Pharaoh has a hard heart in the book of Exodus; the Israelites have hard necks.
Pharaoh stubbornly refuses to let the Israelites go, ignoring both a series of miraculous disasters and the advice of his own counselors. Every time he is tempted to change his heart (i.e. mind), it hardens again.
The Israelites escape from Egypt and slavery, but whenever something makes them anxious they turn their backs on the God who rescued them, and revert to the mentality of slaves in Egypt. (For some examples, see my posts Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear, Beha-alotkha & Beshallach: Stomach vs. Soul, and Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust.)
During the revelation at Mount Sinai God makes it clear that idols will not be tolerated. The “Ten Commandments” include:
Do not make yourself a carved idol or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or of what is in the land below, or of what is in the water beneath the land. Do not bow down to them and do not serve them. (Exodus/Shemot 20:4-5)
And God’s next set of laws repeats:
With me, you shall not make gods of silver or gods of gold; you shall not make them! (Exodus 20:20)
Before Moses leaves to spend 40 days at the top of Mount Sinai, the Israelites swear twice that they will obey everything God said.1
But they panic in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”), when 40 days have passed since Moses walked into the cloud and fire on the mountaintop. As Moses is hiking down with the two stone tablets, God tells him what the Israelites are doing:
“They turned aside quickly from the path that I commanded them; they made for themselves a calf of cast metal, and they bowed down to it, and they slaughtered sacrifices for it, and they said: ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’” And God said to Moses: “I see this people, and hey! Am-keshei-oref!”. (Exodus 32:8-9)
am-keshei-oref = a hard-necked people, a stiff-necked people.
am (עַם) = a people: the humans of a particular ethnic group, community, or location.
keshei (קְשֵׁה) = construct form of kasheh (קָשֶׁה) = hard, stiff, heavy, severe, difficult. (From the root verb kashah (קָשָׁה) = be hard, harden. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened (הִקְשָׁה) in Exodus 7:3 and 13:15.)
oref (עֺרֶף) = back of the neck, nape, neck.
In the bible turning one’s oref, the back of one’s neck, on somebody can mean fleeing, like the English idiom “turning tail”.2 But it can also mean rejection, like the English idiom “turning one’s back on”.3 According to the commentary of Rashi and Ibn Ezra on Exodus 32:9, stiff-necked people turn their backs on God and refuse to turn around.4 (See my post Eikev: Covered Heart, Stiff Neck.)
After telling Moses about the golden calf, God says:
“And now, leave me alone and my rage will increase against them and I will consume them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:10)
But Moses does not leave God alone. He persuades God to refrain from exterminating the Israelites. Then he goes down and sees the calf worship with his own eyes. Moses shatters the two stone tablets God gave him, and orders a massacre of the worst offenders. God sends a plague to kill the rest of the guilty. After God and Moses have both simmered down, God declares that the surviving Israelites should still go to Canaan.
“And I will send an angel in front of you, and I will drive out the Canaanites … But I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way; because you are an am-keshei-oref.” (Exodus 33:2-3)
The people go into mourning. They want God right there travelling along with them; the idea of an impersonal angel does not satisfy their need for security. But the God-character predicts that accompanying these stiff-necked people would be so infuriating that God would erupt again in murderous rage.
And God said to Moses: “Say to the Israelites: ‘You are an am-keshei-oref! [If] for one instant I went up in your midst, I would put an end to you. So now, strip off the ornaments you are wearing, and I will figure out what I will do to you.’” (Exodus 33:5)
A stiff-necked deity?
At this point God has rejected the Israelites and called them an am-keshei-oref three times. Yet the God-character’s metaphorical neck does not remain hard. God backs off from the original threat to exterminate all the Israelites and tells Moses only the guilty will die. Then God softens a little more and promises to drive the natives out of Canaan and to send an angel to lead the Israelites—but not to go in their midst.
Moses then pitches the Tent of Meeting outside the camp so God will not have to speak with him in the midst of the people. When Moses walks over to the tent and goes inside, the divine pillar of cloud appears at the entrance. Then all the people watching from the camp rise and bow down to the ground. This probably makes a good impression on God.5
After a while Moses asks God for a personal favor.
“And now, please, if I have found favor in your eyes, please let me know your ways. Then I will know you, so that I will continue to find favor in your eyes. And see that this nation is your am.” (Exodus 33:13)
God promises to reveal part of the divine nature (“my back”)6 and also to inscribe two replacement tablets. So Moses climbs up Mount Sinai again. God appears in a cloud and passes in front of him, announcing that God is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, full of kindness and good faith, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, and forgiving transgressions (although the guilt of parents continues to have an effect for three or four generations).7
These may be aspirational traits that the God-character has decided to adopt—especially “slow to anger”. After hearing God’s glowing self-portrait, Moses bows to the ground.
And he said: “If, please, I have found approval in your eyes, my lord, will my lord go, please, in our midst? Even though it is an am-keshei-oref? And will you pardon our wrongdoing and our errors, and accept us as yours?” (Exodus 34:9)
And the gentler, kinder God-character agrees—on the condition that the Israelites avoid making any treaties with the natives of Canaan, destroy all the natives’ religious items, avoid intermarriage, and never make another cast-metal idol of their own.8
Thus the God-character turns out to be flexible, able to reconsider and turn the divine “face” back toward the people he had rejected.
A stiff-necked people
The Israelites remain stiff-necked. Even when they can see Canaan across the Jordan River, they still revert to their old ways and join the native Moabites in worshiping a local god.9
Nevertheless, these same Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years as they wait for their God to let them into Canaan. Occasionally they stray, but most of those four decades they are remarkably patient. Although it is hard for them to abandon their need for a physical representation of God, it is also hard for them to abandon their God altogether. They are stubborn that way.
“They are so stubborn that, if only You will pardon them until they are immersed in Your faith, they will cling as stubbornly to that as they did to the previous one, and You will own them forever.”10
My own neck is literally stiff, due to an old injury, and I have to work daily to loosen the hard muscles. I also have to work to loosen my stubborn preconceptions. Sometimes (thank God) I realize that I’ve been unconsciously reacting to an old emotional injury. Then I know it’s time to turn my head and consider a different path.
Stubbornness helps you to keep going when you are following the path that the divine presence within you knows is right. Turning your neck to look at other paths helps you to find the right way to “walk with God” when you get lost.
May we all know when to be stiff-necked, and when to turn our heads.
(An earlier version of this post was published in February 2010.)
- Exodus 24:3 and 24:7.
- Turning one’s oref indicates fleeing from enemies in Exodus 23:27, Joshua 7:8 and 7:12, and Jeremiah 18:17.
- Jeremiah 2:27, Jeremiah 32:33, and 2 Chronicles 29:6.
- Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) wrote “They turned the hardness of the backs of their necks toward those who reproved them, and they refused to listen.” (translation by chabad.org). Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th-century) wrote “The image is that of a man walking down the road who, if someone calls him, will not turn his head.” (translation by Michael Carasik, The Commentator’s Bible: Exodus, The Jewish Publication Society, 2005, p. 285).
- Exodus 33:7-11.
- Exodus 33:23.
- Exodus 34:6-7, the source of the “Thirteen Attributes” in Jewish liturgy.
- Exodus 34:10-17.
- Numbers 25:1-3.
- 14th-century Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, also known as Ralbag or Gersonides, repeating a teaching by his grandfather, Rabbi Levi ha-Kohein. Translated by Carasik, p. 304.
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