When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.
And the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. (Exodus 32:1-14, ESV)
Yahweh tells Moses that the people have “turned aside quickly” and for certain it did not take long for them to go back on their word to Yahweh that they would do all He told them to do. How could they think that this was in any way the right thing to do. Aaron is too complicit in their request, though he tries to put a positive spin on things by saying there will be a feast to Yahweh.
The calf is a symbol of fecundity or fertility and many believe that the “play” that they engaged in was sexual in nature, a way of recreating or replaying God’s fertilizing of the earth. Yahweh is ready to destroy them for this stiff-necked rebellion, but Moses saves their skin by appealing to God’s covenant with their forefathers. It appears that Yahweh is testing Moses here to see how he will respond. Does he love this people or is he willing to let God make a great nation of him. Of course God knows what is in Moses’ heart but it is important for Moses to see what he will choose in this situation, and he chooses well.
It is important to see the hardness of our own hearts and to appeal to God for softening of them. We have an interceder on our side, as well, Jesus Christ the righteous one (1 John 2:2; Hebrews 7:25). Satan accuses us day and night before our God (Revelation 12:10). But we’re told that Jesus always lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25; Romans 8:34). What do you suppose Jesus is saying to His Father on our behalf? Would that he could say what he said about Job, that there is no one like him, blameless and upright, who fears God and shuns evil (Job 1:8). But even if not, Jesus paid the price for us with his blood and he will let no one snatch us out of his hand (John 10:28).
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.
(second verse of Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing by Robert Robinson, 1757)