The following material gives backround info on some forms of Egyptian and Canaanite idolatry which influenced the Israelites, and was incorporated into their worship.
(illustration on pg 18 of the 4/1/07 WA)
Child Sacrifice to Molech
The view has been advanced that the Molech to whom children were sacrificed had the form of a man but the head of a bull. The image is said to have been heated red hot and the children cast into its outstretched arms, thus to fall into the flaming furnace below. This conception is largely based on the description of the Carthaginian Cronos or Moloch given by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus of the first century B.C.E.—Diodorus of Sicily, XX, 14, 4-6.
Molech and Astrology in Israel
(Insight on the Scriptures Vol. 1, pg 207)
There is evidence to show that astrology was closely allied with the worship of Molech, a god who was sometimes depicted with a bull’s head. The bull was worshiped by the Babylonians, Canaanites, Egyptians, and others as a symbol of their deities—Marduk, Molech, Baal, and so forth. The bull was one of the most important signs of the zodiac, Taurus. The sun-god was often represented by bulls, the horns signifying the rays, and the bull’s strong reproductive power, the sun’s power as “giver of life.” The female, the cow, was given equal honor as a symbol of Ishtar or Astarte, as she was variously called. So when Aaron and Jeroboam introduced in Israel such worship of the bull (calf worship) it was indeed a great sin in Jehovah’s eyes.—Exodus 32:4, 8; Deuteronomy 9:16; 1Kings 12:28-30; 2Kings 10:29.
The apostate ten-tribe kingdom of Israel was denounced for joining this astrology cult, for “they kept leaving all the commandments of Jehovah their God and proceeded to make for themselves molten statues, two calves, and to make a sacred pole, and they began to bow down to all the army of the heavens and to serve Baal; and they continued to make their sons and their daughters pass through the fire and to practice divination and to look for omens.”—2Kings 17:16, 17.
(Illustration of Apis, pg 85 of The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible)
Apis - Sacred Bull of Egypt
(pg 370 Insight on the Scriptures Vol. 2)
Memphis was among the foremost sacred cities of ancient Egypt, along with nearby On (Heliopolis). (Genesis 41:50) Especially important were the shrines dedicated to the god Ptah and to the sacred bull Apis . . .The Apis bull, a specially marked live bull, was kept at Memphis and worshiped as the incarnation of the god Osiris, though in certain legends it is also connected with the god Ptah. At its death, public mourning was carried on, and an impressive burial of the bull was made at nearby Saqqara. (When the tomb there was opened in the last century, investigators found the embalmed bodies of over 60 bulls and cows.) The selection of a new Apis bull and its enthronement at Memphis was an equally elaborate ceremony. This worship may have influenced the rebellious Israelites in their idea of worshiping Jehovah through a golden calf. (Exodus 32:4, 5)
(Carved image of Apis - pg 690 of Insight on the Scriptures Vol. 1)
Calf Worship (pgs 393-394, Insight Vol. 1)
Calf worship was the first form of idolatry mentioned in the Bible to which the Israelites succumbed after the Exodus from Egypt. While Moses was in the mountain receiving God’s law, the people became impatient and approached Aaron with the request that he make a god for them. From the gold earrings contributed by the Israelites, Aaron formed a molten statue of a calf, undoubtedly a young bull. (Psalm 106:19, 20) It was regarded as representing Jehovah, and the festival held the following day was designated “a festival to Jehovah.” The Israelites sacrificed to the golden calf, bowed before it, ate, drank, and enjoyed themselves in song and dance.—Exodus 32:1-8, 18, 19; Nehemiah 9:18.
Idolatrous Egyptian worship, which associated gods with cows, bulls, and other animals, likely had influenced the Israelites to a great extent, causing them to adopt calf worship so soon after being liberated from Egypt. This is confirmed by Stephen’s words: “In their hearts they turned back to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make gods for us to go ahead of us. . . . ’ So they made a calf in those days and brought up a sacrifice to the idol and began to enjoy themselves in the works of their hands.”—Acts 7:39-41.
*Aside from the obvious, I noticed another angle in this account that gets to the heart of the issue. Did you notice how it said that the Israelites became "impatient" (after Moses had been gone while he was up on Mt Sinai receiving the commandments)? Indicating that even after being eye-witnesses to so many faith-strengthening miracles coming out of Egypt, the people still had such a lack of trust and confidence in Jehovah, that they wanted *visible confirmation* of a god's presence.
It also mentions that they began to "enjoy themselves in the works of their hands" ... I was thinking about how that corresponds (in modern times) with more than just pagan religious celebrations or using icons and images in worship ... think about it ... The Israelites weren't getting antsy simply because they wanted an excuse to celebrate and have a religious festival, (although I'm sure boredom did play a role while they were waiting for Moses to come back). But their own words in the account reveal how quickly they were ready to give up on their leader and take matters into their own hands (demonstrating they were concerned and impatient in regards to their future prospects and material needs being met) Because they say to Aaron:
"...make for us a god who will go ahead of us, because as regards this Moses, the man who led us up out of the land of Egypt, we certainly do not know what has happened to him." (Exodus 32:1)
Instead of waiting on Moses' direction and trusting that Jehovah hadn't abandoned them, they were ready to turn their back on their Deliverer, and go right back to worshipping false gods...if that meant securing for themselves material blessings and protection for the journey ahead (since that's always been the whole purpose of sacrificing to a god - to receive protection and material prosperity) So I was thinking that from a modern day perspective, the Israelites behavior would actually be more closely related to becoming so overly anxious or impatient when it comes to our security and material needs being met, that we'd be willing to do whatever it takes to insure that (even if it meant resorting to unchristian practices).
(Picture on pg 948 of Insight on the Scriptures Vol. 1)
(info continued from section above)
The first king of the ten-tribe kingdom, Jeroboam, fearing that his subjects would revolt and go back to the house of David if they continued going up to Jerusalem for worship, had two golden calves made. (1Kings 12:26-28) The Bible record does not reveal to what extent Jeroboam’s choice of a calf to represent Jehovah was influenced by earlier calf worship in Israel, by what he had observed while in Egypt (1Kings 12:2), or by the religion of the Canaanites and others, who often represented their gods as standing upon an animal, such as a bull.
One of the golden calves Jeroboam set up at the far northern city of Dan, the other at Bethel about 17 km (11 mi) N of Jerusalem. He told his subjects that it was too much for them to go up to Jerusalem for worship and that the calf represented the God who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt. (Compare Exodus 32:8.) Since the priests of the tribe of Levi stayed loyal to Jehovah’s worship at Jerusalem, Jeroboam appointed his own priests to lead the false worship before the idol calves at Dan and Bethel. (2 Chronicles 11:13-15) He also arranged for a festival similar to the Festival of Booths, but it was celebrated a month later than the festival in Jerusalem.—1Kings 12:28-33; 2Chronicles 13:8, 9; Leviticus 23:39.
Jehovah condemned this calf worship and, through his prophet Ahijah, foretold calamity for the house of Jeroboam. (1Kings 14:7-12) Nevertheless, calf worship remained entrenched in the ten-tribe kingdom. Even King Jehu, who eradicated Baal worship in Israel, let calf worship remain, likely in order to keep the ten-tribe kingdom distinct from the kingdom of Judah. (2Kings 10:29-31) In the ninth century B.C.E., Jehovah raised up his prophets Amos and Hosea to proclaim His condemnation of calf worship, which included kissing the idol calves, and also to foretell doom for the ten-tribe kingdom. The golden calf of Bethel was to be carried away to the king of Assyria, giving cause for the people as well as the foreign-god priests to mourn. The high places would be annihilated, and thorns and thistles would grow upon the altars that had been used in false worship. (Hosea 10:5-8; 13:2; Amos 3:14; 4:4; 5:5, 6) Calamity did come when the ten-tribe kingdom fell to Assyria in 740 B.C.E. About a century later, Jeremiah prophesied that the Moabites would be just as ashamed of their god Chemosh as the Israelites had become of their center of idolatrous calf worship, Bethel.—Jeremiah 48:13