The golden calf passage begins in the following way.
(1) The Israelites agree to be bound by the Ten Commandments which include the prohibition of idol worship (Ex 20:4-5).
(2) But when Moses leaves them alone for 40 days in order to commune with God, the Israelites make and worship the golden calf (Ex 32:3-6).
If you have ever managed clients (e.g. as a doctor, lawyer, or teacher), supervised employees, or raised children, then you have probably run into a low-stakes analog of this situation.
(a) You give your charges explicit directions which they eagerly accept without confusion or objection.
(b) Then they do something expressly forbidden.
I shall suggest that Moses' first reactions to the golden calf situation illustrate how NOT to handle the situation, but eventually Moses gets it right. The passage teaches what to do, and what to avoid when we next find ourselves dealing with noncompliant clients, employees, or children.
Prompted by God, Moses considers whether to abandon the Israelites and start over with a new group of people (Ex 32:9-10). Moses urges God to reject this option; he may also be trying to talk himself out of it. He offers three reasons:
(3) Efficiency: Much has been invested in the Israelites. Abandoning them would waste the trouble taken to rescue them from Egypt (Ex 32:11).
(4) Reputation: Abandoning the Israelites would look bad to the neighboring peoples (Ex 32:12).
(5) Morality: Abandoning the Israelites would violate a promise (Ex 32:13).
When Moses returns to the Israelites, he makes three, increasingly dramatic attempts to get control of the situation.
(6) First, Moses angrily breaks the tablets (Ex 32:19). Why? Moses is not reacting with sudden fury at the misbehaving Israelites; he has been warned of what to expect. Breaking tablets was a standard way of voiding contracts in the ancient Mideast, but Moses appeals to the obligations of this contract moments earlier. I suggest that Moses breaks the tablets to get everyone's attention so that he can tell them to stop misbehaving.
(7) Next, Moses forces everyone to drink a concoction made with ground-up bits of the calf statue (Ex 32:20). This is the human version of rubbing a puppy's nose in its own poop in order to house-break the puppy.
(8) Finally, Moses resorts to a much more extreme measure, perhaps because the Israelites were out of control (Ex 32:25). The rubbing-their-noses-in-it tactic failed, so Moses has some of the Israelites killed to make an example of them (Ex 32:27-28)
Of course, none of us are quite in the same position as Moses, but small-stakes, contemporary analogs of the golden calf situation often arise. For example...
Receptionist: Doctor, your next patients - the Jones family - are eating Twinkies in the waiting room.
Doctor: Twinkies! The Joneses are all diabetics! They promised me that they would stay on their diabetic-diet.
Receptionist: You could dismiss them from your practice - refuse to continue as their doctor.
Doctor: Tempting, but no. After all...
(c) Efficiency: Dismissing the Joneses would waste the time and effort I have already invested in diagnosing and treating their various medical problems.
(d) Reputation: I would be criticized at the next regional AMA meeting for dismissing the Joneses. My fellow doctors would think badly of me.
(e) Morality: Dismissing the Joneses would break my implicit doctor-patient commitment to them.
When the doctor enters the examining room, she makes three, increasingly dramatic attempts to get control of the situation.
(f) First the doctor yells at the Jones family, but they don't pay much attention.
(g) Next, the doctor tries to induce shame and regret by insisting that they add "Twinkies" to their diet-logs right then and there.
(h) Finally, when she sees one of the family members continuing to sneak Twinkie crumbs, the doctor makes an example of him by summarily dismissing him from her practice.
Thinking critically about the actions of Biblical characters is hard because they live in a very different world than our own, but it is easy to see that the doctor's actions are unlikely to yield positive results in the long term. Once we recognize this, it becomes clear by analogy that Moses' actions are also inept. Luckily, this is not the end of the golden calf story. Here is the rest.
(9) Moses and God forgive the Israelites (Ex 32:30).
(10) But that is not all. The Israelites clearly need help in abiding by their commitments. They need frequent, personal contact with God through Moses. To accommodate them, Moses arranges to meet with individuals and groups regularly outside of the camp (Ex 33:7).
(11) Moses recognizes that a short period of regular meetings is insufficient, so he and God commit to continuing these meetings as the Israelites go forth from Sinai rather than letting a mere proxy lead them to the Promised Land (Ex 33:15-17).
Similarly, when our charges disappoint us, we have to consider the possibility that we asked too much of them. Now sometimes it really IS their own fault. They could have, and should have tried harder. They really are irresponsible, lazy losers.
But other times the seemingly trivial task we set is really beyond them. following Moses, the doctor might take the following steps.
(i) Forgive the Joneses.
(j) Give them something to help them stay on their diabetic-diet.
(k) Schedule a return visit to see if the therapy is working, and assure them that she will continue to be their doctor - that she is in it for the long haul.
The golden calf passage is usually and correctly taken to describe a gross failure on the part of the Israelites. The familiar moral of the passage is a warning against worshipping false gods, or worshipping the true God in the wrong way. However, a seldom noticed aspect of the passage is that Moses' first responses are also failures. The passage is a warning against impatient, unsympathetic responses to the waywardness of those we advise and supervise.