And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.” [Exodus 32:9 ESV)]
And he [Moses] said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” [Exodus 34:8-9 (ESV)]
For the most part, being a “stiff-necked people” is a pejorative label, but could there be occasions when that’s exactly what we should be? Are there times we should be intractable, stubborn, and uncompromising—even instances we should disregard the law?
After noting “the natural innate obstinacy of the race,” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) believed that very quality is what, “made Israel the most suitable for the revelation of the Divinity of His Torah.” In spite of their willfulness and disobedience to God, would anyone but a stiff-necked people have managed to retain their belief in Jehovah and His word during seventy years of captivity in idolatrous Babylon? Would anyone but a stiff-necked people have insisted on returning to the ruins of Jerusalem to rebuild their Temple so they could worship the one true God? Would anyone but a stiff-necked person have refused to bow down to Haman (an Amalekite and ancient enemy of Israel), as did Mordecai? Wouldn’t you have to be stiff-necked to be hungry and yet refuse to eat “unclean” Babylonian food as did Daniel and his friends; to face death by staunchly refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; or to blatantly break the law by praying to God rather than King Darius as did Daniel? As troublesome as their stiff-necked nature was at times, it allowed our Jewish brothers and sisters to persevere more than 3,400 years through captivity, diaspora, pogroms and the Holocaust.
As for being stiff-necked and obstinate (even contumacious), let’s look at the early church. Peter and the apostles were so stiff-necked that even after being arrested and ordered by the Sanhedrin to stop speaking of Jesus, they boldly continued to do so. Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr, was so stiff-necked that he openly debated with the Jews, stood his ground before the Sanhedrin, and continued to speak of Jesus until his dying breath. The Apostle Paul was stiff-necked enough to persevere for Christ through beatings, stonings, floggings, shipwrecks, trials, and imprisonment. In fact, John is the only one of the apostles believed to have died a natural death (the rest having been martyred) and church tradition holds that he’d once been boiled in oil! They all were stiff-necked when it came to following Jesus!
Ancient Rome would have been tolerant of Christians had they just been willing to make a sacrifice to the emperor as if he were divine. With their “stiff-necks,” however, the early church refused to compromise their faith and were persecuted because of their treason to the Empire. As for being contumacious (stubbornly or willfully disobedient to authority)—for most of the time between 100 and 313 AD (and the Edict of Milan), it was illegal to be a Christian and yet about a tenth of the Roman Empire were Christians! Christianity survived because of its “stiff-necked,” inflexible, and uncompromising faith in Jesus!
There is a fine line between being steadfast and obstinate but let us remember that we are called to be inflexible and uncompromising when it comes to our faith and loyalty to the Lord!