They are a Stiff-Necked People (Exod. 32: 9-10)

by Kosuke Koyama

>Kosuke Koyama is John D.Rockefeller, Jr., Professor of Ecumenics and World Christianity at Union Theology Seminary in New York City.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 30-September 6, 1989, p. 779. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


God criticizes his own people, for the God of Moses and of the Israelites is a unique God. No other Gods are impartial.

And the Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them [Exod. 32: 9-10].

This is remarkable! God is criticizing God’s own people! This God is radically different from the war gods of Japan. They were never known to criticize their own people. In fact, the foundation of the war-time state ideology was that the Japanese gods do not find fault with the Japanese people but busily condemn people of other nations. The gods rubber-stamped whatever the Japanese militarist government wanted to do. May we send our imperial army to China? The gods responded quickly, "Yes." May we annex Korea to Japan? The gods replied immediately, "Go ahead!" For the 50 years preceding 1945, Japan was quite a religious nation!

But the God of the Bible criticizes God’s own people. If Israel is stiff-necked, God declares it so. This God has a universal vista. "You shall not show partiality; and you shall not take a bribe. for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous" (Deut. 16:19) The God who does not take bribes is a universal, impartial and just God.

This God troubles us about the American flag, so frequently placed near church altars. The biblical God is deeply concerned about the well-being of people of all nations. God’s universality must be demonstrated in the church of Christ whose concern is human salvation. Any nation that symbolically claims special favor is attempting to bribe and domesticate the universal God. God cannot be bribed. We only bribe ourselves, damaging our spiritual and intellectual integrity in the process. When we bribe ourselves we become self-righteous.

Because God is not partial (Rom. 2:10) , God is especially concerned about those who go to bed without a cloak (Duet. 24:13) If God were partial, God would treat everyone with geometrical sameness. The impartiality of God can be applied to all people of all nations. "I have seen the Americans (or Germans, Japanese or Indonesians . . .) , and behold, they are a stiff-necked people." The saying may also be applied to religions. This universal God of the Bible could say, "I have seen Christians (or Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims . . .), and behold, they are a stiff-necked people." This God may say something outrageous, such as, "I have seen the afflictions of the Palestinians who are in Israel. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Israelites" (see Exod. 3:7,8; also Amos 9:7).

Humanity can benefit from studying the "failures" of Israel.. Through Israel’s failures -- stiff-neckedness -- -we can come to know the reality of human history and the nature of the universal God. When a people is stiff-necked, what should God do with them? "Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them." But Moses intercedes with God. He admonishes God. "And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people" (Exod. 32:14)

This is an astounding development in the narrative of the golden calf. God’s sincerity is completely free from bias and prejudice. It is awe-inspiringly universal. When God repents God reveals something of the mystery of our salvation. God becomes vulnerable because of God’s intense love for humanity. (How seldom do politicians and theologians repent!) That God "repents" means God’s love overwhelms God’s justice. It is never that God’s justice is overcome by injustice. God’s mind is agitated: "My mind is turning over inside me. My emotions are agitated altogether (Hos. 11:8 [Anchor Bible]) Yet God’s love refuses to be frustrated and defeated: "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it?" (Luke 15:4)

The mind of the biblical God is far from the Eastern ideal of nirvana, the condition of absolute tranquillity. God’s love makes God scandalous. The Pharisees and the scribes murmured, "This man receives sinners and eats with them’ (Luke 15:2) This is a picture of the salvific truth of God’s "repentance."

Personal relationship -- loving relationship -- is of central importance to this universal God. Therefore God is impassioned. "I, the Lord your God, am an impassioned god" (Exod. 20:5). God is neither absolute (without relationship) nor relative (settling for 99 sheep!) "God is love" (I John 4:8)

It is this God, universal because impartial, and vulnerable because passionately loving, who leads us to say: "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise" (Ps. 5 1:17) When we say this from the heart, we are healed of our stiff-neckedness.