Today's passage covers instructions for the altar of incense and washing basin, formulas and instructions for anointing oil and incense, the Bible's first head tax, God's choice of Bezaleel and Aholiab to be the craftsmen, more laws for the Sabbath, and the incident of the golden calf.
The "golden calf" episode has been featured in a number of movies, most notably The Ten Commandments, but also satirically in the Kevin Smith movie Dogma. The message, most cursory believers will be quick to tell you, is not to worship false idols but instead to believe only in God.
But, as with so many Biblical stories, the lesson runs deeper when you start to interpret the complexities of the story. Let us, therefore, take a moment to summarize the events contained within Ex. 32:
The Hebrews, worried that Moses has not yet come down from Mount Sinai, ask Aaron to make them gods. Aaron, with nary a hint of argument, tells them to break off their earrings and give him the resulting gold, which he uses to fashion a golden calf. He builds an altar before it and declares the next day a feast to this new god. People wake up, give it offerings, and pray to it.
Meanwhile, God knows full well what the Israelites have done. He nearly destroys them all, except for a quick intervention by Moses, who tells God that if he destroys the Israelites now, the Egyptians will mock him (God). Instead, God gives Moses two tablets of laws and sends him down with Joshua to deal with the people.
Moses, when he sees what has happened, gets just as angry as God was, smashes the tablets, burns the calf, and makes the Israelites drink the resulting ashes with water. He also pulls aside Aaron and asks, essentially, "what the hell were you thinking?" Aaron deftly shifts the blame to the Hebrews, calling them "set on mischief." Curiously, he seems to imply that the calf simply created itself out of the fire, as opposed to being the product of Aaron's own handiwork. (Ex. 32:24)
Moses calls forth all those "on the LORD's side" -- the Levites -- who go forth and slaughter three thousand men who had worshipped the golden calf. Moses goes back up to the mountain to try to reason with God, while God curses the Israelites with a plague for what they had done.
So, what does this episode teach us, other than the glib, "don't worship idols"?
First, we need to ask ourselves about Aaron's role in all this. Aaron, it seems doesn't argue at all when the Israelites ask him to make them a new god. There is not a single verse between their request (Ex. 32:1) and Aaron's reply to give him their gold (Ex. 32:2). It is Aaron, not the Hebrews, who declare a feast day to the new god. At least from this perspective, it seems that Aaron was wholly taken up with the new worship.
Yet there are indications that Aaron may not have been so enthusiastic as he might appear. Ex. 32:25 tells us "Aaron had made [the people] naked unto their shame among their enemies." (KJV) In other words, Aaron deliberately made the worshippers vulnerable to anyone who might attack them. Furthermore, Aaron may have been telling the truth when he told Moses that the people pressured him into building the new god (Ex. 32:22-24). After all, God does not revoke Aaron's status as high priest, holiest of men among the Israelites. This may be an indication that there is more argument taking place "behind the text."
But let us move for a moment from Aaron to the rest of the people. If we believe Aaron when he says the people pressured him into making the calf, we need to ask ourselves, "why?" The Hebrews were sitting directly underneath the mountain of God. Mere chapters earlier, they had agreed to follow God's commandments and to keep his covenant (Ex. 24). Presumably, God was still raining down manna and quail, as we have no indication of the Israelites starving. So why, with all these outward signs that their god was a true, present, immediate force, did the Hebrews choose to build a new god?
One answer might lie in the surrounding religions of the ancient Mediterranean. Egypt was a polytheist society: it worshipped many gods. Furthermore, many of these gods had human or at least semi-human shape. The Mesopotamians also had an anthropomorphic religion, as did the Minoans on the island of Crete. With so many polytheistic religions nearby, it must have been surprisingly difficult for the Israelites to say, "our God can't be represented by painting or sculpture. He has no name and no mythic story. He did not come into being, but always existed." To the Hebrews, so recently immersed in Egyptian culture, this must have seemed the height of foolishness, no matter what the evidence at hand indicated.
Furthermore, the Israelites would have had no idea how to worship such a god. They understood how to worship statues and idols: pray before them, offer them food and sacrifices, clothe them in expensive clothes and jewellery, and so forth. It would have been far easier for them to return to their comfort zone of worship, as it were. If they could not offer God the proper worship, at least they could create a god for themselves and worship him properly.
Finally, God was temperamental. Certainly, he told the Hebrews that if they followed his laws, they would live long, prosperous lives. But they were difficult laws, and when the Hebrews didn't follow them, God was liable to murder them all, as he had the antediluvians, the people of Sodom and Gemorrah, or the Egyptian firstborn. Though it had seemed like a good idea at the time to agree to a covenant with this god, perhaps in retrospect the Hebrews realized it might not have been such a good idea after all. According to Jewish folklore, God asked all the other cultures of the region to be his chosen people, and each of them rejected him. It was only the Hebrews who finally agreed. Perhaps, in making the golden calf, the Hebrews realized that the other nations might have had a valid point in their rejections.
Unfortunately, the Hebrews had already committed themselves, and were forced to pay the price: slaughter and plague. In the end, therefore, what do we learn from this incident? If you're going to make a decision, stick to it. And if you're going to go back on your deal, make sure you have a convenient scapegoat.