some reason replaced the word "behold" with "here are". A more accurate translation would be "here is your god." While this second account doesn't give nearly the insight on the perspective of the people, it doesn't need to if you already understand it from Exodus 32. The calves represent Yahweh, who brought Israel out of Egypt. This of course is a violation of the 3rd Commandment as was the calf that was made several hundred years earlier. But the people were sincerely worshiping God and sacrificing to him. Notice however, that the text gives God's perspective on the matter. And from God's perspective, they are worshiping the calf and sacrificing to the calf, not him!
Notice also that he changed one of the Appointed Times to be on the eighth month instead of the seventh month. Yet another violation of Deuteronomy 12, which by itself would be classified as idolatry by Deuteronomy 13. And if that wasn't bad enough, Jeroboam I built high places in outright defiance of the Deuteronomy 12 commands to (a) tear down all the high places and (b) not to worship God the way the pagans worshiped their gods. There is a reason God is so strict on how we are and are not to worship him. And the sequence of events that unfolds over the course of the book of 1 Kings demonstrates perfectly the reason. The kingdom of Israel went from worshiping God through unauthorized and forbidden means (lip service) to openly serving other gods. Had they stuck to God's Law concerning how we are to worship him, this would not have happened.
God is eternal. And his law is eternal. This means that neither God, nor his law, can change. And it should be clear from the Deuteronomy 13 Test that anyone seeking to change the Law, by definition, is leading you to serve other gods. Basically, God put it in his law that the Law cannot be changed or done away with. So anyone who worships God in a way that is forbidden by God's Law is, at best, paying God lip service. Anyone who changes or replaces God's Appointed Times is, at best, paying God lip service. Both are far from God and serving false gods, no matter how sincere they are in their worship of God. Remember, God wants obedience rather than sacrifice. And he wants that obedience to come from the heart.