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This probably sounds like a ridiculous question, but in all seriousness, many Jews lost their lives in the aftermath of the worship of the Golden Calf (Shemos 32:27-28). While I understand only 40 days or so before they began to worship the Calf, G-d had spoken to them and instructed them not to worship any other G-d. How could they be sure that their mistaken belief in some sort of incarnated or intermediary, or a physical form of G-d was in fact false, to the extent that they deserved death?

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    They never believ that the Golden Calf is G_d. See Ramban ki tisa. Welcome to mi yodeya – kouty May 1 '16 at 13:10
  • @kouty updated. – Fei23 May 1 '16 at 13:18
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    Dibrah #1: I, G-d, have taken you out of Egypt. Aharon said at Cheit HaEgel: This is your god, Israel, who took you out of Egypt. – ephraim helfgot May 1 '16 at 13:53
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    Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image – michael May 1 '16 at 15:20
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    @ I have no source. But the bet Halevi says the same. but I have no source for others – kouty May 1 '16 at 17:33
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They knew it wasn't God from the start:

וַיַּרְא הָעָם, כִּי-בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן-הָהָר; וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ--כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ.

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: 'Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.' (Shemot 32:1)

They weren't fooled by some "god" that was presented to them; they made it, knowing what they were doing. They said to Aharon "we don't know what's up with that other one; make us a new god".

They were told 40 days earlier not to make idols or chase after other gods. They did it anyway. They might have been frightened, but the p'shat is that they were not unaware -- they were, indeed, quite intentional in their actions.

  • This assumes that making an idol with one's own hands is proof against it's powers. All of us and Dovid Hamelech agree. But apparently idol worshippers did not and do not see this as proof against their beliefs. – user6591 May 1 '16 at 19:19
  • @user6591 oh, along the lines of making a vessel for the "god" to dwell in, so they made the idols but thought their gods would then inhabit them? Perhaps I took the question too literally. – Monica Cellio May 1 '16 at 19:21
  • I guess. I don't know the real logic. There is that Medrash where Avraham smashed all the idols etc and in the end terech said an idol can't smash anything. He was aware of their physical constraints and he would still pray to and worship them. Were they channeling agents? Then what did Avraham prove? It's confusing to me. – user6591 May 1 '16 at 19:25
  • @MonicaCellio I'm pretty sure "the people" mentioned in that verse are referring to the "erev rav" who undoubtedly are guilty as the instigators. My question is more concerned with the average Israelite that "went along with it." – Fei23 May 1 '16 at 22:05
  • @Fei23 that's possible, but the text doesn't say. It also raises the question of why Aharon would listen to the demands of the erev rav if they acted alone. – Monica Cellio May 1 '16 at 22:06

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