(OK, so I’ve written 3000 words and have only just got out of Genesis. Maybe I need to be a little more concise…)
The rest of Exodus is about Israel’s response to God’s saving acts – the response they should have, as opposed to the response that they do have. The Law is given after the Exodus – it is how Israel are to respond to the fact that God has chosen them and saved them (Ex 20:2). The primary act is God’s, the role of Israel is to respond to that act in obedience and worship. And this act was not a one-off; throughout Exodus to Numbers, God constantly shows his providential care of his people. When they are hungry in the desert, he provides food, when they are thirsty, he provides water. Consistently, Israel’s role is to accept God’s providential care, to trust him and to obey and worship him. And consistently, they fail. At each point in the Exodus, and the journey through the wilderness, the Israelites show that they have no faith in God’s ability or promises to look after them (Ex 14; 16; 17; Num 14; 20). The constant repetition of Israel’s complaints against God and Moses shows that this theme of trusting God is a major consideration of the Torah. When things got hard, Israel were supposed to turn to God for his protection.
Israel’s failure to trust was also echoed by a failure to worship God properly. The creation of the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai is the most obvious egregious example of this failure. The purpose of making this idol was to “go before us” (Ex 32:1 HCSB). Aaron’s then attributes God’s actions to the calf (Ex 32:4 HCSB). God’s extreme response shows his opinion of his people giving credit for his actions to another source, and of them looking to another source for to go before them (to guide and protect them).
It has been suggested that the people were actually trying to make an image of God, and not forge an alternative. If this was the case, then what we see is people taking the initiative to worship and obey god in ways that he had not laid down. We see this happen again in Leviticus:
1 Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his own firepan, put fire in it, placed incense on it, and presented unauthorized fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them to do.
2 Then flames leaped from the LORD’s presence and burned them to death before the LORD.
3 So Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant when He said: I will show My holiness to those who are near Me, and I will reveal My glory before all the people.” But Aaron remained silent. (Lev 10:1-3)
God’s view of innovative worship is clear. He called and saved Israel, and they were to respond to him in the ways that he laid down – not in ways that they see fit to create. Again we see that Israel’s role in this was to trust God and God alone, and to respond to him according to his guidelines.