The Golden Calf as polemical allegory
"No one must go up the mountain with you. No one must be even seen anywhere near themountain, nor must flocks and herds graze within the sight of that mountain."
(Exodus Chapter 34 verse 3)
"...worship afar off. Moses alone shall come near to YAHWEH; but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him." (Exodus Chapter 24 verse 1)
"Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel; ... they saw God; they ate and drank." (Exodus Chapter 24 verse 9)
"For no man shall see God and live." (Exodus Chapter 33 verse 20)
There are two different stories of the reception of the Ten Commandments. The Golden Calf story is an alternate tradition, and thematerial in Exodus Chapter 24 is contradictory. The former contains references to animal sacrifices, Levites, priestly rites of purification andablution, concerns about seeing God and dying, and most notably, a reference to a golden calf, allof which date the material to a time after the institution of Levitical law and placing the material ina time after the period of the divided Kingdoms. Aaron made one calf but then is made to say'gods' (plural) to repeat the words Jeroboam used when ordaining the calf idol religious centers.
How stupid could Jeroboam have been to make calves andthen use the very words that Aaron used to ordain the calf centers, when it was well known, eventhe motivating factor that the reason for the institution of the calf centers was because the peopleremained fiercely loyal to their previous traditions? Jeroboam said to himself, "they will kill me." Hecould not have then been stupid enough to make two calves, for then the people would have killedhim, if we assume that the calf stories were known in that day.
The story of the Golden Calf and the surrounding material isnot historical, but rather is a polemic. The readers who were contemporary with the parablewould have understood exactly what the point of the story was. The writer is posing a question,and answering it: what would Moses would have done, if he was alive to see those people kissingthe calves? That a group of priestly, discontented Levites wrote the story is also demonstrated bythe priestly concerns embedded in the narrative, as I noted above, and there is also an impliedthreat in that the people will 'drink bitter waters,' waters contaminated with ground up calfidol.