How could a people who have experienced the genuine power of God decide to worship idols.
Drew Dyck thinks it was not because the people forgot, but because they wanted something safer, something they could control.
Idolatry is the creation and worship of manageable gods.
From Yawning At Tigers:
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. … The sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. (Ex. 19:16—19)
It’s a powerful scene, one that underscores God’s holiness and majesty. It’s also absolutely terrifying. After such an overwhelming encounter, I wonder if the idea of a mute idol seemed strangely attractive — for comfort if nothing else.
Here, the contrast between God and an idol couldn’t be clearer. We’re told that after offering sacriﬁces to the golden calf, the Israelites “sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry” (Ex. 32:6). But when God descended on Mount Sinai, “everyone in the camp trembled” (Ex. 19:16). You don’t tremble before an idol.
You can see an idol. It’s visible, tangible. Yahweh, on the other hand, is invisible and forbids representation. And just in case you felt like making a run for the mountain to steal a glimpse of his glory, there’s this: “Warn the people,” God told Moses, “so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish” (Ex. 19:21).
The differences don’t stop there. You can also control an idol. You determine what it’s made out of where it goes, and how it’s worshipped. Not so with the sovereign Creator of heaven and earth, who alone determines the terms of his worship.
An idol is safe. It never challenges You. It isn’t threatening. It doesn’t judge sin or demand loyalty. But the Holy One of Israel is a jealous God — passionate and loving, yes, but unspeakably dangerous too.
The actions of the Israelites might seem strange to us, but when you consider the challenges of worshipping the living God, the lure of tame idols makes much more sense.
Are we all that different from the Israelites? We may not melt down jewellery to make golden calves, but we’re continually pulling God down to our level. We’re forever creating more comfortable versions of him to worship. We, too, exchange intimacy with the living God for “the dangerous illusion of a manageable deity.”
I think it’s interesting that after casting the idol, Aaron proclaimed, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4). Then he announced to the people, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD” (v.5).
Those gods didn’t bring them out of Egypt. And how could an idolatrous party be described as a “festival to the LORD”? Many believe that the idol (or idols) Aaron fashioned may have actually been intended to represent Yahweh. If that was the case, the great sin of the Israelites at Sinai was not worshipping other gods. It was assigning God a replacement. It was reducing God to something he is not and making that the object of worship. In other words, it was something we do all the time.
Drew Dyck, Yawning At Tigers, Nelson Books, 2014, pgs 16-18.