The Benefits of a Stiff Neck?

This is my first post since arriving back in Jerusalem. The time is flying by at blazing fast speed. As I write this, I am getting ready for mid-term exams. Where has the time gone? So far, this semester has kept me very busy. Carrying a 13-hour load plus auditing 2 other classes will do that. Nevertheless, I am loving every minute of it.

When living in a different culture, you come to expect that things will just be different—sometimes even illogical. Sometimes it’s funny and other times it can tick you off—like making the 2-mile trek to a museum library for a research project only to find it closed on a day that it is clearly supposed to be open. Other times, you get a perspective on something that is totally opposite of what you were expecting. Such was the case this past week.

I guess I have been living in Israel long enough that “Big Brother” knows I am here. So, Facebook has started peppering my newsfeed with Hebrew items and videos that it thinks I might like. Normally, I ignore them. But one this week caught my attention. I don’t even know what the point of the little video was, but it mentioned that in the Bible God refers to the Israelites as a “stiff-necked people.” His perception of this phrase was that it was a compliment! A compliment? “Yes! We Jews are a stiff-necked people!” Now I thought I had heard just about everything. Surely, this was proof that “De Nile” wasn’t just a river in Egypt!

Maybe I should back up and provide a little context. The Israelites had just left Egypt. They had crossed the Sea of Reeds (that’s what the Bible says, not the Red Sea) and were at Mt. Sinai where God would establish His covenant with them. The account is given in Exodus chapters 19-34. The language used in this covenant was marriage language. YHWH becomes their God Israel becomes His people. His wedding present to them was Torah—what we improperly translate as “The Law.” Moses was up on Mt. Sinai receiving Torah for 40 days and 40 nights. During that time, the people began to get impatient and wonder when (or more probably “if”) Moses was going to come down off the mountain. So, somebody got the bright idea to pool together a bunch of the gold they took out of Egypt; melt it down and make it into the image of a calf. If that weren’t enough, they decided to have a big cultic sex orgy along with it. Have you ever wondered why they so quickly jumped to this conclusion? I suspect this was not something new for them. It was probably a practice they had seen—and maybe even participated in—while they were living in Egypt.

As God finished giving Moses the wedding present, He tells Moses that the people were already committing adultery with a golden calf. The wedding ceremony wasn’t even over and they were already cheating on Him. God tells Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” (Ex. 32:9-10, NRSV) Moses convinced God to save Israel, yet their actions were not without consequences.

This phrase, “stiff-necked people” is used six times in the Hebrew Bible—four times in Exodus and twice in Deuteronomy—all referring to Israel’s disobedience. This phrase is a nice word picture of its intended meaning: to be obstinate or stubborn. I’ve always read this as being a negative quality that nearly ended Israel’s mission. In fact, I don’t see how anyone could seriously read the Text any other way. Yet, how was it that this Jewish person viewed this as a positive trait? Was this just an anomaly or something deeper within the Jewish mindset?

As it turns out, rabbinic literature has something to say about this. As is common in rabbinic literature there is never a consensus of opinion. There is always disagreement and interpretation. However, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, there is clear indication in Rabbinic literature that this was seen by some rabbis throughout the ages as a virtue. The medieval Rabbi, Moshe Ben Nachman (Ramban) believed that Israel needed the close presence of God because they were obstinate and rebellious. Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum said it another way:

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. Nations will call on them to assimilate, but they will refuse. Mightier religions will urge them to convert, but they will resist. They will suffer humiliation, persecution, even torture and death because of the name they bear and the faith they profess, but they will stay true to the covenant their ancestors made with You. They will go to their deaths saying Ani maamin, “I believe”. This is a people awesome in its obstinacy – and though now it is their failing, there will be times far into the future when it will be their noblest strength.

I am reminded of something I learned in my business career. A common question interviewers like to ask is, “what is your greatest weakness?” This is quite possibly the dumbest question anyone could ask in an interview. It is also one of the dumbest to answer truthfully. Nevertheless, interviewers continue to ask it and interviewees continue to lie. What makes it a dumb question is that it doesn’t usually matter what our weaknesses are.

The reality is that it is not our weaknesses that cause the most problems. It’s our strengths. When we have an over-reliance on our strengths, we tend to get ourselves into troubles that cause real harm. For example, a manager whose strength lies in his (or her) decisive, action-oriented nature is prone to ignore sound advice and make a bone-headed call that does damage to the organization. On the flip-side, a manager whose strength lies in teamwork and building consensus can fail to respond quickly enough to a sudden shift in market forces and do equal damage to the company. It’s our strengths that end up biting us more often than our weaknesses.

Was Israel obstinate in their disobedience to God? The Biblical Text is clear that they were over and over again. In fact, it resulted in the loss of the northern tribes of Israel and the exile of the southern kingdom of Judah. However, this same obstinance enabled them to persevere. The southern kingdom survived 70 years of exile in Babylon to return to the Land and restore the Temple. This obstinance enabled them to persevere through Greek rule and Roman rule. This same stubborn spirit enabled them to endure countless persecutions at the hands of Christians, Muslims and others up to this very day. Living in Israel, evidence of their devotion to God and their perseverance is everywhere. As Rabbi Nissenbaum said, it would be their noblest strength. I wonder if any other people group would have the tenacity to endure so much for so long.

Of course, the real point isn’t about the virtue of Israel’s stiff-necked nature. The really important message is the unfailing, steadfast love of God for His people, in spite of their obstinate disobedience. Regardless of everything they did, He continued to pursue them. When they were unfaithful, He was faithful. When they fell, He was there to rescue and redeem them.

This same theme is carried through to the New Testament as well. In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul writes, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:6-8)

The truth is that we are all pretty stiff-necked in our relationship with God. I’m thankful that He relentlessly pursues us to rescue us and bring us back into relationship with Him.

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