Exodus: Week 21 Study Guide

What does idolatry look like today, and how do you know if you’re struggling with it? In part 21 of our study through the Book of Exodus, we explore Exodus 32 and the Israelites’ construction of a golden calf idol. Learn how to identify and avoid the things in life that fight for our attention and affection.


Below, you’ll find some key discussion points to consider, questions to personally reflect on and/or discuss in your small group, with your family, or in your circle of friends, and some action points for the week. 

Memory Verse of the Week: Exodus 32:14 (NIV)

“Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”

Idols and Irons

READ: Exodus 32:1–6 (NIV)

In Exodus 32, we see what the Israelites did when Moses was away on the mountain with the Lord. He was gone 40 days, and this prolonged absence and perceived delay gave way to their worst instincts—and that includes Aaron. This is important for us to note because what we do in seasons of God-ordained waiting or when we think we’re alone is a telling measure of our spiritual maturity. 

The people wanted Aaron to make them gods to lead them. Where? Into the Promised Land. They knew God had led them out of Egypt. Yet, they were willing to trust a lesser god of their own making to take them the rest of the way.

But the people weren’t the only ones who displayed a lack of spiritual maturity. You see, instead of being the priest and leader the people needed and redirecting them to the worship of the Lord, Aaron caved to their desires. 

The Church has long had “leaders” who cheapen the true worship of God as outlined in Scripture for a lesser god, an amalgamation of cultural influences, sinful compromise, and human personality. And then they have the audacity to call this god the Lord, even though it doesn’t reflect or resemble what is outlined in Scripture. This is exactly what Aaron did here. He didn’t say, “This is a new god.” He said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4 NKJV). 

They reduced the indescribable, uncontainable, all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present God of the universe to a created thing. When we do this—when we exchange the true and proper worship of the true and living God for that which is perishable and malleable—the result is futile thinking and our foolish hearts becoming darkened. Ultimately, we are given over to sinful desire, shameful behavior, and a depraved mind (Romans 1:18–32). 

You see, the problem is that when we make our own gods, they end up looking a lot like us—imperfect and prone to sin. This is slavery, friends . . . slavery to performance, to our own expectations, to cultural whims, to our own feelings, and to our worst instincts and urges. This leads to devastation and disappointment always.

So, what must we do to avoid this? What the people should have done from the beginning: worship the Lord as He has instructed to be worshiped. The best way to avoid the issues of idolatry is through obedience to the Word. He gave clear instructions to them through Moses over and over again, and He has given us the full revelation of Scripture to recognize who He is and how we are to worship Him. Immerse yourself in the Word, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1 ESV). Don’t stray, don’t add to it, and stay firmly entrenched, daily hiding His Word in your heart. 

Discussion Question 1: What can we learn from the Israelites’ and Aaron’s mistakes?

Praying as If Our Lives Depends on It

READ: Exodus 32:7–14 (NIV)

Foolishly, Israel asked for an idol. And more foolishly, Aaron not only gave them a golden calf, but basically claimed it was Yahweh. They didn’t outright reject God for this golden calf; instead, they said the golden calf represented Yahweh. This is literally the practice forbidden by the second commandment, and the third if you think about it. They had reduced God to a created image and flippantly ascribed His name to it. And because of this, God’s anger and wrath burned against them to the point where He told Moses He was going to wipe them out and start over again with Moses. But Moses pleaded with God and interceded on their behalf. So, “the Lord relented.”  

Was God about to make a rash decision out of anger?

No! Everything God does is thoughtful, good, perfect, and in line with His character. God, who is omniscient (all-knowing), absolutely knew before He chose Abraham’s descendants as His people and even before the foundations of the universe were laid that this moment would take place and that Moses would be moved to intercede on their behalf. 

Did/does God change His mind?

Again . . . no. God doesn’t change His mind. Imperfect, sinful man cannot possibly impose moral behavior upon God and cause God to repent and rethink His will and plans. 

Let’s consider two things here:

1) God’s promises of judgment are inherently meant to call men to repentance and prayer and thus avert the judgment (Ezekiel 33:13–16).

2) God knew He wasn’t going to destroy Israel, but He deliberately put Moses into the position of intercessor. Why? So that Moses, the leader of the people and God’s mediator with the people, would develop and put into practice God’s heart for His people, a heart of love and compassion. So, it can be said that prayer not only changes things but also changes us!

Here, Moses prayed exactly as God desired him to, as if their lives depended on his prayer. This is how God wants us to pray! He who knows all, who has ordained and appointed not only the end result but also ordains the means through which it is accomplished, who governs all events in this universe, He desires that we pray as if everything depends on our prayers, which are in accordance with His will.

God knew He would spare the people through Moses’ intercession. One Christian author put this tension like this: “We must never presume God will grant us apart from prayer what He has ordained to grant us only by means of prayer.” 

May we be a people who pray as if our lives depend on our prayers, as if the lives, salvation, and spiritual formation of others depended on our prayers, as if the health of our churches depended on our prayers, and as if the direction of our culture and world depended on our prayers. Why? Because 1) this is our sacred responsibility and privilege and 2) God absolutely has willed and purposed to accomplish amazing things through your prayers!

Discussion Question 2: What does this interaction between God and Moses teach us about prayer?

Discussion Question 3: Why is it so important we pray as Moses did?

Shattered Tablets and Broken Covenants

READ: Exodus 32:15-24 (NIV)

Remember how we just saw Moses intercede on behalf of the people, asking the Lord to show them mercy? That went down the drain when Moses saw with his own eyes what they were doing. “His anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them.” Then, he took the idol, melted it, ground it into powder, and made the people drink it. Wow!

There’s something so fitting about Moses breaking the tablets of the covenant at Israel’s breaking of the covenant. Now, you may be asking, “They only broke one of the commandments. Don’t you think Moses overreacted?” If you truly examine the commandments, they actually broke all of them! When we break the first commandment, we’re in fact guilty of breaking all of them. How so? 

In doing what they did . . . 

  1. They worshipped a god of their own making in the place of the true and living God.
  2. They reduced the Almighty to a created thing that could be molded to fit our sinful desires.
  3. They misused His name by ascribing Him to this idol.
  4. They failed to rest in Him and instead put their trust in this idol.
  5. They dishonored their Father who had adopted them as His beloved children. 
  6. They committed violence and murder against their own souls.
  7. They committed adultery against God, who is always faithful.
  8. They stole offerings that belonged to God to make sacrifice to this idol.
  9. They gave false witness about who He is.
  10. They coveted the false sense of security their pagan neighbors had through the worship of handmade idols. 

All of this was a rejection of the first words spoken in the Law: “I am the Lord your God.” It was a rejection of God’s character, nature, and work, just like in the Garden. And just like in the Garden, Aaron deflects blame on the people when confronted by Moses. 

Moses asks Aaron what the people did to him to make him sin so greatly. Honestly, they didn’t do much. And it seems Aaron, the leader in this scenario, is the one who took it to the next level, as one commentator points out, because he “was flattered by the enthusiastic response of the people.” But instead of taking responsibility and repenting, he tries to lessen his and the people’s sin by saying, “You know how they are.” It’s like when people brush off sexual assault, saying, “Boys will be boys,” or premarital sex with “Well, it’s just the way of the world now.” No, friends . . . sin is sin. 

Aaron had no sense of the greatness of his sin. You see, when God entrusts to us a person or group of people to lead and shepherd, it’s a heavy responsibility. Whether it’s our kids, a small group, a church, or one person we’re discipling, there is never an excuse to condone, let alone facilitate sin! We’re called to lead by example and point people to the true and proper worship of the Lord. May we never approach these God-ordained leadership roles without the fear of God.

Discussion Question 4: How does this passage give us a deeper understanding of the widespread dangers of idolatry?

Discussion Question 5: What can we do to keep ourselves free of idolatry and help others walk in freedom from it? 


Ask the Lord to guide you and grow you as a leader in whatever capacity you lead people, so you may avoid the pitfalls of Aaron.


What is it like to see God face-to-face? In our next study, we’ll explore Exodus 33 and the tent of meeting, where the presence of God would dwell among His people. Learn how we can live in and be guided by God’s presence every day!

Additional Resources

About the Author

Danny Saavedra

Danny Saavedra is a licensed minister who has served on staff at Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.