And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness.
After the big reunion and worship service last chapter, they are probably feeling pretty good. Even though Moses has been warned that Pharaoh will harden his heart, I’m sure part of him still hopes this will go well.
But it doesn’t:
And Pharaoh said, Who [is] the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.
Okay, that’s not a good sign. Pharaoh denies both their premise and their request. They try again, this time elaborating a little:
And they said, The God of the Hebrews hath met with us: let us go, we pray thee, three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the LORD our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.
Hmm, I wonder if that’s a threat against the Egyptians, or simply stating that the Israelites are under obligation. Either way, Pharaoh is far from impressed:
And the king of Egypt said unto them, Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, let the people from their works? get you unto your burdens.
I find it fascinating that he uses their proper names. I wonder if Pharaoh (assuming he’s over 40) remembers Moses, and whether Aaron was already acting as spokesman for his people.
Still, knowing them and respecting them are two different things:
And Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land now [are] many, and ye make them rest from their burdens.
On the surface, at least, Pharaoh is accusing Moses and Aaron of scheming for some free time off (shabath). The fact he recounts how numerous (rab) the people (`am) are seems to imply that he begrudges the lost work. But is that really what’s going on here?
Stepping back a bit, the whole negotiation seems like a bit of a charade. Moses doesn’t really care about sacrifices in the desert, nor is he worried about God striking the Israelites with a plague. He wants his people to be totally free.
At the same time, he is being literally honest. That is what God said, and God is threatening to strike the larger ‘us’ with plagues. Perhaps gambit is a better term than charade. God (and Moses) appear to be starting with a relatively reasonable request; when Pharaoh refuses that, it ends up legitimizing the larger stakes being played for.
On the other hand, how does Pharaoh see it? I suppose his response just could be due to childish rage, and that he really thinks they are lazy. But, I suspect it might be something deeper. Either consciously or unconsciously, he is threatened by the idea that they have an allegiance to something other than him. Like the character Hopper in A Bug’s Life, Pharaoh probably realizes at some level that control is based on a lack of identity: if the Israelites ever start thinking of themselves as human beings, with their own God and external responsibilities, they’ll never submit to slavery again.
So, out of reflex or design, he takes steps to ensure they don’t have time to reflect (sha`ah) at all:
Let there more work be laid upon the men, that they may labour therein; and let them not regard vain words.
Go ye, get you straw where ye can find it: yet not ought of your work shall be diminished
Not surprisingly, they fail, with severe penalties:
And the officers of the children of Israel, which Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, [and] demanded, Wherefore have ye not fulfilled your task in making brick both yesterday and to day, as heretofore?
The foremen (shoter) are understandably upset by this perverse turn of events:
Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried unto Pharaoh, saying, Wherefore dealest thou thus with thy servants? There is no straw given unto thy servants, and they say to us, Make brick: and, behold, thy servants [are] beaten; but the fault [is] in thine own people.
But Pharaoh replies with scorn, and taunts them as being lazy (raphah):
But he said, Ye [are] idle, [ye are] idle: therefore ye say, Let us go [and] do sacrifice to the LORD. Go therefore now, [and] work; for there shall no straw be given you, yet shall ye deliver the tale of bricks.
He is also careful to make sure they see this idea of sacrificing to God as the cause of their misery, perhaps with the hope that it will rebound on the messengers. As indeed it does:
And they met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh: And they said unto them, The LORD look upon you, and judge; because ye have made our savour to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us.
“What are you doing to us, Moses?” A perfectly understandable question, which he turns around and asks God:
And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said, Lord, wherefore hast thou [so] evil entreated this people? why [is] it [that] thou hast sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in thy name, he hath done evil to this people; neither hast thou delivered thy people at all.
Good move on Moses part; especially since God answers:
Then the LORD said unto Moses, Now shalt thou see what I will do to Pharaoh: for with a strong hand shall he let them go, and with a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land.
A reassuring promises. What’s even more interesting is how He backs that up. First he establishes his name, Yahweh (Y@hovah) — perhaps indirectly responding to Pharaoh’s query:
And God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I [am] the LORD: And I appeared unto
Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by [the name of] God Almighty, but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them.
And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, wherein they were strangers.
Followed by acknowledgment of their present pain (n@’aqah):
And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant.
Then he tells Moses what to say, which is basically a long series of “I wills”:
Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I [am] the LORD,
and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians,
and I will rid you out of their bondage,
and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments:
And I will take you to me for a people,
and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I [am] the LORD your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning the which I did swear to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob;
and I will give it you for an heritage: I [am] the LORD.
A plethora of promises. Alas, they fall on deaf ears:
And Moses spake so unto the children of Israel: but they hearkened not unto Moses for anguish of spirit, and for cruel bondage.
Very poignant. Not unlike how Moses was unable to trust God’s call for him because of the stunting (qotser) of his spirit (ruwach) from the cruelty (qasheh) of his bondage (`abodah). God can — and does — make all manner of wonderful promises (seven listed right here). But they are of small comfort, if we have no ears to hear (shama`).
God, I feel for the Israelites. Why do you allow this to happen? Why do our attempts to make things better — even doing what you told us — only increase our burden. How can we trust you? Why do you give evil men such power over us? What good are all these lofty promises when we are weighed down with heavy burdens?
Father, forgive me for having small eyes and small faith. Help me to believe that just around the corner, your strong arm is waiting to do a mighty work of deliverance. Save me from becoming a victim of circumstances, and being trapped in the now. Fix my eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith, that I may see your salvation. And be willing to wait for it. Amen.
About the Title:
Today’s title alludes to the straw for bricks, our foolish reliance on man, and the rhetorical concept of a straw man.