While Moses is on Sinai receiving instructions for building the tabernacle, the people form their own god.
The creation of the golden calf was an abandonment of the promises of God. Instead of asking God, "Why?" as so many lament Psalms do, the people created their own god. They don't so much abandon the old story as co-opt it. There is still the language of being brought out of Egypt but the celebration that ensues is quite different. The preceding chapters of instruction for building the tabernacle may have at one point circulated apart from the story of rebellion at Sinai, but in their present location they sharpen the indictment of Israel for its construction of the golden calf. The gold that could be used in building the tabernacle is used to construct an idol. They want a god who will go before them (32:1), but at the same time God is announcing to Moses how the continued presence of God will be made available (29:42-46). Israel was to make sacrifices and burnt offerings, but they were doing so in the wrong place, not before the tabernacle but at a place of their own making. Worship turned to revelry. The half-truths they told themselves were in fact full-blown falsehood.
Each generation of God's people must stand before this text and investigate its own behavior. Disobedience and infidelity are not always crass idolatry. We may be giving ourselves false comfort when we think this text is only about making a statue-likely a small one at that. Whatever the vehicle, the issue is the broken relationship with God and the abandonment of the promises of God. Our unqualified insistence on autonomy can be an idol every bit as separating from God as was the golden calf. The significance of the breach does not reside in some fussiness about specific forms and locales of worship. Some die in the aftermath of the disobedience (32:28), but the greatest threat in the narrative is that God would no longer be present.
4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mould,* and cast an image of a calf; and they said, These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org