This is one of my favorite passages in the entire Old Testament because it underscores several important lessons. There is a lesson in leadership: as soon as Moses stops leading (in this case because he has gone away for an extended time to be with God) the people go back to what is familiar and comfortable. In Egypt they had the comfort of visual representations of the gods, in the desert they are told that there can be no images. In Egypt the gods seemed omnious but didn't seem to do much, in the desert God is thundering on the near by mountain. The people decide in the wilderness, with Moses gone, that they want to go back to the familiar.
The best part of the story, however, is Aaron, Moses brother. Aaron is the "second in command" and has been chosen as the "priest of Israel". The people turn to Aaron and ask for"gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses . . . we don't know what has happened to him." (Exodus 32:1). Aaron complys with their desire. He asks for thier gold earrings, he melts the gold down, he takes a tool and shapes the molten gold into the shape of a calf and the crowd cheers this idol as "the gods who brought you out of Egypt". Remember, Aaron, asks the the gold, he melts it down, he shapes the gold into a calf using tools.
The people proceed to party, revel and fall into a full scale debouch. Moses, upon returning from his time with God finds the nation prancing infront of this golden calf having broken most of the commandments given 12 chapters ago and he is furious.
Here is where human nature comes to the surface. Moses confronts his brother Aaron. "What did these people do to you that you led them into such great sin(Exodus 32:21)." Moses assumes that Aaron did what he did under duress. And Aaron lies to his brother. The story is comical (remember Adam blaming God for eating the fruit in Genesis 3? . . . "The woman YOU gave me. . ."). Aaron tells the story (remember: he asked for the gold, he melted it down, he shaped the calf with the tools): "They said make us gods who will go before us . . . So I told them, 'Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.' Then they gave me the gold and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!"(Exodus 32 22-24). Aaron, in typical human fashion disavows any responsibilty in the matter. He claims, we threw the gold into the fire and this calf just walked out!
Personal responsibilty and accountabilty is a key component of Christian maturity. Too often we want to blame everyone and everything rather than assuming responsibilty for the bad stuff we have done. Mark Twain said it well: "Always tell the truth, that way you don't have to remember what you said!" No more golden calfs, own your stuff, ask for forgiveness, grow up, move forward!