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Why Did God Call the Jews a “Stiff-Necked” People?

December 11th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 14 Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: We know from Exodus 32:7 that God was displeased with Aaron’s rebellion in Moses’ absence; while Moses was away, Aaron fabricated the Golden Calf. God interrupted Moses’ sojourn on Mount Sinai to send him down to berate the Chosen People, on his behalf. In fact, God was so angry, his first inclination simply was to be left alone so his “wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” He probably would have done so, but for Moses’ heroic intervention. At 32:9, God famously states: “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.”

He reiterates this at Exodus 33. God is describing how he will drive out the Canaanites, and a half dozen other miscellaneous tribes, from the land of Israel. “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you in the way, for you are a stiff-necked people,” 33:3. And, at 34:9, Moses apologizes to God, saying, “If now I have found favor in thy sight, O Lord, let the Lord, I pray thee, go in the midst of us, although it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thy inheritance.”

In his article “Ki Tissa – A Stiff-Necked People” (Mar. 13, 2004), Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, summarizes interpretations of this passage, as follows:

“The commentators offer a variety of interpretations. Rashi reads the word ki as ‘if’ – ‘If they are stiff-necked, then forgive them.’ Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni read it as ‘although’ or ‘despite the fact that.’ (af al pi). Alternatively, suggests Ibn Ezra, the verse might be read, ‘[I admit that] it is a stiff-necked people – therefore forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.’ These are straightforward readings, though they assign to the word ki a meaning it does not normally have.”

Rashi is wrong, because the attribution of having a stiff neck is not conditional. Rather, it’s a pre-existing condition. Similarly, Ezra’s cause-effect interpretation isn’t right; it isn’t “because” they’re stiff-necked, they need forgiveness. Rather, it’s more, “despite the fact they’re stiff-necked, please forgive them,” which seems to be the sense of Ezra’s and Chizkuni’s intermediate view.

The attribution of being stiff-necked also appears in Deuteronomy. Knowing the Israelites are physically capable of victory — having defeated the Amorite king Sichon as well as Og, king of Bashan — Moses nonetheless primes them to conquer the Canaanite nations, by reminding them that, just as happened when they left Egypt, God will be fighting along with them. But, as a leader who knows his followers’ temperament, Moses also takes it upon himself to warn them of the danger – not of defeat, but of victory: “Don’t say in your heart – ‘because of my righteousness has God brought me to inherit this land and because of the wickedness of these other nations’ – (but) in order to fulfill God’s promise to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – for you are a stiff-necked people,” 9:4-6.

Significantly, having a stiff neck is the only description of the nature of the Jewish People found in the Torah. We also know one other thing about their physical characteristics, that is, God wanted for the males to be circumcised. So, I suppose one way to identify a Jew back then would have been to look around for circumcised males with stiff necks. [Interestingly, in the passage from Deuteronomy referred to above, Moses doesn’t seek to inspire the Jews by calling them a “circumcised people.”]

What did God mean by “stiff-necked”? Stiffness of the neck is a common symptom of encephalitis or “brain fever,” as Dostoyevsky would have characterized it. It seems unlikely this was God’s concern, though, because there is no other evidence in the Torah the Jewish People were suffering from this disease. Clearly, then, we must search for a more elusive explanation.

Many commentators believe “stiff-necked” refers to more of a character trait, or personality characteristic, such as being argumentative, opinionated, stubborn, aggressive, internally combative, and divisive. While this has negative connotations, it also can be seen in a positive light; for example, it might promote the development of a distinct self-image, thus promoting the survival of the tribe, as it differentiates itself from its near-neighbors. I’m not satisfied with these explanations, though, because they’re so ad hominem; certainly there are many Jews who are not stiff-necked, just as there are many non-Jews, who are.

A better explanation has to do with elements of the belief-set we may ascribe to the Jews – not so much arising from their culture, but rather, from their religion. We know, or can infer, the following:

1. They had an everlasting covenant with God, designating them as the Chosen People (presumably, to the exclusion of all others). “Everlasting” in this context must mean “forever,” or, “for eternity.” These concepts suggest a condition of stasis, of immobility, of permanence; they are the polar opposites of concepts such as transience, impermanence, or temporariness. One of the consequences of your tribe being the Chosen People, and being designated as those who will hang out forever, is, you are in a position to observe the passing of other peoples, and other tribes. You can traverse history. You are situated – maybe, stranded – in time, whereas all others drift by like so much flotsam and jetsam. This gives you, or should give you, among other things, the power to judge the efficacy of particular human projects and endeavors. Unlike tribes who are destined to perish, you can learn from their mistakes; you have, or should develop, a sense of balance and perspective, removed from the transitoriness of all of the other tribes’ concerns. These include not only their basic personal needs such as food, clothing and shelter; but also the promulgation and descent of their cultural and spiritual concepts, as well.

2. You also are in a position to discern the efficacy of particular Gods, or deity-concepts. For example, since you’ll be around forever, you can run an experiment to see if it’s more efficacious to pray to God X, as opposed to God Y; it should be a simple matter to evaluate each God’s effectiveness, in light of subsequent evidence. If a particular tribe spends a lot of its time beseeching God X for rain, but it never rains, and another tribe beseeches God Y for rain, and it does, then you’re in a position to conclude that God Y is better at delivering rain, than God X. If God X leads his people into battle, and they win, and God Y leads his people into battle, but they lose, then God X makes a better God of war, than does God Y. Etc.

3. Properly understood, the Golden Calf episode really is nothing more than an illustration, or an iteration, of this predilection. Keep in mind, after Aaron made the Golden Calf, the people said: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt,” Exodus 32:4, emphasis added. In other words, in Moses’ absence, the Jews reverted to a deity with which they were familiar; best of all, it was one with proven efficacy, because it had brought them up out of Egypt. At no point in the Torah does anybody quarrel with this assertion. For sure, God is displeased his Chosen People are worshipping some other deity. However, so far as I can discern, he never says: “Wait a minute, about that ascription {the Golden Calf is the god that brought us up out of the land of Egypt}, that simply isn’t true, that ascription only can be predicated of me.” Whereas, it’s quite clear God takes credit for bringing the Chosen People to the land of Israel. At 33:2, he says he will run off the Canaanites and their lot, and deliver them to “a land flowing with milk and honey.” This type of “fidelity” towards “old ideals” – really, a form of internal cohesion and resistance to externally-imposed change – also is evidenced in the continuing vitality of Jewish Law, as set forth in the Torah, and elsewhere.

4. At Acts 7:51, Stephen condemns the Jews as “[S]tiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” It’s clear Stephen too can’t have been speaking literally, as it’s the male penis that is circumcised, not the heart, or the ears. In fact, it’s curious to imagine how a circumcision of the ears might look; surely, a circumcision of the heart would be a deadly procedure, particularly in that day and age. Rather, Stephen must be alluding to the importance of circumcision, which we know is one of the two, and only two, defining physical characteristics of the Jews, the other being their stiff necks. Note how Stephen thereby turns circumcision into a positive attribute, by hypothesizing its negation in “heart and ears,” presumably meaning, the people aren’t taking to his message. He retains the use of stiff neck as a term of derision, or remonstration. He doesn’t say, for example, “flexible-necked people, circumcised in heart and ears.”

A reasonable interpretation of this passage is Stephen’s belief that, because they have stiff necks, the Jews don’t (or won’t) believe in Christ. Since it’s hard to imagine a causal connection between these two factors, Stephen must be using the term in a pejorative way, that is, to refer to the Jews’ alleged resistance to change. From the Jews’ perspective, though, this is the exact predicate saving them from belief in a false god – a trait they continued to maintain despite Crusade, Inquisition, Pogrom, and Holocaust.

Possibly this also is the reason why the Jews remained in Egypt, for what was at least several hundred years. Maybe they actually preferred life in Egypt, to the uncertainty of traipsing around the desert wilderness. Another way of looking at the plagues God visited upon the Egyptians is, they weren’t designed so much to convince Pharaoh, as they were to induce the Jews to get a move on.

Several questions remain, however, in light of this analysis. For example, exactly when did God find out the Jews were stiff-necked? Did he know it before the Golden Calf incident, or is he attributing this characteristic to them on the basis of the Golden Calf incident? While the text is unclear on this point, I think God’s use of the term “behold” at 32:9 means he just now is finding out. This raises the question, though, of whether God would have made the Jews his Chosen People, if he had known they were stiff-necked, before designating them as such.

Another concern is God’s evident tendency towards smoting. Both 32:10 and 33:3 are concerned with this eventuality. The text suggests there is a cause-effect relationship between stiff-neckedness, and provoking God to such a degree he wants to destroy not only you, but also the entire tribe. He will “consume” them, presumably not in the way a human being eats food, but rather, as a synonym for annihilation or eradication. 33:3 in particular fails to ascribe any other cause for this tendency towards smoting, other than having a stiff neck. To me, however, smoting is a disproportionate response towards the vice of having a stiff neck, no matter how wicked it might be.

Furthermore, what is it about being “amongst the people” that provokes God? At 32:10, like a latter-day Greta Garbo, he asks to be “left alone.” And, at 34:9, one aspect of Moses’ prayer is that God “go in the midst of us,” meaning, he’s still sulking about.

There are several possible explanations. God himself might realize he becomes infuriated at the mere sight of stiff necks, and they only provoke him to action; therefore, a wiser policy is not to mingle, in order to spare his Chosen People from destruction. It might be revealing of his preference, expressed later on in Exodus, to live in a chest with exactly prescribed dimensions. Or, it might be something simple we’re otherwise overlooking, like, they have too much body odor from tramping around in the desert without deodorant for 40 years.

A 13th century Catalan Rabbi named Moshe ben Nahman Gerondi (also known as “Nahmanides” or “Ramban”) interpreted this to mean that, since God now is reconciled with the Jews, they need his help more than ever, because they’re stiff necked. They’re much better with him, than without him. And, more in our time, Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum thought Moses asked for God’s favor because, what now is their greatest vice (that is, their stiff necks), one day will be an essential virtue. Explains Rabbi Sacks (op. cit.):

“They are indeed an obstinate people. When they have everything to thank You for, they complain. Mere weeks after hearing Your voice they make a golden calf. But just as now they are stiff-necked in their disobedience, so one day they will be equally stiff-necked in their loyalty. … Obstinate in their disbelief during much of the biblical era, they became obstinate in their belief ever afterward. … At times, Jews found it hard to bow down to G-d – but they were certainly never willing to bow down to anything less. That is why, alone of all the many peoples who have entered the arena of history, Jews – even in exile, dispersed and everywhere a minority – neither assimilated to the dominant culture nor converted to the majority faith.”

So, it just goes to show ya, having God think you’ve got a stiff neck might not be all that bad!