Some people wonder whether perhaps the 2nd commandment's prohibition on idolatry is limited to making idols of false gods. One of the questions asked is whether Israel ever made idols of the true God, or whether the idols were always of false gods. There are two or three times that come to mind when the nation of Israel made and worshiped an image purporting to be of God. Bear in mind as well, that whatever you may think of these three negative examples, there is no positive example of God authorizing or permitting any image of himself.
I. The Aaronic Calf
The first and primary account is found in Exodus 32:
And 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. And 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. And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.- Exodus 32:1-35
And 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."
And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, "To morrow is a feast to the LORD." And 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.
And the LORD said unto Moses, "Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, 'These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.'"
And the LORD said unto Moses, "I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation."
And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, "LORD, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand? Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever."
And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people. And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.
And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, "There is a noise of war in the camp."
And he said, "It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear." And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. And 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.
And Moses said unto Aaron, "What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them?"
And Aaron said, "Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief. For they said unto me, '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.' And I said unto them, 'Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off.' So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf."
And when Moses saw that the people were naked; (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies:) then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, "Who is on the LORD'S side? let him come unto me." And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him.
And he said unto them, "Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour."
And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. For Moses had said, "Consecrate yourselves to day to the LORD, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day."
And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, "Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the LORD; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin." And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, "Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin--; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written."
And the LORD said unto Moses, "Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book. Therefore now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, mine Angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them." And the LORD plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made.
In this account, we see the Israelites making a golden calf. I recognize that there have been various expositions of this text, but I submit to you that the golden calf was intended to picture the one true God. The evidence in support of this is manifold.
1) "Make us gods"
The word translated "gods" is the Hebrew word אלהים (Elohim), which is one of the names of God. In fact, out of the times that the word (or one of its forms) appears in the Old Testament (2605), it is translated "God" 2366 times, or about 90.8% of the time. That statistical data is not proof, of course, but it does show that we should not assume that because the plural word "Elohim" is used, the reference must be a plurality of false gods.
2) "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"
The "gods" to be made were to replace Moses. They were not designed to replace Jehovah. Thus, we may reasonably understand this request to be one of making some visible substitute for the missing Moses, not as a request to make some false gods to worship instead of the true God.
3) "These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt"
Notice how the "gods" are described (by the translator) as "thy gods" and are specified in the text as being those "which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." This attribute uniquely identifies who is being described:
Micah 6:4 For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
Deuteronomy 20:1 When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, be not afraid of them: for the LORD thy God is with thee, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
Exodus 20:2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Furthermore, while the translators used "gods" here, they could rightly have used "God" as they did in Nehemiah:
Yea, when they had made them a molten calf, and said, This is thy God that brought thee up out of Egypt, and had wrought great provocations; yet thou in thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness: the pillar of the cloud departed not from them by day, to lead them in the way; neither the pillar of fire by night, to shew them light, and the way wherein they should go.
4) "They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto,"
Notice that God accuses them of "turn[ing] aside quickly out of the way" and of making the image, but not of worshiping another god. The Deuteronomy account is similar:
Deuteronomy 9:12 And the LORD said unto me, Arise, get thee down quickly from hence; for thy people which thou hast brought forth out of Egypt have corrupted themselves; they are quickly turned aside out of the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten image.
And likewise, when Moses chides them, he repeats that same expression:
Deuteronomy 9:16 And I looked, and, behold, ye had sinned against the LORD your God, and had made you a molten calf: ye had turned aside quickly out of the way which the LORD had commanded you.
In contrast, when the issue is worshiping other gods, that is made clear (in other passages):
Deuteronomy 11:28 And a curse, if ye will not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which ye have not known.
Judges 2:17 And yet they would not hearken unto their judges, but they went a whoring after other gods, and bowed themselves unto them: they turned quickly out of the way which their fathers walked in, obeying the commandments of the LORD; but they did not so.
This event is never described in Scripture, as far as I can find, as being an event where Israel turned after other gods, but simply as an event where Israel left the proper way of worshiping the true and living God.
5) "Aaron made proclamation, and said, 'To morrow is a feast to the LORD.'"
Notice that it is Jehovah whom they are worshiping. Aaron calls it a feast to the LORD (employing the tetragrammaton) not to "the lord" (adonai) or to lords or gods. The golden calf was supposed to depict the Lord, and consequently the feast was not a feast to the calf, but a feast to the LORD, whom it supposedly represented.
6) "a molten calf" - "gods"
Notice that there was only one calf here, and yet "gods" are spoken of. The Israelites were a very foolish people to anger God in this way. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that a whole nation of people couldn't tell that one calf is not "gods" (plural) but only "a god" (singular). As such, it seems likely that "Elohim" (discussed above) refers not to a plurality of deities, but to the most high God. If they wanted to worship many gods, they would need many images, but only one image for one god.
For all these reasons, I am persuaded that the one golden calf was intended to be Jehovah, Elohim, the one true God, He who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. The strongest case that I can think of making against it is to notice that in Stephen's speech, as recorded for us in Acts, Stephen states:
This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us: to whom our fathers would not obey, but thrust him from them, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt, Saying unto Aaron, "Make us gods to go before us: for as for this Moses, which brought us out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him." And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifice unto the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands.
There may be a variety of explanations for this statement (from the idea that Stephen was just quoting from a septuagint translation, or that Stephen's comments were harmonized with the septuagint translation of Exodus 32, or that both Stephen's comments and the septuagint translations were following a speculative protocol for not referring to images as the one true God). A very simple explanation is that Stephen's speech was not, before the point at verse 55 where he was filled with the Holy Ghost, an inspired account. It's rather an inspired recital of Stephen's fallible recollection of the history of Israel. Regardless the explanation, "gods" is a literal translation of "Elohim" and Stephen does confirm for us that only one calf was made in response to this request to "make us gods."
II. Jeroboam's Calves
The second time that Israel did this is like the first time. It is recorded in 1 Kings:
1 Kings 12:28-30
Whereupon 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. And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan. And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan.
Although there were two calves here, the two calves were simply because there were two places of worship. It was not as though one calf were one god, and the other were another god. Instead, both were designed to illustrate the true God, and to subvert the authorized worship of God. As you will recall, the motivation for making these calves was to replace the temple worship at Jerusalem:
1 Kings 12:26-27
And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David: if this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah.
Thus, to preserve his own power, Jeroboam perverted the worship of the LORD. Instead of worshiping at Jerusalem, they worshiped at one of the calves (the fact that they worshiped at one of them, not both of them, confirms that the calves were not supposed to be two gods, but two idols of the one God):
1 Kings 12:30 And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan.
III. Samaria's Calf
There is yet a third time. This time is recorded for us in the book of the prophet Hosea:
Thy calf, O Samaria, hath cast thee off; mine anger is kindled against them: how long will it be ere they attain to innocency? For from Israel was it also: the workman made it; therefore it is not God: but the calf of Samaria shall be broken in pieces.
Hosea declares that this calf was "not God" but it is clear from the context that he is contradicting the claims of the Samaritans who claim it is God. Furthermore, as in the two previous instances, the name of God used is "Elohim." Now, whether this calf is simply one of the Dan or Bethel calves, we're not told. However, this provides yet a third instance (whether through a new act or a further perpetration of the sins of Jeroboam) in which the children of Israel broke the second commandment in the exemplary way.
So then, let us learn from the errors of Samaria, of Jeroboam, and of Aaron, and let us not make to ourselves any images purporting to be of God, whether as calves or in the likeness of any living thing that lives on the Earth. Let us not bow down to them, nor serve them, for God is a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, to the third and fourth generation of them that hate him, but showing mercy unto thousands of generations to those that love Him and keep His commandments.
I figure some folks may wish to have convenient access to the Deuteronomy account of the Aaronic golden calf event. Here goes:
Remember, and forget not, how thou provokedst the LORD thy God to wrath in the wilderness: from the day that thou didst depart out of the land of Egypt, until ye came unto this place, ye have been rebellious against the LORD.- Deuteronomy 9:7-21
Also in Horeb ye provoked the LORD to wrath, so that the LORD was angry with you to have destroyed you. When I was gone up into the mount to receive the tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant which the LORD made with you, then I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights, I neither did eat bread nor drink water: and the LORD delivered unto me two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words, which the LORD spake with you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly.
And it came to pass at the end of forty days and forty nights, that the LORD gave me the two tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant. And the LORD said unto me, "Arise, get thee down quickly from hence; for thy people which thou hast brought forth out of Egypt have corrupted themselves; they are quickly turned aside out of the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten image."
Furthermore the LORD spake unto me, saying, "I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: let me alone, that I may destroy them, and blot out their name from under heaven: and I will make of thee a nation mightier and greater than they."
So I turned and came down from the mount, and the mount burned with fire: and the two tables of the covenant were in my two hands. And I looked, and, behold, ye had sinned against the LORD your God, and had made you a molten calf: ye had turned aside quickly out of the way which the LORD had commanded you.
And I took the two tables, and cast them out of my two hands, and brake them before your eyes. And I fell down before the LORD, as at the first, forty days and forty nights: I did neither eat bread, nor drink water, because of all your sins which ye sinned, in doing wickedly in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger. For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure, wherewith the LORD was wroth against you to destroy you. But the LORD hearkened unto me at that time also.
And the LORD was very angry with Aaron to have destroyed him: and I prayed for Aaron also the same time. And I took your sin, the calf which ye had made, and burnt it with fire, and stamped it, and ground it very small, even until it was as small as dust: and I cast the dust thereof into the brook that descended out of the mount.
Notice how the calf which they made is expressed in apposition to their "sin." The sin was making (and worshiping) the representation of God, although - one might argue - that if it had been a statue of a false god, the same appositive could have been made.
UPDATE: (November 2, 2009) There's at least one additional passage that should be mentioned:
They made a calf in Horeb, and worshipped the molten image. Thus they changed their glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass.
There is some ambiguity here, but it seems that this couplet supports the idea that the calf was supposed to be a representation of Jehovah, since they are changing the glory of the invisible God into the likeness of an ox, not following a false god in place of Jehovah according to the description here.