In Exodus 32 Moses returns from talking with the Lord on the mountain and finds that the Israelites have turned to sinful actions. Verse 6 says, “The people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” What exactly was this “revelry” that followed the Israelites’ feast?
The context helps identify the main actions that offended the Lord. First, verse 4 notes that the people gave offerings to a golden calf. They had already broken the first of the Ten Commandments before Moses had even returned to them! And verse 6 mentions that feasting and drinking were part of the festivities.
Second, Moses had identified the noise emanating from the camp as “the sound of singing” (Exodus 32:18). In their pagan revelries, the people of Israel were singing songs of adoration to the golden calf. In the not-so-distant past, they had been singing praise to the Lord after He led them safely through the Red Sea (Exodus 15). Now their tune had changed.
Third, the people of Israel danced as part of their celebration of the golden calf. Verse 19 says, “When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain.” Dancing per se is not noted as wrong, but dancing in celebration of an idol made Moses (and God) angry.
Fourth, there was an unrestrained attitude of partying around the golden calf. Verse 25 presents the shameful truth: “The people were running wild . . . Aaron had let them get out of control and so [they became] a laughingstock to their enemies.” Details of their behavior are not given, but their actions were unruly, uncivilized, and ungodly.
In turning to a graven image, the people had turned away from the Lord (see Deuteronomy 9:16). Even though the golden calf had been billed as the god they had been following all along (Exodus 32:4), the True God cannot be reduced to imagery. The Lord will not share His glory with another (Isaiah 42:8). That is why God judged the people of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai.