From the beginning of Israel’s history outside of Egypt, there was an incessant temptation to chase after other Gods, or water down the command to worship God alone. The first blatant instance of idol worship in the nation of Israel occurred in Exodus 32 when Aaron made a golden calf for the people to worship, saying, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”
While this seems like a complete and shocking rejection of God, it is more accurate to say that the people were attempting to combine worship of the idol with the worship of God, considering God and the golden image as one in the same. They wanted a tangible representation of God, which is expressly forbidden in the second commandment.
Egyptian culture, in the midst of which the Hebrews had lived, involved idol worship, and presumably this influenced their desire for a physical representation of their God. It was a compromise and a departure from the pure and distinct statutes given to them at Mount Sinai, and therefore it damaged the relationship between the Lord and His people.
Later on in Israel’s history, we see a similar idolatrous display as King Jeroboam, of the Northern Kingdom, created two golden calves for the people to worship, saying, as Aaron did, “Behold your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:25ff). Here also, a leader of the people was combining pagan practices with the worship of the Lord.
While some aspects of their worship mimicked the right worship of the One true God (see v.32), it was not the pure worship that God had prescribed for His people, and it boiled down to unfaithfulness. Their hearts were not “wholly devoted to the Lord” (I Kings 8:61).
Many people were likely amenable to this compromise since this alternate worship would make them more like the other, polytheistic nations. But Israel, as God’s chosen nation, was called to be different, set apart, from other nations.
The temptation to dilute Scripture in order to make it more popular or more palatable within our current culture is present in our churches today. We too experience pressure to compromise and combine cultural ideals with Scriptural standards. But God has also set us apart and called us to be different from the world. We too worship the One true God, and have no need to be “like the other nations.” In order to be wholly devoted to Him and fully committed to His Word and genuine worship, we need to take the truth of Scripture seriously, aligning ourselves with its standards, rather than attempting to bend it to ours.