The Bible says that while the Jews were wandering in the desert between Egypt and Israel, Moses received a message from God telling him to go up to the top of a mountain. On top of Mount Sinai, God gave Moses two stone tablets. Each tablet had five laws carved into it, which told the Jews how God wanted them to behave. These were the ten commandments:
1) Don’t pray to any god except Me.
2) Don’t make statues or pictures of gods to pray to.
3) Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.
4) Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
5) Honor your father and your mother.
6) Do not kill.
7) Do not commit adultery.
8) Do not steal.
9) Do not bear false witness (do not lie).
10) Do not wish for your neighbor’s wife, nor his donkey, nor anything that is his.
But when Moses came back down from Mount Sinai, he found the Jews worshipping a golden calf, instead of God. This was how other people, like the Phoenicians and the Egyptians, worshiped their gods. But God wanted the Jews to worship no other gods besides Him, and also not to make any statues to pray to!
Before Moses even got down from the mountain, the Jews had already broken two of the ten Commandments. Moses was very angry (though how could they know since he hadn’t told them yet?), and destroyed the calf.
This is our earliest illustration of the story of the Golden Calf, from the Jewish synagogue at Dura-Europos, in the late 200s AD. You can see the white calf in the fire and some people looking upset.
This is Moses (on the left) holding the Commandments up and casting a demon out of the golden calf (from the Romanesque church at Vezelay, about 1140 AD).