Golden Calf

Concise Bible Dictionary:

This is described as being fashioned with a graving tool after it had been made a molten image. The earrings of the women, of the sons and daughters, and probably of the men, were given up for the object. The Israelites on their leaving had been amply supplied with jewels by the Egyptians and no doubt more trinkets were given to Aaron than those actually being worn. Nothing is said about the size of the calf, but a comparatively small image when on a pedestal would have been seen by the multitude. It is probable that the calf was intended as a representation of God, and would come under the second commandment rather than the first. Aaron said, “This is thy god, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (as it should read); and “Tomorrow is a feast to Jehovah” (Ex. 32:1-61And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. 2And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me. 3And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. 4And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. 5And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow is a feast to the Lord. 6And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play. (Exodus 32:1‑6)).
This form of idolatry is more specious than that of disowning God altogether and setting up an idol instead, but it is as really idolatry, and it was signally punished by God. There was the same worship in Egypt with the bull Apis, which was said to represent the god Osiris; this may have suggested the idea to the Israelites of making a calf. The same sin was repeated by Jeroboam who was afraid of his people going up to Jerusalem to worship: he set up two calves, one in Bethel and one in Dan, and proclaimed, “Behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28-3328Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. 29And he set the one in Beth-el, and the other put he in Dan. 30And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan. 31And he made an house of high places, and made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi. 32And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that is in Judah, and he offered upon the altar. So did he in Beth-el, sacrificing unto the calves that he had made: and he placed in Beth-el the priests of the high places which he had made. 33So he offered upon the altar which he had made in Beth-el the fifteenth day of the eighth month, even in the month which he had devised of his own heart; and ordained a feast unto the children of Israel: and he offered upon the altar, and burnt incense. (1 Kings 12:28‑33)). Idolatry did not stop here with Israel, for they went on to worship “all the host of heaven, and served Baal” (2 Kings 17:1616And they left all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made them molten images, even two calves, and made a grove, and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served Baal. (2 Kings 17:16)). The above specious form of idolatry is perpetuated in Christendom in the images in the churches, and on the road-side in any Roman Catholic country.
The fact that the golden calf was burnt by Moses before it was ground to powder has given rise to a great deal of discussion. It has been suggested that the image was really formed of wood and merely covered with gold; but the account will not allow this, for it says it was “molten,” and then shaped more perfectly by the graver. It sufficiently meets the case if we suppose that the calf was at least softened by fire, if not melted, then beaten into thin plates, before being pounded into dust and strewn into the brook (Ex. 32:2020And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it. (Exodus 32:20)).

From Manners and Customs of the Bible:

There is thought to be an allusion here to a custom which was practiced in Egypt in connection with the worship of the sacred calf, Apis. Godwyn says: “The party that repaired unto him tendered a bottle of hay or grass; which, if he received, then it betokened a good and happy event; if, otherwise, he refused it, then it did portend some evil to come” (Moses and Aaron, book 4, chapter 5).