10 And the taskmasters of the people went out, and their officers, and they spake to the people, saying, Thus saith Pharaoh, I will not give you straw.
11 Go ye, get you straw where ye can find it: yet not ought of your work shall be diminished.
12 So the people were scattered abroad throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble instead of straw.
Pharaoh had commanded that the Israelites would have their burdens increased as a punishment for Moses and Aaron seeking their release. Pharaoh had said that the people would need to gather their own straw, and we see in today’s verses that he didn’t only mean that they had to fetch their own supplies, they even had to find it in the first place! I would imagine that there were already fields of straw dedicated to the cement-mixing process, but the Israelites were not being given access to them. They were expected to scour the entire land, scraping together what bits and pieces they could to fulfill their order.
Thus, Pharaoh was demanding productivity subsistence from a people that didn’t even enjoy basic freedom. This was an impossible burden, and I have to assume it was deliberately so, for the express purpose of breaking the Israelite people. It seems to me that getting the bricks from the Israelites was only a secondary concern to Pharaoh, first and foremost what he sought was to crush whatever life remained in them. It may have been his predecessors who first enslaved the Israelites and murdered their sons, but it seems he was determined to earn God’s wrath for his own sake!
4 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.
5 And Pharaoh said, Behold, the people of the land now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens.
6 And Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying,
7 Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves.
8 And the tale of the bricks, which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them; ye shall not diminish ought thereof: for they be idle; therefore they cry, saying, Let us go and sacrifice to our God.
9 Let there more work be laid upon the men, that they may labour therein; and let them not regard vain words.
Pharaoh’s second response was much more vicious than the first. In verse 4 he shows great indignation, essentially questioning what right Moses and Aaron had to even be here and he attempted to emphatically put them back in their place as mere slaves: “get you unto your burdens!”
But Pharaoh didn’t stop there. He called them idle, accusing them of having an excess of time since they were requesting to use that time to make sacrifices to their God. Thus, he took their labor of making bricks and significantly increased its difficulty. Straw was an essential ingredient for creating bricks, serving as the lattice that held the clay together, enabling it to hold it’s shape as it dried into a brick. Making bricks without straw simply wasn’t an option, so the Israelites would have to take the time to get it themselves.
Pharaoh’s words in verse 9 seem to be directed more to the general Israelite populace than to Moses and Aaron: “let them not regard vain words.” Clearly, he is trying to get the slaves to renounce Moses and Aaron as their representatives. He wants the Israelites themselves to censure the voices that would seek their freedom. If the Pharaoh had been able to get what he wanted from the people, it would have shown that they were absolutely demoralized, biting the very hand that offered them freedom, and thus becoming their own chains. And is this indeed how the Israelites responded? We will soon find out.
3 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.
Moses and Aaron again petitioned for the Israelites to go make sacrifices in the wilderness. This time they showed more decorum, using language like “let us go, we pray thee.” They also gave stronger reasoning for why they needed to do this thing, stating that God would punish them with curses and death if they failed to obey.
However, this is one of the times I wish I knew how to read Hebrew so I could whether this interpretation accurately captures what was written here. Using an interlinear bible, I see that the phrase “he fall upon us” is derived from יִפְגָּעֵ֔נוּ (yifgatno). Then, when I search for the definition of this term by itself, I only get back “will be hurt.” Looking at the other parts of the verse I still don’t see where the recipient of this hurting is defined as the Israelites. Now I know that Hebrew works differently than English, and that the context of a word or phrase can change the meaning entirely, but it does make me wonder whether the subject of the “will be hurt” was only assumed by the translators to be the Israelites. Perhaps a scholar of ancient Hebrew text could weigh in on this, but it does occur to me that if Moses and Aaron had actually stated that God would fall upon the Egyptians with pestilence and the sword, then it would be a more truthful prediction of the future, and it would better explain the great anger that the Pharaoh shows next.
And if this is the case, then it seems that while Pharaoh took what Moses and Aaron said as a threat, it might really have been a heartfelt warning. “Let us go, we pray thee. We’re trying to spare you the reckoning that is nearly upon you!” But Pharaoh couldn’t or wouldn’t understand, and his arrogance proved to be his downfall.
2 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.
Pharaoh’s initial response is actually quite civil. At this point he did not punish Moses and Aaron for their boldness and he did not use angry or threatening words. However in another two verses this calm demeanor falls away and a more vicious layer will manifest.
The language of Pharaoh’s response is meaningful. “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice? I know not the Lord.” This will be a major theme throughout the Bible. Who is God? Why should we follow Him? There will be Elisha, who must contend with the priests of Baal to prove which God is the true one. There will be Rabashakeh, general of the Assyrian army, who will ask how the Lord can deliver Israel from their siege when none of the gods of the other lands could do so. There will be King Darius, who will come to learn that his servant Daniel served the one, true God.
All throughout the Bible there will be those that ask these core questions. Who is God, and why should I follow Him? It will be a challenge posed by many outsiders, but also by the Israelites when they forget the faith of their fathers and fall to idolatry. It is a question that is still posed today, even among self-proclaimed Christians who question how much they should defer to the word of God before it becomes embarrassing.
Pharaoh is an example to all of us. He did not know the Lord, he did not know why he should follow the Lord, and so he refused what God has commanded. We will observe what follows that decision.
1 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.
Pharaoh is given his first chance to free the Israelites. Moses and Aaron don’t waste any time in lengthy preamble, they get straight to the point, and they don’t show any special reverence to the Pharaoh, either. It is also worth noting that they do not speak on their own authority, it is clear right from the beginning that this demand is from “the Lord God of Israel.”
Something that I never noticed in my previous readings was that they were approaching Pharaoh under false pretenses. They told Pharaoh that they simply meant to have a feast in the wilderness, after which they would return, but clearly they didn’t intend to ever come back! Further on in the story it will become apparent that Pharaoh was perfectly aware of what their real purpose was, so it wouldn’t be accurate to say that he was actually tricked, but it was false pretenses still the same.
My understanding of this is that the Lord was not content to just free captive Israel, He was here to repay the many crimes that the Israelites had suffered at the hands of the Egyptians, and He would do so by cursing them, by plundering their wealth, and by slaying all their firstborn. Pushing the Pharaoh to agree to something that he knew was a trick was the final step for the Lord’s utter demoralization of the Egyptian people. It was a recompense for the earlier generations that had welcomed the Israelites with open arms, but then turned that gift into a punishment. Frankly, this is a side of God we don’t often consider, but the fact is He is a jealous God, and He does demand equal retribution for our crimes.
Our own self is the primary victim when we lie. First, we do something against our conscience, then we lie about what we did, which gives the message that our fake, external image is of greater value than the true self. This wounds us. We cannot be so dismissive of a part of ourselves without that part hitting us back later on. A war begins within.
Heavy waves of guilt come from one side, telling us that we must tell the truth and stop denying who we truly are, but from the other side comes stifling and suffocation, applying greater and greater pressure on the conscience to deny the truth and accept the fiction. And with all the guilt and the suffocating, we are only hurting our own self in between.
We cannot have peace if we are at war, we cannot have wholeness if we are broken in two. If we are ever to stop beating ourselves the war must end, which means that one side or the other must surrender. And when we come to realize this fact, then we must come to realize another: the conscience cannot surrender. The true, authentic voice will never be killed because it is simply our natural, resting state. It exists because we did what we did, and made of ourselves what we made of ourselves, and there is no way to undo those facts. To live a lie without frustrating and twisting ourselves is fundamentally impossible, because part of ourselves is inseparably tied to unchangeable reality. The only surrender that we really can make is to surrender the lie. Surrender the phony public image. Surrender to the truth.
29 And Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel:
30 And Aaron spake all the words which the Lord had spoken unto Moses, and did the signs in the sight of the people.
31 And the people believed: and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel, and that he had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped.
Aaron spoke, the signs were performed, and the people believed, just as the Lord had foretold. The Israelites were ready for deliverance, receiving the promise with reverence, not skepticism.
Years ago, Moses had already tried to help the Israelites and he had been rejected. But back then he had acted alone, according to his own wisdom and ability, whereas now he had come as an extension of the Lord. It can be hard to try to do something good, fail at it, and then accept that triumph can only come by giving it over to God. That requires great humility, and surrendering of self, and trusting in uncontrolled outcomes. This is very challenging and daunting to do, but for the most important things in life, it is the only way to succeed.
And as for Moses’s prior hesitancy, we never hear of it again. He resisted God’s plan leading up to this stage of the plan, but from this point on he remains a rock, constant and committed through every twist and turn.
27 And the Lord said to Aaron, Go into the wilderness to meet Moses. And he went, and met him in the mount of God, and kissed him.
28 And Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord who had sent him, and all the signs which he had commanded him.
Not only did the Lord address Moses’s insecurities by assigning Aaron as a spokesperson, but He even sent Aaron to meet Moses along the way. The path God had described to Moses was forming itself before him, and Moses would come to the Israelites ready and prepared with his brother.
We do not get much insight to the relationship between Aaron and Moses. We will learn later that Aaron was born three years before Moses, presumably before the Pharaoh’s murderous decree, and thus he was allowed to live with his family unlike Moses. Aaron would have been there as his mother weaned infant Moses and may have had memories of the time. He would have been around when his younger brother was given away to the Egyptians, and we do not know what relationship Moses had with his real family after that. And then Moses had been in exile far from Aaron, living an entire life in Midian with the family he established there.
It seems quite likely, therefore, that the two were mostly strangers to one another, knowing who the other was, but not who they really were. Even so, their reunion was still full of brotherly love and care. Aaron kissed Moses when he saw him, and this happy reunion calls to mind a very similar one between Jacob and Esau. Unlike those two, though, Aaron and Moses’s reunion was to be permanent. They would now work side-by-side for the rest of their lives. Moses informed Aaron of all the details of the Lord’s plan, and now the two shared a united in purpose.
24 And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him.
25 Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.
26 So he let him go: then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of the circumcision.
These verses don’t seem to fit in very well with the broader narrative. We seem to be coming into the middle of a drama that we never heard the beginning of. And this could be the case. It is possible that these verses were part of a separate record about Moses, the beginning of which was lost, but this part was still inserted into the broader narrative for the sake of completion.
Whatever the case, apparently Moses had failed to follow the Abrahamic covenant which required each male to be circumcised. The fact that the Lord was angered enough to kill him makes me assume that Moses was not ignorant on the matter either. It seems likely to me that there had been some prior conversation about the matter already, for how else would Zipporah have known that this is what needed to happen?
And in this story we see an example of Zipporah being a good spouse to her husband, helping to improve him in his failings, as every husband and wife should aspire to do for one other. There are probably other lessons that could be derived from these verses, but I don’t feel comfortable trying to identify them without having a fuller context of what happened.